Anything boxing related - just ask Chris
Anything boxing related - just ask Chris
Legend has it that Archie Moore was originally cast in the role of Bolie Jackson for The Twilight Zone’s first season supernatural boxing story, “The Big, Tall Wish.” Archie’s daughter J’Marie, who won both of her professional bouts under the moniker ‘The Lady Mongoose’, confirmed for me that she knows the whole story. Not only that, she got to meet Rod Serling once. Beyond that, she’s not talking specifics just yet. Not until she gets to tell the details in her own book. Fair enough. I really look forward to reading it. Though appearing on The Twilight Zone didn’t pan out for Archie Moore, he would make good on a subsequent opportunity to take part in a Serling-scripted program three years down the road.
“This isn’t one of those patent leather and chromium bistros, this is a sewer—the kind of place that’s off limits to longshoremen,” Bob Hope says in his introduction to “It’s Mental Work”, a December 1963 episode of NBC’s Chrysler Theatre. “To give you an idea, the bouncer is played by the famous light-heavyweight Archie Moore—and he’s one of the nice guys.” Serling’s adaptation of John O’Hara’s short story about a down-on-his-luck bartender (future Night Gallery actor Harry Guardino) attempting to purchase his place of employment from the owner of the seedy watering hole (Lee J. Cobb of On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men), also features Gena Rowlands and Twilight Zone alums Stanley Adams and Larry Blake, in addition to the recently retired boxing legend.
“A good fighter is a piece of art,” insisted Rod Serling. Archie Moore was without a doubt one such walking, talking, pugilistic masterpiece whose likeness hangs on a wall in the International Boxing Hall of Fame if not any national gallery, or Serling’s Night Gallery for that matter.
Airing on NBC between 1969 and 1973, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery occupies an interesting, transitional time and space in television history. Anthology programs had been a huge hit for the few decades prior, particularly Playhouse 90, Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Climax!, and other prestige series which featured more highbrow fare. But those were soon to be eclipsed in popularity by offerings for younger viewers and morbidly-inclined adults like Serling’s The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, and Tales of Tomorrow, not to mention Thriller and The Veil, both of which were hosted by Boris Karloff. One by one, though, they all began to die quiet, mostly dignified deaths by the mid-60s, and horror/sci-fi-themed anthology shows wouldn’t really see a full-scale resurrection until the 1980s thanks to the likes of The Hitchhiker, Tales from the Darkside, Ray Bradbury Theater, Amazing Stories, Tales from the Crypt, Monsters, and short-lived revivals of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. By that rationale, some might argue that Night Gallery was either ahead of its time or behind the times, or perhaps stuck in its own weird extra-dimensional limbo.
“There was a time I wanted to reform television. Now I accept it for what it is,” Rod Serling conceded in the early 1970s. “So long as I don’t write beneath myself or pander my work, I’m not doing anyone a disservice.” After five seasons, 156 episodes, and the creative burnout of its prime mover, The Twilight Zone experienced a gravitational collapse, like a brilliantly burning star going supernova. Nevertheless, Serling would have been more than willing to keep The Twilight Zone’s celestial light shining and ABC president Tom Moore offered him a chance at resuscitating the series, only to learn that CBS retained the rights to the name of the show, as they do to this day.
Not to be deterred, Moore suggested the alternate title Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves which was the name of a 1963 paperback collection of horror stories Serling had edited for Bantam. Serling countered with a detailed premise called Rod Serling’s Wax Museum, but Moore wouldn’t budge on the title or concept he had in mind. “ABC seems to prefer weekly ghouls, and we have what appears to be a considerable difference of opinion,” Serling was quoted as saying in Variety magazine. “I don’t mind my show being supernatural, but I don’t want to be hooked into a graveyard every week.” As you can imagine, this public airing of grievances brought an end to his negotiations with Tom Moore and ABC.
Serling published a collection of novellas in 1967 entitled The Season To Be Wary, comprised of three stories, two of which—“The Escape Route” and Eyes”—he would soon after adapt into teleplays and append to an original piece called “The Cemetery” to complete a trilogy of stand-alone tales for what would become the November 8, 1969 Night Gallery anthology movie. “The only book, a work of pure fiction, that I ever wrote from scratch. It didn’t sell for beans. I believed in it. I took it to Sid Sheinberg at Universal and suggested we do it as a world premiere,” spoke Serling of The Season To Be Wary. “I said if they’d buy the book, I’d do the script and the narration. So they bought the book for something like twelve cents.”
The project was given the greenlight at NBC, although their consent came accompanied by demands for multiple alterations to the stories. This wasn’t a red flag in and of itself, as Serling had dealt with requests to revise his scripts to one degree or another throughout his writing career. However, as creator and executive producer of The Twilight Zone, Serling became accustomed to the type of artistic control he had never enjoyed before and, to his ultimate dismay, would find sorely lacking when it came to Night Gallery.
This was thanks in large part to what would quickly develop into an adversarial relationship with producer Jack Laird, who was also a screenwriter, director, and occasional actor who would cast himself in a handful of Night Gallery segments. Laird expressed open disdain for Serling’s writing talent, but was shrewdly cognizant of the marquee value attached to the name, face, and voice viewers would remember from The Twilight Zone. “His name is frequently mentioned in our house,” Anne Serling recalled in her memoir, concerning Jack Laird. “Through my father’s gritted teeth.”
One of the changes Serling made to the Night Gallery pilot film, presumably due to time constraints, removed from the equation a major subplot from his short story about a woebegone boxer who, for the benefit of his former manager, consents to selling his eyes to a rich, blind eccentric who is well aware that the clandestine procedure, if successful, will only grant her sight for twelve hours or less.
“Objet d’art number two: a portrait. Its subject, Miss Claudia Menlo, a blind queen who reigns in a carpeted penthouse on Fifth Avenue—an imperious, predatory dowager who will soon find a darkness blacker than blindness,” says Rod Serling, positioned before a canvas depicting Joan Crawford’s main character while introducing the viewing audience to the second segment in the Night Gallery movie. “This is her story.”
Curiously, the role of the wealthy, sightless recluse was first presented to Crawford’s nemesis and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? costar Bette Davis who turned the offer down flat, based on the presumption that the directorial talents of the college dropout selected to take the reins of “Eyes” would fail to live up to her lofty standards. The unproven novice in question is none other than Steven Spielberg.
Of course, no one knew in 1969 that the “pimply faced kid in an eight dollar Sears and Roebuck jacket” (in the words of his second assistant director on “Eyes”, Ralph Sariego) who strolled onto the set would soon after carve out his rightful place in film history with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and more Hollywood blockbusters than you can throw a Mt. Everest-sized pile of money at. Once Night Gallery had been picked up as a series, Spielberg would return to helm another segment called “Make Me Laugh”, reuniting him with Tom Bosley after their work together on “Eyes.” Spielberg also directed a chipper remake of George Clayton Johnson’s maudlin classic “Kick the Can” for Twilight Zone: The Movie, which he co-produced with John Landis in 1983.
Joan Crawford, who inherited the part of Claudia Menlo from her rival, was not exactly thrilled to be taking direction from Spielberg either. Not at the outset, anyway. “Mother was absolutely furious with the studio for assigning her a twenty-two-year old kid who had never done anything before,” recalled Christina Crawford, Joan’s adopted daughter and author of the infamous memoir Mommie Dearest.
Spielberg admits to being intimidated by the mercurial diva who turned up draped in furs and surrounded by a full entourage of personal assistants. Her arrival was augmented by the delivery of both Pepsi and vodka by the case. A notorious drinker, Joan was then married to her fourth and final husband, Al Steele, who was President and CEO of the cola company, and she had been known to insist that Pepsi products be strategically placed within easy sight of the camera lens on the sets of films she had done recently, like William Castle’s Strait-Jacket.
“Directing Joan Crawford was like pitching to Hank Aaron your first time in the game,” Spielberg confessed. Despite the initial tension, Spielberg and Crawford came to a mutual understanding which would help smooth over the bumps in the road put in place by the screen legend’s burdensome demeanor during production. “She treated me like I had been directing fifty years,” he later recalled. “She was very good to me, very firm, but very kind.” Once common obstacle that Crawford and Spielberg had to hurdle over was Rod Serling’s formidable dialogue.
“I met Rod Serling once, and he was the most positive guy in that entire production company,” said Spielberg. “He was a great, energetic slaphappy guy who gave me a fantastic pep talk about how he predicted that the entire movie industry was about to change because of young people like myself getting the breaks.” One friendly word of warning from producer William Sackheim made an impression on the eager director, however. “Don’t change any of his (Serling’s) dialogue,” Spielberg remembered being cautioned. “I didn’t.”
Well before shooting started, Crawford was concerned with her ability to realistically convey Serling’s loquacious lines. “People just don’t talk like that,” she complained to Spielberg. “Ms. Crawford, apparently a perfectionist, calls my dad incessantly, which accounts for many of the pre-premier phone calls,” remembers Anne Serling. “Perhaps she was like this on every project she was involved in, but it eventually begins to wear on my dad, and often, when the phone rings and he is in the house, not his office, he will hesitate a moment and say something under his breath before picking it up.”
“I remember that Rod’s dialogue was very, very hard, not only for an actor to memorize, but was very hard to meter when you were speaking,” Spielberg expressed, sympathizing with his star. “Joan Crawford had a hell of a time finding moments to breathe, where to pause and what to emphasize. I pretty much had to sit down with her and underline key words to get the story points across, so the plot would not be lost. It was not an easy show to do.”
To give a basic rundown of the scenario, Crawford’s character Claudia Menlo blackmails her physician, Dr. Frank Heatherton, into performing an experimental procedure whereby he will transplant the optical nerves of a bought-off donor into her eyes. In exchange, she will keep concealed the fact that a young woman Heatherton had an affair with died as a result of a botched abortion he had procured for her. The surgery is a success, but Menlo’s limited amount of hours endowed with vision for the first time in her life is ruined when Manhattan is submerged in darkness by a city-wide blackout, convincing her that Heatherton’s efforts had failed. She wakes the next morning to the sight of the rising sun just as the time limit on her vision comes to an end. Stumbling toward the window, Claudia grasps furiously at the glowing orb she knows is there but can no longer see and plunges through the glass, falling to the sidewalk far below.
Menlo’s donor is Sidney Resnick, a luckless gambler who agrees to her terms figuring that willingly enduring the rest of his life without the benefit of sight would be preferable to whatever the bookie to whom he owes $9,000 plans to do to him. Rod Serling admired and adored Jack Klugman, who had appeared in four Twilight Zone episodes, and envisioned him in the role of Resnick. Klugman was unavailable and the part was offered to fellow Twilight Zone veteran Martin Balsam in his stead, but he too was unable to fulfill the obligation. Enter Tom Bosley, best known as Happy Days patriarch, Howard Cunningham.
“Miss Crawford was indisposed for much of the shoot,” Bosley remembered about his costar with whom he done an episode of Route 66 called “Same Picture, Different Frame.” The only interaction he shared with Crawford on the set of “Eyes” was a “five second phone call” after receiving a brief but cordial letter from her. Bosley surmised that Crawford’s disruptive behavior and lengthy absences from the sound stage could be attributed to her being “dead drunk most of the time.”
“He was an ex-middleweight with a hundred and eight fights—a hundred grueling destructive nights carved out of his sixteen miserable years off an Arizona reservation,” Rod Serling writes about the originally intended optical donor in his novella published in the 1967 anthology The Season To Be Wary. “He had been nineteen years old, young and indestructible. Now he was no longer young and had long since been destroyed.” Indian Charlie Hatcher retains a special place in Serling lore as the last of his broken down boxers sputtering toward the finish line of life, coasting on fumes and memories that are seldom happy ones.
“There had been the brief, heady interval of glory in between—when they were sharp and fit and could hit hard and could take being hit hard. There had been now dimly remembered steak dinners and clean sheets and women full of favors,” continues Serling, almost as if in summation of every one of his dispirited prizefighters, from Danny Fales in “The Good Right Hand” to Indian Charlie Hatcher. “But they had discovered too late that they had followed a profession quick to discard them; quick to forget them; stoically and dispassionately unforgiving of the passage of years. Now, because they were older and beaten and no longer believed in miracles, they could accept the squalor they had run from as young men. They would never again remonstrate against whatever misery staked and dealt them.”
Indian Charlie had done time in prison for the statutory rape of a seventeen-year-old “child-woman with the sick, hungering body of a nymphomaniac” whose advances the physically rugged Hatcher was too morally weak to refuse in his dressing room after a fight one fateful night. Like consigning an unwanted, worthless antique to the nether regions of a vast, decrepit storehouse, he has tried his best to bury what he refers to as The Trouble in the dark recesses of his mind. “But it would come back to him on occasion—jumbled and indistinct, full of unbearable pain and unbearable longing,” wrote Serling, implying that Indian Charlie was serving a life sentence inside his own head throughout which he would rattle the bars of his damaged brain cells in a fruitless protest for release.
Hungry, behind on his rent, and wanting desperately to believe that there is still some good in the world, Hatcher accepts an overture from Tony Petrozella, who Serling describes as “a sometime fight manager, an all-the-time con man” who had years ago parted ways with Indian Charlie with an insult and a slap across the face. Charlie had won only six of his final eighteen fights and was stopped well inside the distance in the last five. “To Petrozella, a fighter’s life was divided into the aggregate totals of his wins and losses,” Serling explains. “Nothing else meant a damn.”
Given the antagonistic nature of their shared past, Hatcher should have known better than to assume that their meeting would culminate in a garden variety job offer. “That’s always been one of your problems,” says Petrozella condescendingly, tapping a finger against his temple. “You’ve got a garbage dump in there. You can’t think past your frigging first name.” Turns out Petrozella owes money he doesn’t have to a Las Vegas bookie who has given him forty-eight hours to cough up the dough or will “fix it so they could scrape what was left of him off a wall and spoon him into a cup.” Rather than do the right thing and accept the consequences, Petrozella hatches a scheme whereby he dupes his one-time fighter Indian Charlie Hatcher into selling his eyes to collect the payoff for himself.
Petrozella takes Hatcher to meet Claudia, but it seems that the resourceful Miss Menlo has done her homework on the potential donor and deeply upsets Charlie by making him aware of her knowledge pertaining to The Trouble. To suit his own needs, Petrozella is able to smooth things over and exits the penthouse overlooking Central Park intoxicated by “thoughts of redheads, fifty-cent cigars, Miami Beach, and the other good things in life.”
Back in his dilapidated apartment, Charlie Hatcher communes with the ghost of his father and confesses, “I am a proud man from a proud tribe. I will never be the middleweight champion of the world. I had my mind destroyed trying to be.” Despite the fact that his chosen profession had long since made pulp of his gray matter, Indian Charlie is able to see things in that moment with a clarity that has eluded him since his youth. “The real insanity was when he had left his own people,” Serling writes. “He need never have fought a single fight. He had lost on the day he had moved away from them.”
To the apparition floating just outside his apartment window Charlie says, “My father, I will go home now. I will leave this place. I will stand naked in the sun and feel the hot sand under my feet and rest my body when it is tired.” When the ghost asks what he will leave behind, Charlie answers “Only pain, father—only pain” before he hangs himself, silencing his inner demons and leaving Petrozella metaphorically twisting in the wind.
While Serling could not possibly have been aware at the time that “Eyes” would be the last story he would ever write that would feature a prizefighter as the main character, I find it revealing that he bookends the tales in this personal sub-genre of his in such unapologetically grim fashion, with the suicides of Danny Fales in 1948 and Indian Charlie Hatcher nineteen years later.
The Night Gallery movie earned Rod Serling the coveted Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and NBC gave the go-ahead to proceed with the project as a regular series for the network’s 1970 Fall schedule. Despite the fact that the episode itself was not written by Serling, Night Gallery did produce one boxing story. I will let our sharp-dressed tour guide with the 1970s-style coiffure tell you all about it.
“Good evening. I might offer this small admonishment if you happen to be a purist in your judgment of art. These are not your ordinary canvasses. You don’t find Monet in a mausoleum, or a Van Gogh in a graveyard,” Rod Serling cautions viewers in his opening introduction. “This item here, commentative on what A.J. Liebling referred to as the sweet science, obviously having something to do with the manly art of self-defense, boxing. But if the Marquess of Queensbury mayhem doesn’t particularly turn you on, don’t turn this off. This painting tells a story infinitely more intriguing than a couple of fast boys mixing it up. It’s called ‘The Ring with the Red Velvet Ropes’, and it tells you the tale of precisely who is the real heavyweight boxing champion of the world. And I think you’ll be surprised. Surprise happens to be our stock in trade, because this is the Night Gallery.”
Screenwriter, director, and documentarian Robert Malcolm Young (who had penned Nothing But a Man which starred Ivan Dixon, Bolie Jackson from The Twilight Zone’s “The Big, Tall Wish”, and called “cut” and “action” from behind the camera of films like Short Eyes, One Trick Pony, and the 1989 boxing movie Triumph of the Spirit) was tasked with adapting the short story “The Ring with the Velvet Ropes” by Edward D. Hoch, a prolific author of whodunits, detective tales, spy novels, mysteries, historical fiction, crime thrillers, and more than 900 short stories.
A 2-to-1 underdog, Jim Figg (Gary Lockwood, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) has just defeated Big Dan Anger (Ji-Tu Cumbuka, later to appear in Mandingo, the Roots TV mini-series, and Brewster’s Millions) to become the new heavyweight champion of the world. Not a reincarnation or even a distant relation, Figg coincidentally shares the same name with boxing’s first bareknuckle champion.
The real James Figg was labeled by Jack Dempsey as the “father of modern boxing.” Born in Thames, Oxfordshire in 1695, Figg combined advanced grappling techniques with the fencing maneuvers he had perfected in countless skirmishes to compete in anything-goes prizefights where the use of swords, truncheons, and quarterstaffs were not only fair game but as commonplace as fisticuffs. Figg, who was the first to refer to this primitive form of mixed martial arts as “the manly art of self-defense”, cut his teeth in the boxing booths at fairs across the country where he took on and bested all challengers, and went on to claim the Championship of England in 1719.
He reportedly lost only one of 270 bouts, to a pipe-maker named Ned Sutton whom he had beaten on a previous occasion and would defeat once again for good measure in their rubber match when Figg incapacitated Sutton by way a cudgel to the kneecap. Sponsored by the Earl of Peterborough, he opened a boxing academy to train students in the ways of unarmed combat which had come to be called “Figg’s fighting.” Exhibitions were staged in an amphitheater that bore his name, including a 1722 winner-take-all prizefight between two women who duked it out while gripping a half-crown in each fist. It was determined that the victor would be the first combatant to force her opponent to drop the coins, thus collecting the spoils while her opponent walked away empty-handed. This, I suppose, would additionally put Figg well ahead of the curve as very possibly the first promoter of women’s boxing.
But, back to Night Gallery. Robert Malcolm Young added minimal supernatural touches to the narrative for “Velvet Ropes”, reserved solely for the beginning and end, whereas there were none to be had in Edward D. Hoch’s straight-ahead short story about the new titleholder, Jim Figg, being forcibly whisked away the day after winning the belt to the oceanside estate of one Roderick Blanco who introduces himself as “the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. The real champion.”
Naturally, this is news to Figg who listens to Blanco relate his fantastic tale of having defeated Big Dan Anger two years before in a secret bout held in his basement, not to mention every other champion who had reigned over the previous decade. Anger, Blanco tells Figg, was the champion in name only just like the others he had dispatched inside his private ring with the velvet ropes, which he admitted was “my one concession to good taste.” Now that Figg has beaten Anger in a legitimately sanctioned match, he must defend against Blanco and, additionally, keep the real champion’s identity and whereabouts under wraps.
The son of a rich man who “died in an asylum”, Blanco must publicly refrain from fighting until he turns thirty-five in order to cash in his considerable trust fund. If he is found out, he loses it all. To illustrate the gravity of the situation, Roderick’s wife Sandra warns Figg that the loose-lipped referee of her husband’s bout with Big Dan Anger was run over by a car after drunkenly blurting out things he had no business making public. Left with no alternative, Figg agrees to the fight which is officiated by real-life referee Frankie Van, who was also the third man in the ring for the Bolie Jackson vs. Joey Consiglio bout in “The Big, Tall Wish.”
In Edward D. Hoch’s short story, Blanco floors Figg twice in the sixth round, the point at which Roderick had put Anger away in their contest, but Jim survives the onslaught and catches Blanco with his guard down in the eighth just long enough to pepper him with a four-punch combination that ends the fight. A sore loser, Roderick threatens to shoot Figg and allows him to leave only under strict orders of secrecy and a gentleman’s agreement to a return bout. Once returned to the outside world, however, Jim announces his retirement and receives a phone call from Sandra Blanco informing him that Roderick couldn’t live with the fact that there was one champion he never defeated and hung himself from one of his boxing ring’s velvet ropes.
The Night Gallery episode gave Hoch’s story a twist, and it goes like this: Figg turns Roderick over after knocking him out and sees, to his horror, that Blanco has immediately decomposed in the center of the ring. He is told that Roderick held the title since defeating Jem Mace in 1861 and had successfully defended it against all other champions until tonight. “Winner take all,” Blanco’s wife Sandra tells Figg as she entwines her arm with his and leads the new champion off to begin his reign.
Roderick Blanco is portrayed by the quintessential square-jawed tough guy Chuck Connors, a two-sport standout who played portions of two seasons with the Boston Celtics, becoming the first professional basketball player to shatter a backboard, before switching to baseball and putting in time with both the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs. He isn’t known to have boxed, but one report alleges that he and comedian Joey Bishop staged an impromptu exhibition between bouts during a December 10, 1970 Olympic Auditorium card headlined by a grudge match between former stablemates Mando Ramos and Raul Rojas won by Ramos by KO in the sixth round. As for the shenanigans involving Connors and Bishop, it is supposed to have concluded “when a burly character leaped into the ring and bear-hugged Connors off the floor,” according to a website dedicated to the actor. The identity of the third participant is unknown. A pretty neat story, if only it were true.
Rick Farris, a former fighter who is now president and co-founder of the West Coast Boxing Hall of Fame, opened the show on the evening in question with a four-round points win over Antonio Villanueva. Although Rick told me when I reached out to him that Connors was indeed sitting ringside, he said that Chuck was not even interviewed for the televised portion of the event by famed broadcaster Jim Healy, as was Connie Stevens, and most definitely “did not step into the ring that night.” Farris doesn’t remember Bishop, who was “a regular at the Olympic”, being there on that occasion, although Burt Reynolds, Peter Falk, and Robert Goulet were also present. “Aileen (Eaton, the beloved Olympic Auditorium promoter) loved Hollywood ringside, not in the ring,” Rick stressed. Glad I got that cleared up.
“Chuck Connors was a very good athlete, so it was not that difficult,” Gary Lockwood said of his fight scenes with the star of The Rifleman and Branded. For what it’s worth, Lockwood knew his way around the ring from his days as an amateur boxer. “Chuck and I figured out the moves, the footwork, throwing hooks and jabs—we knew how to do that, no problem. It was very easy. Chuck was a very professional guy. He knew exactly what he was doing, and I like that because I don’t have to work late. I belong to the Bob Mitchum school, man. Get the shit on paper and get out of there!”
For all of their hard-fought effort, both the choreography and cinematography of the bout between Connors and Lockwood leave a lot to be desired. The same can be said, unfortunately, about the episode as a whole. The interaction between Lockwood and Joan Van Ark (Knots Landing) as Sandra Blanco, for example, was supposed to be charged with a sexual tension that flatlines miserably. Likewise, the otherworldly ambience which was to have originated with scriptwriter Robert Malcolm Young and made manifest under Jean Szwarc’s direction (Szwarc helmed nineteen Night Gallery segments) is pronounced dead on arrival, with the exception of one nice touch.
Blanco’s reveal takes a little longer to get to than in the short story, and his offscreen presence is implied by the distant echoes of a speedbag being struck repeatedly while Figg and Sandra converse. As Jim and Sandra depart at the end of the episode, Roderick’s body has mysteriously disappeared from the ring and there is a reprise of the same sound effect. Young’s adaptation of Hoch’s short story does away with Figg’s fiancée Sue, a peripheral character who isn’t missed so much, and an always-eager-for-a-scoop sportswriter named Connie Claus, who would have been a welcome addition to the episode in my opinion, but wouldn’t have salvaged a rather pedestrian entry into the Night Gallery.
“I wanted a series with distinction, with episodes that said something,” Serling expressed with sincere regret after the cancellation of Night Gallery, which ran for three seasons and aired for the final time on May 27, 1973. “I have no interest in a series which is purely and uniquely suspenseful but totally uncommentative on anything.”
Suffice it to say, we have discussed at length throughout the course of this series what it was that Rod Serling, a chronicler of the myriad dimensions of the human condition, found objectionable about boxing. It is tough to see a sport that demands a life and death commitment from its participants treat them with such utter indifference in the period of time after they have reached their sell-by date and are no longer taken into consideration as a tradable commodity.
Upon retirement, boxers don’t get a goodbye party and a gold watch, much less a pension and a 401k and an invitation to old timers’ day. A select few with an impressive enough resume will have their moment in the sun on the dais at the Boxing Hall of Fame where they will deliver a thank you speech, receive a commemorative ring, and have their plaque assume a place of honor on a wall in the museum among the upper crust of their fistic peers. It is always great to see ex-boxers happily reacclimate to life outside the ring ropes, making personal appearances and signing endorsement deals, reuniting and sharing war stories with former rivals, maybe even becoming commentators or trainers. For other former fighters, however, there will be bouts with clinical depression and financial destitution, alcohol and/or drug addiction, criminal activity and incarceration, the troubling onset of memory lapses, slurred speech, and hand tremors.
You will hear frequent talk of ill-advised comebacks, lamentable rumors some of which will be followed through on. Maybe because they were not trained to succeed in a vocation other than the hurt business. Perhaps they find it difficult to exist without the validation of one-on-one competition and the roar of the crowd and having fans slap them on the back and call them “champ” and ask for their autograph. It could be that their accumulated winnings were squandered irresponsibly or lost to bad business ventures or misappropriated by managers, promoters or even family members, which is something you see often enough it makes you want to cry.
With all of that in mind, what compelled Serling to proclaim, “I’ve always liked fighting and fighters”? A competitive spirit was encoded in Serling’s DNA and this manifested itself not just throughout his writing career but in youthful athletic endeavors. Serling himself had boxed in the Army while attending jump school during basic training. I would venture to guess that boxing’s primal challenge to an individual’s fight or flight instincts appealed to Serling immensely.
A proponent of racial equality, champion of the oppressed, and voice to the voiceless, it should come as no surprise that Serling admired Joe Louis as much as he did. Not simply due to the fact that ‘The Brown Bomber’ carried around a five-fingered detonator in his right glove, but because of the way Louis represented both the boxing community and the black community with a soft-spoken but unmistakable dignity.
In the final analysis, the way I believe Rod Serling saw it, great reward was earned only through the taking of great risk by the writer as well as the prizefighter. Both pursuits being ultimately solitary ones, Serling likely drew many parallels between the mindset of one and the other which correspond in a unique and quite meaningful way. The innumerable hours spent in preparation and isolation, the anxiety and self-doubt, fleeting sensations of elation or grandeur, external pressures to deliver the goods, alternating moments of insurmountable struggle and cruising effortlessly along almost as if on autopilot, a pride in having accomplished the task at hand knowing full well that—win, lose, or draw—you left everything you had on the blood-splattered canvas or the typewritten paper.
“I don’t enjoy any of the process of writing,” Serling candidly confessed in his last interview. “I enjoy it when it zings along and it has great warmth and import and it’s successful. Yeah, that’s when I enjoy it. But during the desperate, tough time of creating it, there’s not much I enjoy about it. It tires me and lays me out, which is sort of the way I feel now. Tired.”
I have no doubt that countless boxers who have suffered through the rigors of training for an upcoming fight can relate to Serling’s mercilessly honest sentiments. “When he’s rejected, that paper is rejected, in a sense, a sizeable fragment of the writer is rejected as well. It’s a piece of himself that’s being turned down,” he elaborated. “And how often can this happen before suddenly you begin to question your own worth and your own value? And even worse, fundamentally, your own talent?”
For both the boxer and the author, it all comes down to perseverance. “I think just surviving is a major thing,” Rod Serling said. “I’d like to write something that my peers, my colleagues, my fellow writers would find a source of respect.” I will take it upon myself to speak for the sum total of Serling’s legions of admirers by saying that his writings and ideals, warmth and humanity, determination and decency will live on forever.
“Most people know my father through The Twilight Zone…My father could command an audience with his presence and his insights. He could also scare the hell out of viewers,” reflects Anne Serling, to whom we will respectfully defer for the purpose of taking us home with these final thoughts.
“But the man I knew, my dad, was not the one the public saw. Not this black and white image walking slowly across an MGM sound stage, cigarette in hand, speaking in a tight, clipped voice, introducing that week’s episode; not the Angry Young Man of the Golden Age of TV; not the writing professor, the documentary narrator, or the commercial pitchman, and certainly not the dark and tortured soul some have suggested. In Twilight Zone reruns, I search for my father in the man on the screen, but I can’t always find him there. Instead, he appears in unexpected ways. Memory summoned by a certain light, a color, a smell—and I see him again on the porch of our old red lakeside cottage, where I danced on the steps as a child. He will emerge, come back to life, just like the old snapshot in the album, just like the day the shutter clicked and the picture froze.”
Linda Brevelle. Rod Serling: The Facts of Life (May 27, 1976—accessed through the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation website at https://rodserling.com/rod-serlings-final-interview)
Edward D. Hoch. “The Ring With the Velvet Ropes” from The Night, My Friend (Ohio University Press, 1992)
Norman Marcus. James Figg: Boxing’s First Champion (boxing.com, December 3, 2014)
John S. Nash. James Figg: The Lost Origins of the Sport of Mixed Martial Arts (Bloody Elbow, November 1, 2010)
Nicholas Parisi. Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination (University Press of Mississippi, 2018)
Anne Serling. As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel, 2013)
Rod Serling. The Season To Be Wary (Little, Brown, 1967)
Scott Skelton and Jim Benson. Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse University Press, 1998)
“Eyes” from the Night Gallery film (written by Rod Serling, directed by Steven Spielberg, original airdate November 8, 1969)
Night Gallery: The Ring With the Red Velvet Ropes (written by Robert Malcolm Young, directed by Jean Szwarc, original airdate November 5, 1972)
Tom Bosley on Working with Steven Spielberg and Joan Crawford on Night Gallery (Television Foundation Academy Interview—accessed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtW5xQfYaSU)
Chuck Connors, Did You Know (https://www.ourchuckconnors.com/did-you-know.html)