50 Years Later, Rod Serling's Play Is Performed

The creator of the television series The Twilight Zone often battled with the networks over the content of his scripts. Noon on Doomsday inspired by Emmett Till's story, was considered too hot for TV in the 50's. It was peformed for the first time Saturday night.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Rod Serling created the science fiction fantasy TV series "Twilight Zone" in the 1950s and 60s. He often battled with the networks over the controversial content in his scripts. Last night one script that never made it to air finally received a public hearing - more than 50 years after Rod Serling wrote it.

From Ithaca, New York, Jon Miller reports.

JON MILLER: In 1955 in Money, Mississippi, 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, beaten and murdered after he apparently whistled at a white woman. Two men were tried and acquitted. That winter, an outraged Rod Serling wrote a television play called "Noon on Doomsday," inspired by Till's story, for The United States Steel Hour. He knew the sponsors would never go for a play explicitly about race in the South, so he made his victim a Jew and moved him to New England.

Ms. AMY E. BOIL JOHNSTON (Author of Serling Biography): There's internal memos from CBS saying it still resembles the Till case. We need to make alterations to it.

MILLER: Amy E. Boil Johnston is writing a Serling biography. She said CBS told Serling to make the victim an unnamed foreigner in an unnamed place. So he rewrote it and it aired.

Ms. JOHNSTON: And Serling still believed the play was powerful as it ran. It was not until the following day when he read the New York Times review and he said in a letter to a friend, I felt like I got run over by a truck and then it backed up to finish the job.

MILLER: A couple of years later Serling tried to again, this time with an African-American victim.

Mr. TONY ALBARELLA (Editor): Rod came up with an outline, the network showed it to the sponsors and five out of the six sponsors just turned it down cold.

MILLER: Tony Albarella is editing a ten-volume set of Serling's scripts.

Mr. ALBARELLA: What eventually happened - the show did get produced in a totally different form.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Playhouse 90")

Unidentified Man: Tonight Playhouse 90 presents "A Town Has Turned to Dust," written especially for this series by Rod Serling, one of the most honored and distinguished authors writing for television today.

Mr. ALBARELLA: Instead of setting it in the South and making it an African-American boy, they changed it to a Mexican and they moved it back in time. They made it a Western in 1890 instead of in the current era.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Playhouse 90")

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) Pancho Rivera, age 19, taken out of a mob and hung by his neck. His crime - that he was a Mexican.

MILLER: But Serling wrote another script exactly the way he wanted it. He thought it might work for the stage, but it was never performed until last night. This is from a rehearsal.

(Soundbite of play rehearsal)

Unidentified Man #2: I ain't got nothing left, Mr. John. I swear to God I don't.

MILLER: The performance was just a one-time thing, a table reading at a Serling conference by drama students at Ithaca College where Serling taught 'til he died in 1975.

(Soundbite of play)

Unidentified Woman #1: Sir, could you tell him to stop now, you hear? Somebody's going to get hurt.

MILLER: Not cutting edge theatre, maybe, but strong stuff and surprisingly fresh after more 50 years on the shelf.

(Soundbite of play)

Unidentified Man #3: You ask me to stop and I will, but you gotta ask real nice.

MILLER: For NPR News, I'm John Miller.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR News.

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