DEATH'S HEAD, REVISED
by Steve Schlich
"Because I'm a Western-cultured man who subscribes to the ancient saw that men do not cry ... I don't allow myself. I think before I die, just for the hell of it, one night I'll spend an entire night weeping, and I'll draw up a list of things that will motivate it. I'm now weeping for the following reasons: chronologically, for all the shit that's out there that I should have wept at and didn't."
–Rod Serling, less than four months before he died at age 50
The camera pans a room that once aspired to be the Presidential Suite. Our gaze, enhanced by loving soft focus, glides over faux gold doorknobs and fixtures, fine wood paneling, and heavy velvet drapes which frame an expansive view of Central Park.
But the aura of elegance can’t last. Look closer. Take a different angle on the window and you can watch a pale neon sign blink spastically against a crumbling brick wall.
Investigate, and the rest of the illusion crumbles just as easily. The room’s fixtures haven’t been polished in years. Termites have hollowed out catherdals in the wood. And some misguided soul pissed on the drapes.
But it’s a rentable room, and soon it has a resident. The door admits James T. Aubrey, Jr., an older man in an expensive suit that–surprise!–mirrors the room’s once-glorious-now-worn condition.
Does the red-clad bellhop, wrestling Aubrey’s bulky leather bags through the door, reinforce or derail the surrealism? Hmmm. The man is white, but small and swarthy. The red uniform is clean and new, but anachronistic in design. What year is this, anyway?
Not to worry. The time is 1994 and Aubrey’s dilapidated bags return us to the initial theme of faded glory, which has become sledgehammer-obvious.
It’s a scene so noir that it can scarcely exist in color.
The bellhop strides to an polished wooden cabinet and opens it to reveal an enormous new television. The TV clicks on of its own accord and warms up sloooowly like some spooky antique, but finally broadcasts muffled voices.
MEDIUM CLOSE-UP ON AUBREY
Aubrey glares at the TV, then at the bellhop. "What the hell are you doing? I don't want that on."
The bellhop nods. "Sorry, sir." But he doesn’t turn it off. Instead he stands at attention. We try to see his face, but shadows hide the features. Unmoving, he asks: "Will that be all, sir?"
His resonant voice is familiar yet distant–like the face we can’t quite see–a maddening memory that won’t pop into focus. But the question is clear: it’s a figurative hand extended for the tip.
Aubrey evil-eyes the TV, which shows a low-quality black-and-white kinescope from the 1950s, then stares down the bellhop. No tip for you, boy!
"That will be quite all. Now get out."
But the bellhop takes his time leaving. He watches Aubrey grab the TV remote and zap viciously with his thumb. Click. The channel changes. Another black-and-white show appears. Click. Another. Click. For God’s sake, another!
Aubrey throws down the remote. "Jesus, is every damned show from the Fifties? How disgustingly retro."
The bellhop now heads for the door but Aubrey freezes him with a booming command: "STOP! Come back here, boy. You come back here and fix this thing!" He looks around with a sudden uncertainty. "What in hell is this place?"
The bellhop turns to face Aubrey, and now we see his face as if there’s a spotlight on it: the guy is Rod Serling! Instantly and unbidden, the darkest recesses of memory pluck out the eerie Twilight Zone musical theme: doo-dy doo-doo, doo-dy doo-doo...
WHIP PAN TO A FULL FRAME OF THE TV SCREEN
The screen displays a black-and-white image of Rod Serling in his typical Twilight Zone suit, poised with his typical cigarette and grimace, delivering a typical introduction:
CUE BONGO DRUM RIFF AND FADE OUT TO COMMERCIAL
We FADE IN again on Aubrey and Serling as we left them–in a standoff. "Change the channel," Aubrey spits out. "Change it now. I'm tired of that ghostly crap."
That "ghostly crap" is a flickering kinescope of a classic early 1950s Rod Serling drama: taut dialog on a minimal stage, accompanied by a sparse soap-opera soundtrack.
The huge modern television inside the monstrous cabinet has morphed into a quaint antique with slotted black metal housing, oversized bakelite channel dial, and fuzzy speaker cloth.
Serling’s bellhop uniform is gone, replaced by his more sedate–and familiar–Twilight Zone suit and tie.
"Do you know what date it is inside that little black-and-white box, Mr. Aubrey? It’s January 12, 1952. Not quite the Dawn of Live Television, but certainly its morning light. Also known as The Golden Age."
Aubrey’s eyes narrow. "A mercifully brief age, as I recall. After which the dinosaurs died."
The comment is designed to cut Serling to the bone, as if a TV camera has zeroed in and pinned him in a closeup like some monster truck’s headlights.
Serling doesn’t react. But the room does–the walls and windows subtly fade into darkness as the room transforms into a vintage space...
INTERIOR: LIVE TV SOUNDSTAGE
From Stage Right yet seemingly out of nowhere, a 1950s TV camera DOLLIES toward the two men, a behemoth moving in so close that it grazes Aubrey’s hip. With the monstrosity comes a director BARKING orders to a crew that mimicks Serling’s description:
"Live TV was organized chaos... all frenetic rushing and improvisation. But when it worked? Lightning in a bottle." Serling rubs his hands. "Exhilarating!"
The activity around them keeps Aubrey off-balance. He hesitates. Serling circles him like a prize fighter anxious for the opening bell.
The fancy wooden cabinet? Faded away with the walls. The antique TV? Now a functional gray studio monitor. Serling nods at it.
"That’s one of my early screenplays. ‘No Gods To Serve.’ But YOU served gods, didn’t you? You worshipped the almighty advertising dollar."
Aubrey is disoriented and vulnerable. He stares at the director and crew, and finally at Serling. "You sound familiar to me," he says. "Do I know you?"
Serling tells him: "I’ve got that kind of voice."
Aubrey studies the TV camera, trying to puzzle it out. "It's more than that," he tells Serling absently. "We had words. I fought you."
This "idle memory" flips a switch inside Serling.
"Oh yes, we fought! Over telling the truth on Television. Over injustice and prejudice. Over giving viewers something to think about. And you won, damn you! You filled the 1960s with film and color and situation comedies. Live television died. No more relevant themes. No more smart dramas. No more thinking."
A pregnant pause. The TV cameras MOVE IN on them. Serling is just warming up: "But this isn’t today or even those wonderfully turbulent Sixties. Right now, it’s the 1950s. The world is still Black and White. And I'm your little old curator in this museum which we call, The Golden Age of Television."
"...Serling. You're Rod Serling. I remember you now!"
WHIP PAN TO TV MONITOR
Rod Serling appears on the monitor again, in black-and-white again, with everything in its place, again: Twilight Zone suit, lit cigarette and ironic grin.
Aubrey throws up his hands. "Stop it, stop it, STOP IT! What in hell is going on? Why am I in the middle of a TV show?"
The cameras bear down on them, the grips and director and assistants swirling around... all in surreal–and silent–slow motion.
"Isn’t it clear?" asks Serling. "This isn’t just any TV show. This is the Twilight Zone."
"Wait a minute. Twilight Zone. Rod Serling. You’re dead! I remember. You died a LONG time ago."
Serling checks his watch. "Not so long ago in the grand scheme of things. Time passes quickly here."
Instead of generating fear, the realization gives Aubrey strength. "Go away! I’m not going to let you haunt me!"
"I don’t do hauntings," Serling tells him. "I may have written about such things, but I never believed in them."
"Fine. So get lost."
"You’ll understand soon enough," Serling tells him gently. "You’re the new arrival. Not me."
Dum dum DUM! The ironic twist sinks in despite Aubrey’s resistance. "What are you saying? This can’t be. I’m either crazy, or I’m dead."
"Why not both?"
"No! I can live with crazy. But not..."
"Dead?" Serling shrugs. "Sorry, but you’re every bit as dead as the Golden Age of Television. Do you remember this industry in the Fifties? Experimenting, trying to figure out what it would be when it grew up? Do you remember the shows? Kraft Television Theater. Playhouse 90. The Twilight Zone."
As Serling names each show, a spolight illuminates a separate studio monitor which displays the show. Serling offers up this evidence like a prosecutor grandstanding for the jury:
"Do you remember the mindless garbage you put in its place?" Gesturing back at the monitors: "This was the Future of Television, until you destroyed it!"
Aubrey is adrift in confusion, but he’s a fighter. He battles and adjusts to this surreal new world. His Smiling Cobra persona returns, and he focuses it on his tormentor.
"Rod Serling, you combative little shit. Three Emmy awards and you thought you owned TV."
"Six Emmys. And I should’ve owned TV. Look what you did with it: Gilligan’s Island. Lost in Space. The Beverly Hillbillies, for God’s sake! Yes, I did try to breathe life into TV. We all did. Paddy Chayevsky, Reginald Rose..."
"Writers! Who in hell did you think you were, writers with all those dreary little dramas, people shouting dialog at each other for ninety minutes. That was your foolish Golden Age! Inmates running the damned asylum. Desperate little men with great, big axes to grind."
Serling flashes his trademark grin. "Shall we visit that asylum, Mr. Aubrey?" He waves his hand and the camera WHIP PANS to...
A vast meeting table dominates the set. A small sheaf of papers sits neatly on the table at each seat. But the room echoes with eerie emptiness except for Serling and Aubrey.
You can almost see the ghosts of business enemies attacked and slaughtered in this arena. You can almost hear their overmatched cries, and almost smell their vanquished blood as it pools at their places around the table.
"You be the bad guy," Serling tells Aubrey. "You know where we are: in the boardroom of my Emmy-winning screenplay, Patterns. Kraft Television Theater, January 1956. And you’re the cutthroat boss telling me to just try and take you down. Because that’s supposed to be good business."
Aubrey feels powerful, like the boss in the show. "It is good business. We both know it. The audience won’t cut you any slack. The sponsors want to eat you alive. And the network will slam the door on your ass before you even know you’re out of the building."
Serling rolls with it: "Then you agree: this is the real world, vicious and visceral. Dog-eat-dog. And even though we’re on a sound stage, we’re in a million living rooms telling people what real life is really like."
Serling bears down on him, a prosecutor summing the crimes of Hitler for a jury in Hell. "So tell me, Aubrey, what’s the equation that gave you the right to strangle live TV? Where was your justification for cancelling the truth?"
But Aubrey will not be squashed like some fragile bug. He produces a stack of perforated computer print-outs, and waves them at Serling like a weapon.
"Ratings, my caustic little friend. The Overnight Nielsons. The Voice of the Public."
It’s Aubrey’s sucker punch, and on the soundtrack, a slide whistle dropping three octaves accompanies it.
"I’ll give you realism! Shrinking audiences. Dwindling revenues. You and your realism would have put the network out of business. But what did you care? Get this, Mr. hotshot dramatist playwright. You can’t eat critical acclaim. I was only following a trend. I simply gave the audiences what they wanted... escape!"
Aubrey tosses the Nielson papers into the air, and when they fall, they land on beach sand. Look around: we’re no longer in an office building boardroom. We’re on a deserted island, a jungle paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean...
EXTERIOR: GILLIGAN’S ISLAND
The two stand at the edge of The Lagoon set, with Aubrey dressed as The Skipper and Serling as Gilligan.
Aubrey nudges Serling playfully. "How do you like being on the most popular show of all time, little buddy? Bigger than Patterns. Bigger than Twilight Zone. LOTS bigger. It’s still in reruns!"
Serling examines his Gilligan duds with distaste. "Those reruns scare me most of all. We’re broadcasting Gilligan and his flaky friends into space every day, as though it were some important message. What if the aliens who receive it run away without ever making contact?"
Aubrey shakes his head. "Aliens! What if the only reason they came in the first place was to fatten us up for their dinner table?" He pauses for effect, then blurts: "It’s... it’s a cookbook!"
WHIP PAN TO BLACK-AND-WHITE JUNGLE
Serling, back in his Twilight Zone suit and tie, folds his arms angrily.
Serling looks to his right, the camera WHIP PANS to follow, and suddenly we are back on...
But the montior that was showing Patterns in black and white now shows Gilligan’s Island in color.
Serling cannot bear to look at it. "The triumph of banality," he mutters painfully, and turns away. He moves to the next studio monitor, which shows (in reassuring black and white) a prize fighter nursing his wounds after losing a brutal mismatch.
Serling drags Aubrey to it by the collar.
"You’d like my epitaph to be ‘Requiem for a Bantamweight,’ wouldn’t you? You thought people were afraid of real drama. But they loved it!"
He drags Aubrey straight at the monitor but instead of crashing into it, they disappear, then appear on the black-and-white screen. Serling is the fighter’s trainer and Aubrey is the slick manager, in an early scene from the Emmy winner Requiem for a Heavyweight.
INTERIOR: TRAINING ROOM
Serling helps the battered fighter to sit up on his training table.
"Oh Lordy, I caught it tonight," the fighter moans. "What did I do wrong?"
Aubrey looks at the fighter without sympathy. "You aged, kid. That’s the trouble, you aged."
He hands the fighter a stack of clothing–a hillbilly outfit. The fighter looks at him incredulously. "Put ‘em on," Aubrey tells him. "You need a new act."
Serling rips Aubrey away from the fighter.
"You can’t treat the audience this way!" he screams. "They’re just slobs to you. Hunks of flesh! Is that what you call a cross to bear? I’ll tell you what they are, these people. They’re decent. They’ve got heart. You can’t sell them on the market, by the pound. Because if you do, you’ll rot in the gutter for it."
Aubrey disengages himself. "Why do you think everyone wants to feed off some poor guy’s misery? It gets old. They don’t want to cry every night. They want to laugh."
He nods over Serling’s shoulder, looking past him. "Like it or not, this had to be the future."
The fighter walks back into view, and now he’s wearing the hillbilly costume. Good God, upon closer examination, he’s no longer the fighter at all... he’s become Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies!
"No!" Serling falls to his knees in throbbing psychic pain. Aubrey grabs him and hauls him up for reckoning. We’re no longer in the dreary black-and-white gymnasium basement. We’re in the Clampetts’ luxurious living color backyard, complete with ridiculous white plaster statues set around a swimming pool, with a mansion in the background.
Aubrey chides Serling. "Don’t you dare get sick. You know this is the truth. You sold out for it yourself. ‘Swimming pools, movie stars.’ You lived this life without apology."
Serling bucks up and faces him. "I paid the price," he says. "I sold the thing I loved most, The Twilight Zone, for a pittance. My masterpiece, my Mona Lisa. I gave it away! I didn’t realize, back then, what syndication was worth. No one did."
He’s strong again. His confession has brought them back to the soundstage, and to the final black and white TV monitor.
"You’re damned right I paid for my sins. I lost everything."
On the final TV monitor, Burgess Meredith stands amidst atomic war ruins from the famous Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough at Last."
"That’s not fair," Meredith says to the broken glasses that he clutches in his hands. "That’s not fair at all."
EXTERIOR: URBAN RUBBLE
And now we are in the middle of the episode, in the midst of this post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s no longer Burgess Meredith sitting down on those blast-scarred library steps, defeated and despondent. It’s Serling himself. He looks up at Aubrey.
"This is the vast wasteland that you helped create. The desolate junkyard that is mordern television–strewn with ugly sitcoms, woman-in-jeopardy Movies of the Week, turgid little serial dramas and pointless game shows. Eye candy that rots the mind. Are you prepared to pay your price for it?"
Aubrey scoffs: "Do you think you’re going to fire me? I got the axe even before you did. Or maybe you’ll send me to eternal condemnation in a moralistic little Twilight Zone Hell? Don’t make me laugh."
Serling tells him: "Your personal Hell will be of your own creation."
EXTERIOR: DESOLATE PLANET SURFACE
Serling looks over Aubrey’s shoulder, past him, and Aubrey turns to follow the look. We’re on a desolate planet’s surface now, which doesn’t look much different from the blast-scarred landscape of a few moments ago. But we know that we’re inside a different TV show, because standing center-stage in our point of view is: Robby the Robot.
Serling looks from Robby to Aubrey. "You’re right. No Twilight Zone Hell. Far more appropriate for you to be Lost in Space."
The robot’s arms flail. He fills the screen:
The camera pulls back, and we see that the words have transformed Aubrey into Dr. Smith, the cowardly villian of Lost in Space. He eyes Robby with Smith’s helpless, yet jaded, distaste.
"Shut up, you stupid Robot!" he tells it angrily.
He eyes Rod Serling, standing to one side and now transformed into the vulnerable, na´ve, and trusting Will Robinson.
"Warning indeed," Aubrey tells Serling. "You know all about personal hells. You built your own, and now you’ve got–what do you call it? temerity?–you’ve got the temerity to call yourself a victim!"
Serling tries to defend the indefensible: "I cared about TV. I cared about the people watching it. I cared about the message!"
Aubrey shakes his head. "And you absolutely knew that you were right. Who in hell knows that?"
"I tried to do the right thing."
"Not enough! Not when you’re on display. Do you understand how you embarrassed your bosses? You made your artistic differences personal and public. You fought your battles in the newspapers. You were your own worst enemy."
"I had no choice! I was fighting censorship! It's criminal that we're not permitted to make dramatic note of social evils, in television drama."
"You can, now," Aubrey tells him wistfully. "These days, you can. You just didn’t live to see it."
A sigh and a long pause. "I died of a broken heart, you know," Serling tells him. "It’s a terrible, ironic joke. My bad heart and my addiction to tobacco killed me on the operating table when I was only 50. But Television had already done the job, years before that. I worked myself to death for TV, and as a reward they threw me out like some useless reel of videotape!"
"Me too," Aubrey says softly. "They threw me away, too."
Sudden anger lights up Serling’s eyes. "I remember what you did for TV, James Aubrey. I remember! When you came to CBS in 1959, the network’s jewel was Playhouse 90. Relevant dramas about important social issues. Stories that made people think. And when you left in 1965, your legacy was The Beverly Hillbillies. The Beverly damned Hillbillies! You murdered Live Television! You killed intelligence!" With anguish: "You killed me."
INTERIOR: SOUNDSTAGE, DRESSED
The camera pulls back from Serling’s emotion-charged speech, and we are suddenly in the Warsaw Ghetto of World War II, as it was recreated on a 1960 Hollywood set for Playhouse 90.
Aubrey wears a polished leather Nazi officer’s uniform, and Serling is dressed in the dishevelled horizontal stripes of a Concentration Camp prisoner. A crude Star of David graces the breast of his dirty canvas shirt.
"You’re a murderer," Serling hisses at Aubrey. "I know when I’m in the presence of mine enemies!"
Aubrey stares him down calmly. "No sale! You killed yourself. Your unprofitable playhouse dramas were as deadly as those constant cigarettes. Now listen to me, my na´ve Mr. Serling."
Aubrey closes his eyes and sighs, as if considering his own actions for the first time. Now his voice fills with anguish.
"Do you know how many shows I cancelled? Not just yours. How many careers I ruined in the name of ratings? I’m not proud of that."
INTERIOR: SOUNDSTAGE, BARE
They’re on an empty soundstage, seated on the floor, looking out into an auditorium of empty chairs. The words echo eerily in this space. Aubrey speaks to Serling, but keeps his eyes on that phantom audience.
"You thought TV was an art form. Hah! It’s a business and it has to show a profit. The sponsors were on my back, just like you. And I wanted to be great, just like you. That genius Jim Aubrey, they’d say. He made TV pay for itself. He taught an artistic medium to survive in a money-obsessed world."
Now he’s weeping.
"You can’t dress me up as the bad guy forever. It’s not even within your jaundiced definition of fair, Serling. I didn’t invent the Neilson ratings; I just did my job and paid attention to them. And all that money I earned for my bosses–they should have given ME those Emmy awards. In the end, I got exactly what you got: a big fat boot in the ass!"
He slumps. Serling stares at him incredulously, marvels at the confession just witnessed, and finally, grudingly, hands his nemesis a handkerchief.
Instead of the anger he expected to feel, the rage he has always used as a sword and worn as armor, Serling is blanketed by poignant, wistful regret.
Serling shakes his head. "Money. All the money that Twilight Zone earned over the years. All that money. So little of it went to my family."
"You sold the rights. You didn’t have to."
The statement carries no malice; just simple, sad truth.
"God help me," Serling confesses. "I did live long enough to realize that. Who knew the value of reruns, back then? No one at the network told me. I never dreamed it would become a franchise. I just wanted out. I was glad to escape for awhile." A painful pause. "But when I wanted back in... there was an attitude... that I came from another era. A comet that burst across the sky and then faded out. It was strange and so horribly unfair, because nothing happened to my talent."
Aubrey folds his arms. "I never understood how you could be so smart, but so na´ve. Fair! After World War II, after Hitler and the Holocaust, how could you possibly expect the world to be fair?"
Serling has no answer. He looks into the unfocused distance. "After that, all I had to sell was my image. Mr. Twilight Zone hosting floor wax and beer commercials, that’s not how I want to be remembered! The departure of the aged is neither philosophical nor graceful, but there is an aching poignancy."
INTERIOR: BASEMENT PASSAGEWAY
Aubrey sits down next to his old enemy, and we’ve changed locations again. It’s a basement passageway under the Playhouse 90 theater/studio, with bare pipes and scaffolding. An area of transition, a Purgatory if you will, like the place where the freshly dead Jack Klugman met Gabriel in "A Passage for Trumpet."
"So," Aubrey says to him, "do you still want to send me to Hell? Let’s go together. We can sit side by side and complain about how we got screwed."
Serling shrugs. "It wouldn’t be much of a scenery change, would it?"
They share an ironic chuckle. Then Serling nods. "Your advantage. I always granted my enemies power over me. I had no right to judge you, or condemn you. All I really did was condemn myself."
Serling fights tears. And he wins, for now.
Aubrey gives him back his handkerchief. "Go ahead," he says. "Its good for the soul."
But no tears. Instead, Serling confesses: "I understand now. This isn’t about what you did. It’s about what I didn’t. What I never accomplished because I was too angry to compromise."
"You did good things," Aubrey tells him. "I can only wish for a legacy like yours."
Serling smiles. "You know what happened? Somewhere along the line, I forgot about all that good stuff. Yeah, that’s it, I just forgot."
"You’ve got a choice, you know."
Serling looks at him. "A choice?"
"A choice. You can stay in this Hell of your own creation. Wallow in self-pity. Or you can accept your life, with all its successes and failures, all the victories and defeats..."
"...and be redeemed." Serling nods. The statement has that feel of truth to it. "If I’ve got a choice... I mean, if I’ve still got a choice..."
They rise together and stand, supporting each other.
Serling dabs his eyes. "Okay. I accept my life. I can live, um, die with that. And I guess I can accept that the world is unjust. But I’ll never stop cursing that injustice. I won’t stop crying for it for it to be different. Is that OK? Can I still do that? Because in wishing for the impossible, maybe we can achieve the improbable."
"You can. Nothing else would be fair."
As the two walk slowly down the hallway, arm in arm, weeping at last...
I was inspired by the quote that begins this story, from his final interview. Read it here. And thanks to my annoying friend Chris Conlon, who insisted that I actually write this story I kept describing to him. Keep it up, Chris!