When Rod Serling Turned TV Pitchman: See His Post-Twilight Zone Ads for Ford, Mazda, Gulf Oil & Smokey Bear

The Twi­light Zone ran from 1959 to 1964, this con­clud­ing in a dif­fer­ent cul­ture than the one in which it had pre­miered. CBS broad­cast the series’ first episode to an Amer­i­ca that had nei­ther heard of the Bea­t­les nor elect­ed John F. Kennedy to the pres­i­den­cy; its final episode went out to an Amer­i­ca that had buried JFK and launched into a youth-ori­ent­ed cul­tur­al rev­o­lu­tion just months before. But Rod Ser­ling, The Twi­light Zone’s cre­ator and host, man­aged to retain a degree of the rec­og­niz­abil­i­ty and author­i­ty he’d enjoyed in the era we call the “long 1950s” well into the sharply con­trast­ing one we call “the 60s.”

At the end of the 1950s, Amer­i­can net­work tele­vi­sion offered a steady, bland diet of sit­coms, West­erns, and cop shows. The Twi­light Zone appeared as some­thing new, an anthol­o­gy series not so genre-bound — or rather, per­mit­ted to switch genre every episode — because Ser­ling set its lim­its at those of the human imag­i­na­tion.

Ghost sto­ries, post-apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios, tales of alien inva­sion, super­pow­er fan­tasies both com­ic and trag­ic: all of these nar­ra­tive forms and more fell with­in the show’s purview. No mat­ter how brazen­ly unre­al­is­tic their premis­es, most of these sto­ries had some­thing to say about con­tem­po­rary soci­ety, and all were teth­ered to real­i­ty by the pres­ence of Ser­ling him­self.

Even if you’ve some­how nev­er seen an episode of The Twi­light Zone, you’ll have a ready men­tal image of Ser­ling him­self, or at least of the dark-suit­ed, cig­a­rette-pinch­ing per­sona he took on in the open­ing of most broad­casts. His dis­tinc­tive man­ner of speech, still oft-imi­tat­ed but sel­dom quite nailed, has become a short­hand for a cer­tain stripe of steady mid­cen­tu­ry tele­vi­su­al author­i­ty in the midst of sur­re­al or fright­en­ing cir­cum­stances. As this became a rare and thus in-demand qual­i­ty in post-Twi­light Zone Amer­i­ca, no few cor­po­ra­tions as well as gov­ern­ment agen­cies must have seen in Ser­ling a desir­able spokesman indeed.

Ser­ling, “tele­vi­sion’s last angry man,” was noto­ri­ous for writ­ing scripts from his social and civic con­science. This made him an ide­al human face to accom­pa­ny the ursine one of Smokey Bear in the U.S. For­est Ser­vice’s “Only You Can Pre­vent For­est Fires” pub­lic ser­vice announce­ment of 1968. Its Ser­ling-nar­rat­ed intro­duc­tion of Ed Mor­gan and his fam­i­ly as they motor through the woods, plays for all the world like the open­ing of a clas­sic Twi­light Zone episode, albeit in col­or. “They’ve dri­ven this road a dozen times before, and noth­ing ever hap­pened,” he says, “but today’s dif­fer­ent: today, Ed will become a killer, and here’s his weapon”: a lit cig­a­rette tossed unthink­ing­ly out the win­dow. Such a dire warn­ing may sound a bit rich com­ing from a man who not only smoked onscreen in so many of his appear­ances, but per­son­al­ly endorsed Chester­field Kings on air.

Yet irony was even more inte­gral to The Twi­light Zone than, say, space trav­el, a theme with which many of its episodes dealt. It was pre­sum­ably Ser­ling’s result­ing sci-fi cred­i­bil­i­ty that brought him the offer, just months after the actu­al Moon land­ing, of a spot for We Came in Peace, “a per­ma­nent 75-page book with full-col­or illus­tra­tions” about the his­to­ry of “man’s quest in space,” avail­able for one dol­lar at all par­tic­i­pat­ing Gulf Oil gas sta­tions. In the fol­low­ing decade he would also adver­tise the cars you’d fill up at one, pro­mot­ing fea­tures like Ford LTD’s qui­et ride and the new Maz­das’ rotary engines. All these mod­els would also have come with ash­trays, of course, and a respon­si­ble mid­cen­tu­ry man like Ser­ling would have made sure to use them.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch The Twi­light Zone’s Pilot Episode, Pitched by Rod Ser­ling Him­self (1959)

Rod Ser­ling: Where Do Ideas Come From? (1972)

Cig­a­rette Com­mer­cials from David Lynch, the Coen Broth­ers and Jean Luc Godard

An Anti, Anti-Smok­ing Announce­ment from John Waters

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Jonathan Collins says:

    I’ve watched every Twi­light Zone episode, and every Night Gallery episode, and still think Ser­ling was a genius. The tragedy is that the man only lived to 50 years old. So much imag­i­na­tion, and so many gifts giv­en to the world in those 50 years. Thank you for post­ing these, they are great!

  • Shardai Young says:

    Hel­lo, Rod Ser­ling. My Name Is Shardai Ash­lei. How Are You? I Miss You. I Like To See You Doing Your Com­mer­cials.

  • Shardai Young says:

    If You Don’t Give Me Any­thing Spe­cial On My Birth­day, I’m Still Here.

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