By Bill Simons
Rod Serling is perhaps the most famous and significant writer to hail from Binghamton, as well as its most prolific. Recently, Lawrence Kassan, director of special projects for the Binghamton City School District, demonstrated this in an interesting and informative Zoom program: “Pioneering Mind of Television: The Life and Times of Rod Serling.” Kassan did an excellent job examining Serling’s personal and professional biography, particularly his Binghamton and Jewish roots. Although Serling’s credits include screenplays for several iconic films, including “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “Seven Days in May” and “Planet of the Apes,” his greatest impact came as the chief writer, executor director and host of the television science fiction anthology series “The Twilight Zone,” which ran on CBS from 1959-64.
In order to address controversial issues, such as racism, antisemitism, censorship, conformity, political paranoia and corporate greed on the small screen in an era of cautious advertisers and media moguls, Serling employed fantasy. As an addendum to Kassan’s good work, it is timely at this moment in America to reconsider arguably the most influential “Twilight Zone” episode, “He’s Alive.” It originally aired from 9-10 pm EST on Thursday, January 24, 1963.
“He’s Alive” details the rise and fall of Peter Vollmer, “a bush-league fuehrer,” who traffics in antisemitism as well as hostility toward Blacks, Catholics and immigrants in pursuit of his own affirmation and power. Vollmer delivers street corner diatribes against “foreigners” and other conspirators who seek to turn the United States over to “Palestine,” Africa, the Vatican and “yellow men.” Initially, Vollmer, commanding a handful of uniformed American neo-Nazis, meets derisive hostility, rebuke and splattering projectiles in response to his nativist invectives. Hecklers tauntingly term Vollmer a “punk,” who merits institutionalization in a facility for the criminally insane. Vollmer whines that someday people will listen and salute him. After defeat and humiliation in a brawl, Vollmer, played brilliantly by Dennis Hopper, subsequently acclaimed for his role in the film “Easy Rider,” seeks refuge in the apartment of an old man, Ernst.
Played by the actor Ludwig Donath, himself a Jewish refugee from the Third Reich, Ernst is a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp. Ernst has provided shelter, food and empathy for Vollmer since, as a silent little boy, he would show up at the old man’s door in flight from a physically abusive father and alcoholic mother. Ernst, on occasion, provides Vollmer a place to sleep for the night on a couch. Vollmer is now is his 20s, but Ernst still remembers him as the scared, insecure and confused child. With the authenticity of experience, Ernst confronts the sickness and destructiveness of Vollmer’s bigotry. Pathetically, Vollmer tells the old Jew that they are friends who simply have different political views and that Ernst is the closest he has ever had to a father. Ernst recoils from sick rationalizations, but retains a residue of compassion for Vollmer.
At outdoor rallies in the dark of night and poorly-lit meeting halls, a figure whose identity is hidden by shadows begins to mentor Vollmer. Frightening and mesmerizing, there is something eerily familiar – in body language, hand gestures and timbre of voice – about the shadowy figure. Over time, the authoritarian mentor counsels Vollmer, with effect, about crowd psychology and how to merge with the audience to grow their fears and resentments. Sharpening attacks on Jews, Blacks and immigrants, whom he calls “Izzy,” “Rufus” and “Poncho,” Vollmer attracts gatherings swelling in numbers and rabid enthusiasm. He stokes supporters’ fears that aliens will take over their homes and sully their daughters. In vitriolic rants, Vollmer affirms frenzied supporters, calling them the true minorities, the last remaining America patriots willing to expunge Communists, monied internationalists and other enemies of white Christians. Vollmer tells his acolytes that they are the sanctified minority who “will not give up the fight” against those “who stabbed us in the back,” the traitors responsible for gifting the Soviets with nuclear weapons. The fierce, feral emotions of the mob and of Vollmer are now one.
Tamping down Vollmer’s new euphoria, the shadowy figure cautions Vollmer that this is only the beginning. The movement needs a martyr. Under the mentor’s guidance, Vollmer orders the murder of Nick, the weakest of his uniformed bully boys, in a manner that will place blame on their enemies.
Subsequently, to even larger and more volatile mobs, Vollmer deifies Nick as a hero, slaughtered by “Judas” and “pig” assassins. On a summer night, with the temperature approaching 100 and windows open, Ernst hears the vile bombast, recognizes it as a resonance of Berlin 1933, emerges into the nocturnal street and climbs the speaker’s platform to verbally confront Vollmer, exposing the demagogue as a pathetic charlatan, a whimpering “gift from the sewers.” Ernst remembers that his contemporaries once thought the loud paranoia of a few hooligans could never bring madness to Germany, but they were wrong. With visceral determination, Ernst vows, “We can’t let it happen again.”
An enervated Vollmer is now alone in a space once shared with hundreds, until the shadowy figure again speaks. “Do not be weak; do not be sentimental and soft – kill the old Jew,” roars the mentor, “and the movement will surge and you, ‘Mr. Vollmer,’ its leader, will become ‘immortal.’” Vollmer challenges the shadowy figure to come forth from the darkness, and this time he does: Adolf Hitler steps forward. With this dramatic and unexpected epiphany, Vollmer, transformed into steel and will, snaps to a Nazi salute and then posthaste enters Ernst’s apartment and shoots him to death, but not before the old man warns his executioner, “You cannot kill an idea with a bullet.”
Investigating the mayhem, the police mortally wound a fleeing Vollmer, but the ending is unsettling, chilling. As a demonic Hitler stealthily moves on with calibrated resolution, the intense voice of Rod Serling intones, “Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive… Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being.”
Serling depicts the police favorably in “He’s Alive.” Beyond terminating Vollmer’s reign of terror, they demonstrate contempt for his racial and ethnic bigotry. One of the police officers is Black.
Hitler, presumably a suicide in 1945, would have been 73 years old when “He’s Alive” originally aired. Ten days before, on January 14, 1963, George Wallace, the defiant governor of Alabama, pledged, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Rod Serling received more than 4,000 hate-mail messages in response to the episode. The 1960s would witness landmark civil rights victories but also endure demagoguery, polarization, race riots, assassination and conflict over the American journey. “He’s Alive” has a relevance to our own time. It is available for viewing on several streaming platforms.
Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.