Interview with Robert Rhine, The Face of The Tower of Terror
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at the Disney-MGM Studios is arguably one of the most popular attractions in all of the Walt Disney World Resort. The exceptional attention to detail in this attraction is a testament to the Imagineers who designed it, and their commitment to excellence in all that they do. One of their crowning achievements was the manipulation of original footage of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, which were included in the library scene at the beginning of the attraction. However, there were parts of the ride for which there was no acceptable Serling footage, so the need for a look-alike began. It ended quickly, however, when Imagineers met my guest, Mr. Robert Steven Rhine. I had the chance to interview Robert in 2005, and again in 2006.
Submitted for your approval is that interview...
Lou Mongello: Wow. In addition to bearing an uncanny resemblance to Rod Serling, you have quite an accomplished career! You were a publicist who then turned actor/writer/producer, and have written and starred in short films, wrote 2 comic books, 2 animated comics, and have had your horror stories published worldwide. Can you tell us a little more about your background?
Robert Rhine: I grew up in Los Angeles, a fourth generation Californian. My father (from San Francisco) was a television comedy writer and my mother (from Philadelphia) a comedic TV and film actress. I started acting in radio and TV commercials when I was a boy but my parents wanted me to live a more normal life than show business. I guess it didn't work because I'm still in the biz. I continue to work as an actor in small roles here and there in films, television and theater. I have also had two books published, "My Brain Escapes Me" and "Selected Reading From Satan's Powder Room. " Both are dark comedy / horror. I have been published in over a hundred magazine and most recently was in an anthology titled, "Dark Delicacies" (alongside Ray Bradbury and Clive Barker) which won a Bram Stoker Award
Lou Mongello: So, how does this all get started? Do you one day realize you look like Rod Serling, or do people just start coming up to you and saying "Hey! You look just like…"?
Robert Rhine: Sometime I feel as if my life truly is in the Twilight Zone. Interestingly, it was Rod Serling himself who told my parents he thought I should be in "The Sandy Kolfax Story" someday. Odd, considering that I wound up playing him on the Tower of Terror Ride over twenty years later. But my impersonation of Rod really started when I decided to take a photo as sort of a gag headshot for my agent –- not realizing that I would start getting auditions. I found a great vintage suit and tie for the shoot. I actually collect 50's vintage ties and have over 400. I found a great photographer, Ed Freeman, who took the shot. Then, I just had to channel Rod. The cigarette with the smoke didn't hurt either.
Lou Mongello: When did you realize you could actually start portraying Rob Serling beyond the confines of your home mirror?
Robert Rhine: I did an industrial commercial for an eye care product, Cellulo-something and I worked opposite Arte Johnson (Laugh-in) who spouted as a German Soldier), "very interesting. " I had all this technical text to say – which Rod Serling would never utter. It was more challenging than portraying Rod for the Tower of Terror.
Lou Mongello: Did you find that you studied his TV performances on the Twilight Zone and Night gallery?
Robert Rhine: I spliced a video tape together of all the beginnings and ends of Rod Serling on the Twilight Zone. My impersonation is more from the TZ period than from The Night Gallery Rod. It took me awhile to unravel the specifics of Rod but I found it's mostly the key to him his bottom teeth (which always showed more prominently than his uppers). I was talking to Carol Serling and she told me she thought Rod perhaps didn't like his upper teeth stained which were by stained by tobacco and coffee. Anyhow, whether that is true or not, when I lock in his lower teeth I feel closest to his character.
Lou Mongello: Did you ever have the chance to meet the "real" Rod Serling? If so, what was that like?
Robert Rhine: Yes, I met Rod several times while staying at a resort in Palm Springs — White Sun Ranch. I was about seven years old. My folks would travel there and meet up with writers and actors of the day. I remember comedian Louie Nye was part of the group and actor Marvin Kaplan. Rod was a really cool guy and nice to me. I tossed around a football with him. I remembered how darkly tanned he was, like my father, and they seemed to be in a competition to see who could get darker. This was when Baby Oil was the suntan lotion of choice.
Lou Mongello: Were you a Twilight Zone fan when you were younger, or did you become one after realizing you so closely resembled the host?
Robert Rhine: I was a Twilight Zone fan my whole life and still am. Who wouldn't be?The shows were, and still are, brilliant.
Lou Mongello: What is your favorite episode of the Twilight Zone?
Robert Rhine: Tough question. But it would have to be a tie. Both episodes starred William Shattner: Nightmare at 20000 Feet (with the creature on the plane wing) and Nick Of Time – with the devil fortune teller (napkin holder) in the coffee shop booth.
Lou Mongello: What was your first job as Rod Serling?
Robert Rhine: Delivering papers (kidding). I think I introduced a theater show as Rod.
Lou Mongello: How did you come to get involved with Disney, and eventually the Tower of Terror project?
Robert Rhine: It was an audition. I got a call from my agent that they were doing a ride for Disneyworld. I really took it in stride not realizing how big a cult following the ride would someday have. I remember reading the script and thinking it would make an amazing ride. The director Joe Dante was at the audition. I don’t remember if it was a callback or if I got it on the first try. But I remember channeling Rod for the audition and I guess it worked. Odd, to beat out a room full of Rod’s.
Lou Mongello:The pressure of being immortalized as Rod Serling in a Disney attraction must have been overwhelming. What did you need to do to prepare for your role in the show?
Robert Rhine: I moved in with his wife Carol for three years (again kidding). Actually, I just watched the tapes, practiced the voice and head moves and smoked a lot of cigarettes.
Lou Mongello: How long did it take to work on the Project?
Robert Rhine: The shoot was one day.
Lou Mongello: What was it like to work with the Disney Imaginers?
Robert Rhine: A breeze. They were total pros.
Lou Mongello: Did the Imagineers welcome input form you as to how he should be portrayed?
Robert Rhine: They actually gave me no input – so I guess they liked what I did.
Lou Mongello: Did you also do the voice of Rod Serling in the attraction?
Robert Rhine: I originally thought, when I booked the job, that they were hiring me to do both the body and voice, because I impersonate his voice, as well. But they went with a voiceover. But you can hear my impersonation at ServiceElevator.com
(Keep in mind I did this in one take, standing in a phone booth at Club 33 at Disneyland, holding a small tape recorder. So, I hope it sounds okay).
Lou Mongello: If not, did you work side-by-side with the voiceover artist?
Robert Rhine: Actually, I never met the voice-over artist. He was never on the set. I mouthed the voiceover artist’s words while we shot against green screen.
Lou Mongello: Where in the attraction can we look to actually see you?
Robert Rhine: On the ride in Disney Orlando Florida when the doors open, you see me on a television. And that's the speech I did in 1993 for Disney Imagineering I haven't been on the ride in Florida myself but many of my friends have seen me on the ride.
Lou Mongello: Rumor has it that some scenes in the attraction were from the original show and in fact, Rod Serling's signature cigarette was digitally removed (as Walt Disney died from lung cancer). Were any scenes used in the attraction of the real Rod Serling, or were they all you?
Robert Rhine: I think you’d have to ask Disney Imagineering. It was all very top secret. But I enjoyed reading all the conjecture about who had played Rod Serling. Disney went to a lot of trouble to match me exactly to Rod. The makeup team won an Academy Award for “The Fly” (with Jeff Goldblum). There were pictures all over the walls of Rod. So they were very serious about getting the look perfect.
Lou Mongello: Did you get to see the Tower during construction?
Robert Rhine: Nope. They wanted to keep it a secret who played Rod and I think that they wanted to keep me out of reach.
Robert Rhine: Nope. And I’m glad. I heard that the first test rides were a bit too “intense” and they had to adjust the ride. I can’t imagine it being more intense then it is now.
Lou Mongello: What do you think of the Tower of Terror attraction?
Robert Rhine: It’s fantastic. I have never been on another park ride like it. It’s utterly terrifying. It frightened me more than free falling out of an airplane at 11,000 feet.
Lou Mongello: How has the Serling family taken to your portrayal of their husband/father/grandfather, etc. ?
Robert Rhine: Carol Serling is a wonderfully sweet woman. She has been very kind to me. She enabled me to get the rights to “Requiem For A Heavyweight,” for a play I was producing. But I remember that after I got the part to play Rod Serling, I still had to be approved by Carol. So, I went back to Disney Imagineering and did my tribute of Rod for Carol as she watched from a sound booth. Imagine doing an imitation to Rod’s widow? But she approved of me, only commenting that I have broader shoulders than Rod.
Lou Mongello: How does it feel to have literally millions of guests every year from around the World see your performance?
Robert Rhine: It is truly an honor to portray someone I so respect. Now, if only I could have gotten a nickel for every time that ride dropped!
Lou Mongello: Have you seen / what do you think of the Disneyland version?
Robert Rhine: Yes, Ihave ridden the Disneyland version once and I found it truly terrifying. Once may be enough for me. But the execution is brilliant and very entertaining - just don't eat a big lunch beforehand.
Lou Mongello: Are you working on any another Rod Serling projects? If so, what can you tell us about it?
Robert Rhine: The most recent was the shoot I did at The Tower of Terror last week, when I rode it for the first time. I was invited to lunch at Club 33, dressed as Rod. That was fantastic. I understand that Club is extremely difficult to get into and that there are only 400 members who can enter. I have another project I’m working on which is Rod related but if it’s too early to announce.
I actually think I look more like Rod now then when they filmed me for the ride in 1994. I’m closer to his age when he did The Twilight Zone.
Lou Mongello: Is being Rod Serling a full-time job? If not, what do you do (feel free to promote your books, etc. )
Robert Rhine: Ha!I hope not. I mostly write and work on a magazine I publish. I don’t really think of myself as an impersonator. I’m a writer and a performer and sometimes I sing like Rod in the shower.
Lou Mongello: Do you have a Web Site, or anywhere we can learn more about you and your projects?
Robert Rhine: Here’s my home website: http://www.robertrhine.com. My book is also available on Amazon.com.