Mad as Hell
The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies
Henry Holt and Co.
Copyright © 2014 Dave ItzkoffISBN: 978-0-8050-9569-2
All rights reserved.
The problems, plural, with television, as enumerated by Paddy Chayefsky, included but were not limited to: its crassness, its stupidity, its chasing of fads and its embracing of gimmicks; its reduction of all that was distinctive and worthy of celebration in American culture to the basic food groups of game shows, songs, and dances; its compulsion to force everyone watching it to think the same thing at the same time; and its overall lack of artistic integrity. Also, it paid him too little.
He would recite his list of charges whenever he was given a platform, whether in a newspaper or magazine interview, on the radio, or, especially, on television itself. But on this day in 1969 he happened to be delivering his latest version of the familiar tirade amid the clanging of silverware and the clattering of plates in the dining room of the Carnegie Deli. The bustling, boisterous Midtown Manhattan restaurant, next door to the gray-brown brick building where Chayefsky kept his office in room 1106 at 850 Seventh Avenue, and a short walk from its esteemed namesake, Carnegie Hall, was a frequent site for the weekday court he convened at lunchtime. There, the deli’s adoring maître d’, Herbie Schlein, gave him linen napkins to wipe the coleslaw and Russian dressing from his face while other patrons had to make do with paper, and his table was reliably populated by pals such as Bob Fosse and Herb Gardner—office neighbors who rented their work spaces down the hall from his—and other select peers who could keep pace with his accomplishments, his mind, and his mouth.
At this particular session, he was joined by Howard Gottfried, a producer with whom he had been working to figure out a new project ever since Alan Jay Lerner fired Chayefsky as the scriptwriter of his musical Western Paint Your Wagon. (The songs, Chayefsky had told the celebrated lyricist of Camelot and My Fair Lady, were no good, and anyway his stars Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood couldn’t “sing for shit,” and that was the end of that assignment.) Their companion was Mel Brooks, who had lately withstood some tough reviews for his directorial debut, a polarizing film satire about two shysters peddling a Broadway musical about Adolf Hitler, only to have the last laugh by winning an Oscar for his screenplay of The Producers. They were three Jewish show business veterans kibitzing around a table, and naturally there was some commiserating about which industry they had worked in was the worst of the bunch. It didn’t take long for television to rise to the top of the heap.
Television, Chayefsky argued, offered the least creative control for writers and the lowest return on their investment. Where was its dignity? Where did it draw the line, and what wouldn’t it do for a rating?
Surely it wasn’t all bad, said Gottfried, the conciliatory industry professional. What about that first-rate production of Death of a Salesman with Lee J. Cobb that CBS ran a few years ago?
Irrelevant, Chayefsky countered. Television was a parvenu industry, constantly conscious of its image as a cultural wasteland. A passion for prestige trembles through the business, and suddenly all the networks race out to do meaningful programming. Death of a Salesman had been just a seasonal attack of respectability, like hay fever.
“What’s next?” wondered Brooks, reaching for the darkest and least appetizing idea he could think of, one rife with murder, rape, and depravity. “A television show based on The Threepenny Opera?”
Were the rights still available? Gottfried wondered.
What difference would it make to a programming executive? Chayefsky said. He wouldn’t know if The Threepenny Opera was written by Bertolt Brecht or Hy the plumber. He probably wouldn’t know that Bertolt Brecht had been dead for seventeen years.
“Leave it to me,” said Brooks, his eyes agleam as he stood up from his seat. “I’ll call one of the networks.”
“Now, don’t pile it on,” Chayefsky warned his friend while offering him a dime. “Remember, you’re not Doctor Krankheit,” he said, citing an old vaudeville sketch.
“Are you trying to tell me how to play this?” Brooks protested. He made his way to a phone booth and a few minutes later came back with the following report.
Having dialed up NBC, where both he and Chayefsky had long-standing relationships, he was connected to the programming department and asked for a certain executive there.
“Hello dere,” Brooks had said, slipping into an old stage accent. “Dis here is Berrrrrtolt Brrrrecht. I vanted to talk about der TV rights to my musical mit Kurrrrt Weill, der Thrrrreepenny Operrrra.”
“One moment, please,” said the secretary who had taken the call. “Let me see if he’s available.” The receiver was placed down, but a conversation was still audible from within the office.
First, the secretary: “There’s a Bertolt Brecht calling for you. Something about The Threepenny Opera?”
Then the executive: “What are you talking about? Bertolt Brecht is dead!”
And then the secretary again: “How can Bertolt Brecht be dead? He’s on the phone for you right now!”
“Oh, well, that’s different—put him on!”
And that was what Paddy Chayefsky thought of television.
* * *
There had been a time when Chayefsky could convince himself that television would sustain him for his entire career. In his foreword to a hardcover collection of his television dramas that was published in 1955, he affectionately observed that “television has been a kind medium” to him. Though it was his intention at some point to resume creating works for the stage, Chayefsky said then, “I have never written a script in television of which I was not at least partially proud. I hope to continue writing for the medium as long as I can.”
Yet Chayefsky was unambiguously displeased by the restrictions he said TV imposed on his creative freedom, and in that same foreword he bluntly registered his annoyance. “In television,” he said, “the writer is treated with a peculiar mixture of mock deference and outright contempt. He is rarely consulted about casting, his scripts are frequently mangled without his knowing about it, and he is certainly the most poorly paid person in the production.”
With years of creative output still ahead of him, Chayefsky observed with foreboding awareness that his fellow writers were the sort of people who live “in a restrained terror of being unable to think up their next idea.” “Television,” he wrote, “is an endless, almost monstrous drain. How many ideas does a writer have? How many insights can he make? How deep can he probe into himself, how much energy can he activate?”
To readers of that slim volume, which contains six of Chayefsky’s hour-long scripts for The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, it must have seemed like an astonishing introductory statement from a man who, at just thirty-two years old, had come to epitomize this unfamiliar but exciting new occupation of professional television writer. His words are surprising in their candor and precocious bitterness, reflecting not only the self-assurance Chayefsky felt at that age, but also the authority he possessed in his field and the rapidness with which he had accrued it.
All told, Chayefsky wrote ten plays for The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, an NBC anthology drama that alternated between those two title sponsors. The era, in which some twenty-six million households possessed TV sets, was dominated by comedies: first Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater on NBC, and then I Love Lucy on CBS. Dramas, modeled on the legitimate theater, provided a more traditional if less flashy foothold for emerging talents, with The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse offering a proving ground for actors such as Grace Kelly, Steve McQueen, Joanne Woodward, and Walter Matthau and writers such as Gore Vidal and Horton Foote.
Chayefsky’s installments in the series, shown between 1952 and 1955, were visually unsophisticated by contemporary standards: broadcast live from NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, they were transmitted in black and white, as shaky cameras captured sweaty performances under hot studio lights, in limited locations and minimalist settings. With words such as videotape and rerun not yet standard parlance, these programs were crudely preserved for future airings, if they were expected to be shown again at all. You watched them in real time on Sunday night—and about seven million to nine million viewers did each week—or you listened forlornly as your friends talked about them on Monday morning.
The format was too young to have established rules, and the harder Chayefsky pushed on its boundaries and with a writing talent that had not yet found its upper limits, the more his recognition grew. His teleplays were socially conscious if politically prudent narratives whose heroes were underappreciated and unseen strivers who sometimes won and sometimes lost, while their day-to-day struggles were elevated to the level of the cosmic. Whether they prevailed or were vanquished, these protagonists were always allowed their moments in the spotlight to rail passionately and persuasively against the hopeless, demoralizing complexities of modern life.
As Mr. Healy, the old, obsolete employee of a drab Manhattan printer’s shop, laments to a young apprentice in a Chayefsky teleplay called “Printer’s Measure,” “Are people any wiser than they were a hundred years ago? Are they happier? This is the great American disease, boy! This passion for machines.… We’ve gone mad, boy, with this mad chase for comfort, and it’s sure we’re losing the very juice of living.” The play culminates with his smashing a linotype machine with a sledgehammer.
Three installments on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, broadcast in 1952 and 1953, had made Chayefsky a writer whom audiences could identify by name. His fourth drama, called “Marty,” was shown on May 24, 1953, and it made him a star.
During preparations at the Abbey Hotel earlier that year for a teleplay called “The Reluctant Citizen,” Chayefsky wandered away from rehearsals and encountered a leftover sign from a dance event held by a local lonely hearts club. Lettered by hand, it read, GIRLS, DANCE WITH THE MAN WHO ASKS YOU. REMEMBER, MEN HAVE FEELINGS, TOO. He contemplated the poster and returned to pitch his director, Delbert Mann, and producer, Fred Coe, on an idea for a play about a young woman—no, wait, a young man—who attends one such event.
With their encouragement, Chayefsky crafted the story of a thirty-six-year-old butcher from the Bronx named Marty Pilletti, whose social life is summed up by the sad refrain he ritualistically exchanges with his only friend, Angie: “What do you feel like doing tonight?” Embarrassed to be the last unmarried member of his family, Marty is persuaded by his mother to attend a dance at the Waverly Ballroom, where he meets a girl who is as isolated and vulnerable as he is. Marty brings her back to the home he shares with his mother, and he and the girl engage in an awkward romantic dalliance. Over the objections of his overprotective mother and the envious Angie, Marty resolves to call the girl again some night.
That is the entire action of “Marty,” but then “Marty” is not really a work of action. Behind the deceptively inert and half-mumbled performance of Rod Steiger, who portrayed the title character in the Goodyear Television Playhouse production, lurks the classic formulation of the Chayefsky hero, who has been held back for too long and who explodes with emotion when pushed to his breaking point. Urged by his mother to prepare for what he can only anticipate will be “a big night of heartache,” Marty responds with a barrage of self-loathing. “Sooner or later,” he declares, “there comes a point in a man’s life when he gotta face some facts, and one fact I gotta face is that whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it. I chased enough girls in my life. I went to enough dances. I got hurt enough. I don’t wanna get hurt no more.”
In the scenes that follow his first meeting with the mistreated, unnamed girl (played by Nancy Marchand in her television debut), Marty hears her mocked once too often by people who are supposed to care about him. These provocations set loose his verbalized anger, which he aims at anyone who dismisses his feelings for her. As he tells off Angie in a concluding speech, whose stage directions call for it to be delivered in “a low, intense voice”:
You don’t like her. My mother don’t like her. She’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly little man. All I know is I had a good time last night. I’m gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I’m going down on my knees and beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party again this New Year’s, I gotta date for the party. You don’t like her, that’s too bad.
Marty wins his freedom by casting Angie aside with the line that every disapproving housewife and busybody had previously used to humiliate him: “You oughtta be ashamed of yourself.”
Of all the plays he wrote for Philco-Goodyear, “Marty” was not Chayefsky’s personal favorite, and the praise and admiration it received took him by surprise, although he suspected it somehow resulted from the play’s expression of feelings that viewers were not used to seeing on television. As he told TV Guide in 1955,
I think it was because it tried to show love to be a very real emotion which very real people enjoy and experience in their normal lives, instead of the gauche, contrived and intensely immature thing that the movies and current fiction have made of it. Love is a very common business, really; it does not require special settings or extreme circumstances or any particular face or body or income tax bracket. I think most people liked “Marty” because it tried to tell them that they have as deep and tender and gentle and passionate a soul as Tony Curtis.
Steiger may have come closer to identifying the reason for its emotional resonance when he surmised that his character and the play itself were somehow surrogates for its author. “We thought that ‘Marty’ was based upon, a lot, on Paddy Chayefsky,” he later said. “Of course we didn’t go up and ask him because since it was about such a lonely man, and such a man hungry for love, it would have been a rather embarrassing situation for all of us.” Even audiences with no access to Chayefsky and only a vague sense of him as an individual felt certain they were seeing the honest unfurling of a real life, and all the undignified truths that came with it.
* * *
Sidney Aaron Chayefsky was born on January 29, 1923, in the Bronx home of his parents, Harry and Gussie Chayefsky, one block away from the Grand Concourse. His father, a dairyman, and his mother, a housewife, were Russian-born Jews who met on the beaches of Coney Island, where, family legend had it, Harry rescued Gussie from nearly drowning. Sidney, the youngest and smallest of three brothers, was raised primarily in Bronx tenements—the family had to sell a comparatively spacious house in Mount Vernon when the Great Depression hit—but he did not consider himself underprivileged. As an adult he would say he grew up in “the rich Bronx—in the Riverdale section—not the Odets Bronx. But I guess there’s not too much difference.”
His bar mitzvah was held at a storefront synagogue on West 234th Street, and his youth was filled with visits to the Yiddish theaters around New York City. Known at DeWitt Clinton High School by the nickname Chy, he preferred to add an affected middle initial when giving his full name, Sidney Q. Chayefsky, as on the masthead of the student literary publication, The Magpie, which he edited his senior year. Though he stood only five foot six, his barrel-chested build suggested the raw material of a potential athlete. But aside from a short stint at age seventeen as an offensive lineman on a semiprofessional football team, his ambitions, he knew, were on a more cerebral playing field, even if he could not quite say why. Asked years later where his writing talents came from, Chayefsky could only shrug. “You got me,” he said. “In an ordinary Jewish middle-class home there’s a great prestige to being a writer. My parents weren’t writers but they were great readers. I read everything I could put my hands on.”
After his graduation from City College in 1943, the twenty-year-old Sidney was drafted into the army and never came back. Roused one Sunday morning during basic training at Camp Carson, Colorado, the young private told his superior officer he could not perform his KP duty because he had to attend Catholic Mass. “Sure you do, Paddy,” the officer sarcastically replied. This rechristening stuck, and Chayefsky enjoyed the distinctiveness of his new name: as unlikely an appellation as Sidney Chayefsky was, he could feel certain the world would never see another Paddy Chayefsky.
His other fateful encounter, as a machine-gun-wielding infantryman in the army’s 104th Division, was with a land mine he sat on in Aachen. (As the dramatist Garson Kanin, then a captain at a U.S. military hospital in Cirencester, England, later recounted, Chayefsky told him, “We were out on patrol and I had to take a dump.”) Chayefsky was awarded the Purple Heart, and during his convalescence he worked with another soldier, a composer named Jimmy Livingston, to write a bawdy musical send-up of their armed service experiences called No T.O. for Love. (A T.O., or table of organization, is a military chart illustrating a chain of command.)
Joshua Logan, already an established Broadway director at the time of the war and the future cowriter of South Pacific, was among those who took notice of this formative work, and he became fast friends with Chayefsky, whom he regarded as “a square”—not socially but physically. “Paddy is built like an office safe, one that fits under the counter and is impossible to move,” Logan would later observe. “He is the only man I know who was that way when he was in his late teens and is still that way in full-fledged manhood.”
The musical caught the attention also of Curt Conway, then a Special Services staff sergeant who was producing shows for GIs in London. So, too, did Chayefsky. “I thought I was the sloppiest soldier in the Army,” Conway said. But Chayefsky, he found, outdid him. “Bedraggled is the best description—his shirttail always riding out of his pants and one trouser leg always out of the boot. He was generally unimpressive until you found out he had a charming sense of humor.” Chayefsky struck Conway as shy and socially awkward. “He seemed to know very little about girls,” he said.
Garson Kanin, a noted motion picture director at the time of his enlistment, put Chayefsky to work on Carol Reed’s film The True Glory, an account of the Allied victories on the Western front that won the Academy Award for documentary feature in 1945. Returned to civilian life one year later, the two men crossed paths on the streets of Manhattan: Kanin was thriving as the celebrated playwright of the Broadway comedy Born Yesterday, while Chayefsky was working in his uncle Abe’s printing shop on West Twenty-Eighth Street, yearning to resume his literary pursuits. Kanin and his wife, the actress Ruth Gordon, gave Chayefsky a $500 advance to write a play of his own—a gift, essentially, to get him out of his print shop job. Not knowing how proper dramas were composed, Chayefsky bought a book of plays by Lillian Hellman, sat down at his typewriter, and retyped The Children’s Hour. “I copied it out word for word and I studied every line of it,” he said. “I kept asking myself: ‘Why did she write this particular line?’”
His first original play, Put Them All Together, about a Jewish family in the Bronx, was not produced, and this was a great disappointment to him. But the narrative treatment he wrote next, called The Great American Hoax, was, and this was an even greater disappointment. The treatment, about an older man being forced out of a printing job, earned Chayefsky a $25,000 option from 20th Century–Fox and a $250-a-week job at the Hollywood studio to write the screenplay, which eventually became the Monty Woolley comedy As Young as You Feel. But long before that, the young writer (who dubbed the end product “a real stinker”) grew exasperated with the changes sought by Fox, which seemed to respond only to his irritation. “I stormed and ranted,” Chayefsky said, “and the more I raved, the more they ‘respected’ me.” With all the esteem of the studio, he took his substantial paycheck and stormed back to New York.
The year 1949 was doubly momentous for him: February saw the opening of the play Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s elegy for the misplaced values of the overlooked American middle class, an event that profoundly reshaped the perspectives of dramatists both established and aspiring. That same month, Chayefsky was married to Susan Sackler, a slight, slender ballet student who, like her new husband, came from a Jewish family in the Bronx. He found steadier employment adapting plays for radio broadcasts, and as television blossomed in the early 1950s, he was one of many writers enlisted by the networks to feed the public’s growing hunger for new programming. But his first produced script, for the CBS suspense anthology Danger, directed by a young prodigy named Sidney Lumet, did not mark an auspicious debut. “Nobody called me to tell me what night they were putting it on, so I missed it,” Chayefsky recalled. “Never saw it.”
The 1953 broadcast of “Marty” brought an outpouring of appreciation and recognition for its author. If, as the future Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling wrote, Chayefsky regarded television plays as “the most perishable item known to man,” then “Marty” was the exception that gave the form value and longevity. As Serling’s widow, Carol, later said when she spoke of her husband’s esteem for Chayefsky, “He had the gift of melding significance and meaning and humor into one play, often into one single situation. He gave stature to television. And that was really Rod’s feeling.”
“Marty” also attracted renewed interest from the motion picture industry. The original teleplay, which Chayefsky had written in a matter of days and for which he was paid $1,200, was purchased for a film adaptation by Burt Lancaster and his producing partner Harold Hecht, with Chayefsky receiving a $13,000 option and a percentage of its earnings to write the movie script. Wary of another Hollywood fiasco, Chayefsky negotiated that he be allowed to do his work in New York, that advance rehearsals be held prior to filming, and that Delbert Mann, who had directed the television production, also direct the movie.
Though he worked with an agent, Bobby Sanford, at the start of his career, Chayefsky made his later business deals on his own, and his lawyer, Maurice Spanbock, reviewed his contracts. As he would later explain, “My position is nonnegotiable. That’s how much I want and what kind of controls I want. It is up to the other side to figure out how to make it palatable to themselves, because there is plenty of room left for everybody to make all the money they want.” Most crucially with Marty, the movie, Chayefsky insisted that he be allowed to participate creatively throughout the filmmaking process. All his demands were accepted, and he was given an additional credit as associate producer.
Marty, starring an ebullient and eminently likable Ernest Borgnine and featuring a jaunty pop theme song by Harry Warren, is more eager to please and less rough around the edges than its television predecessor. But it was no less a cultural sensation when it was released by United Artists in 1955. In an early review, Variety wrote, “If Marty is an example of the type of material that can be gleaned, then studio story editors better spend more time at home looking at television.” Time praised the film for telling “the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the unattached male,” adding that Chayefsky “can find the vernacular truth and beauty in ordinary lives and feelings. And he can say things about his people that he could never get away with if he were not a member of the family.”
In a marketplace of extravagant, widescreen Technicolor and CinemaScope presentations, the simple, black-and-white Marty was a surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and in 1956 it won the Academy Award for best picture and Oscars for Borgnine, Mann, and Chayefsky, who, after receiving his statuette and a kiss from Claudette Colbert, declared, “If I hadn’t won, I’d have been disappointed.”
By this time, Chayefsky had seen the birth of his son, Dan, and the TV broadcasts of his last scripts for The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, including “The Bachelor Party,” “Middle of the Night,” and “The Catered Affair.” He was also growing more assured in his abilities and more strident in his criticism of television. In a New York Herald Tribune article matter-of-factly headlined CHAYEFSKY ASSAILS TV AS STUPID AND DOOMED, he said, “The industry has no pride and no culture. The movies, with all their crassness, can point to something they’ve done with pride during the year.”
Where he had once boasted that he wrote the dialogue in Marty “as if it had been wire-tapped,” he now snapped at reporters who dared to ask if the words uttered by his characters came from surreptitious tape recordings. In an essay in the New York Times, he wrote that he was “frankly demanding to be relieved of the epithet of ‘stenographic writer’ or ‘slice-of-life’ writer and that my writing be recognized as more than an ability to put down recognizable idiom.”
“Truth is truth,” Chayefsky proclaimed, “and it is not made into poetry by artificial pungency. Life is life. It breathes for itself, and it contains the exaltation of true lyricism just in its being.”
The press, meanwhile, found him a reliable sparring partner, latching on to his ostentations and mocking his physical shortcomings. Profiles of Chayefsky customarily tagged him as “chubby,” “stocky,” and “smallish,” sometimes in concert, as in “a short, stocky and heavy-shouldered chap who’ll never be a serious threat to Gregory Peck.” In Vogue he was presented as “a squarish, hefty young playwright,” and in the New York Post he was rendered “a chunky, Bronx-born, reformed éclair addict.” When he swore to the Herald Tribune that he would eat his hat if the film version of Middle of the Night were not a hit, the writer retorted, “On the way from the movie studio in a near-by Italian restaurant where he devoured a huge hero sandwich, Mr. Chayefsky did not wear a hat. Perhaps he had eaten it because he had lost some other bet.” The same article trumpeted in its headline that Chayefsky had recently grown a beard, while mentioning only in passing his admission that he had been in psychoanalysis for the past three years.
Over time, Chayefsky’s eccentric if entertaining fussiness gave way to a reputation for being impossible to satisfy. A television series he planned to produce about the American Psychiatric Association fell apart in 1958 when he refused to cede any control to the networks interested in it. “Once they got control, it would be so dehydrated that it wouldn’t be worth doing,” he said. “They would try to make the subject matter more palatable, and it can’t be done that way; it can only be done as art.”
On a monthlong visit to the Soviet Union in 1959 with Alfred Kazin, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Atlantic Monthly editor Edward Weeks, Chayefsky insisted that the group set aside its planned itinerary so he could visit his mother’s birthplace in Velikiye Bubny, a small village five hours from Kiev. “They did everything possible to divert our attention from the request,” Weeks recalled. “Then Paddy said to them, ‘All right, you’ve lied to me consistently. I’m pulling out of the conference and going home.’” In the end, Chayefsky got his visit to Velikiye Bubny.
Before the 1950s were out, Chayefsky vowed he was quitting television for film, where he could have more control over his work and earn more money. When movies such as The Goddess and Middle of the Night did not nearly match the triumph of Marty, he turned to the stage, earning Tony Award nominations for his plays The Tenth Man and Gideon. By 1962 he had concluded that he was “sick of” Broadway due to “economic futility.” But his suffering was not yet through.
Chayefsky’s 1964 directorial debut, The Passion of Josef D., his stage drama about the Russian Revolution starring Peter Falk as the young Stalin, elicited some of the most brutal reviews of his career (“an almost unbroken and seriously unlucky succession of wrong choices”—Walter Kerr) and closed after eleven days. Months later Chayefsky would sheepishly admit, “I should never have tried to direct it, too.”
After writing the screenplay that same year for The Americanization of Emily, adapted from William Bradford Huie’s novel about a scheming navy officer thrust into the middle of the D-day invasion, Chayefsky returned to the theater in 1968 for one last play. For this stage satire, called The Latent Heterosexual, starring Zero Mostel as a gay man who marries a woman to escape an exorbitant tax bill, Chayefsky brought the production to the Dallas Theater Center, hoping it would avoid the glare of the powerful national and New York–based critics. He was wrong, and while some reviews were merely mixed, Chayefsky was most infuriated by the notices that praised Mostel’s performance above his own writing. The actor “was so rich, deep, comic and pitiable,” Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times. “Not particularly the play, which is more interesting than totally successful.”
A planned national tour was called off, and Chayefsky, the fading former sage of the Grand Concourse, was left contemplating a return to TV, “the best platform to express meaningful drama.” But having renounced every artistic avenue available to him, he had to wonder where he truly belonged and which, if any of them, might still take him back.
* * *
There were no perfect matches for Paddy Chayefsky, but Howard Gottfried was as close as they came. The New York–born and –bred Gottfried, a former lawyer, had made his reputation as a producer of Off-Broadway theater in the 1950s and ’60s. For a few years he decamped to Los Angeles for a job at United Artists Television, the studio behind shows such as Gilligan’s Island and The Fugitive, but he decided that West Coast living wasn’t his style and returned to New York to develop television projects for Ed Sullivan Productions. Gottfried set up shop at 1650 Broadway, near the Winter Garden Theater, and was soon introduced to Chayefsky by Noel Behn, another writer who kept his office on the illustrious eleventh floor of 850 Seventh Avenue. The lean and dapper Gottfried enjoyed dressing up for his work, and his personal manner was genial and accommodating. He could fight the battles Chayefsky wasn’t equipped for and put out the fires his partner started; he encouraged his ideas and abided his temper.
Chayefsky’s writing process was solitary and largely opaque to Gottfried, but their brainstorming sessions were cooperative and relaxed. Together, the two men would walk the streets of Manhattan, up Seventh Avenue and along the perimeter of Central Park, talking about whatever came to mind—news, sports, women. Over conversation, ideas would take shape, often from source material culled from day-to-day experiences. They were still laughing over their recent lunch with Mel Brooks when they struck a deal with CBS in July 1969 for Chayefsky to create the pilot script for a weekly series of “socially satiric” dramas.
Also fresh in Chayefsky’s mind was a three-part TV Guide series he had been reading that summer about Mike Dann, a forty-seven-year-old senior vice president at CBS who had developed shows such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. As Dann weighed the possibilities of new television projects, canceled others, and fought with Tommy Smothers over a comedy sketch about astrology, the profile presented Dann as principled and thoughtful, but also overextended and arguably overqualified—all in all, a man Chayefsky could get behind.
Thus inspired, Chayefsky wrote a pilot script for a proposed CBS television series called The Imposters, focused in part on a fictional television executive named Eddie Gresham, who held the title of vice president in charge of program development, East Coast, for an invented network called United Broadcasting System, or UBS. Like his real-life counterpart, Gresham is idealistic and well educated, with a degree from the Yale School of Drama, but he realizes deep down that television is no place for his erudite designs. As Chayefsky’s narrative description for the show puts it, “He knew by now that Eugene O’Neill wins the Nobel Prize but Bonanza draws a thirty-eight share in the ratings.”
The other protagonist of The Imposters is a comic actor named Charley Peck, “a real katzenjammer kid if there ever was one,” who is introduced to viewers over a lunch with Mel Brooks at the Carnegie Deli, where he “smokes a cigar, which never seemed to burn out.” Informed by Brooks that the ignorant UBS, in trying to keep pace with CBS’s hit broadcast of Death of a Salesman, has been trying to get in touch with the late Bertolt Brecht, Peck calls the network, impersonates the deceased playwright, and leaves his own phone number. Months later, when Gresham decides to create a television series based on The Threepenny Opera (one set in Harlem that will star Harry Belafonte as a modern-day Mack the Knife), he calls that number and arranges a meeting with the ersatz Brecht, but upon encountering him in person, he immediately sees through Peck’s deception.
Gresham, in spite of it all, is disappointed only in himself and confesses to Peck everything he believes to be wrong with the television industry.
We’re not in the business of good drama. We’re in the boredom-killing business. That’s what my job is, that’s what I do all day, think up ways of killing the boredom of two hundred million Americans. I concoct game shows and soap operas and schedule professional sports programs. I think up musical entertainments and talk shows for people who have forgotten how to talk to each other. What the hell has happened to us Americans anyway? We seem to have lost whatever identity we ever had. We used to be pioneers, homesteaders, farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, robber barons, bohemians, Whigs, Tories, rail-splitters, immigrants. Now, we’re two hundred million whiter-than-white, softer-than-soft, deodorized, standardized, simonized, plastic and programmed things, totally indistinguishable from each other, any one of us replaceable by just ordering another part from the factory.… Some curious integrity has gone out of Americans that made them curiously American. They don’t want drama, especially good drama. They just want their boredom killed.
Peck replies to him: “It’s not their integrity that’s at stake; it’s yours.”
Gresham’s Threepenny Opera idea is dismantled by his colleagues and turned into a show about “a colored junkie rock musician and a young business exec who leaves his wife and kids to go wandering around the country looking for reality.” Then, at a dinner of broadcasting industry executives at the Americana Hotel, Gresham is mistaken for the evening’s keynote speaker, Senator John O. Pastore of Rhode Island, then the powerful chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on communications. Taking the dais, he makes one last pitch for his Belafonte show, now about a Harlem congressman who’s also a preacher; this stunt saves the series but costs Gresham any future in the television business.
Later, as he and Peck take stock of these improbable events, Gresham wonders if the two of them could make a career of pretending to be people they are not. Posing a classic Chayefskyian question, Gresham asks Peck, “Well, Charley, what do you feel like doing?”
“I don’t know, Eddie,” he replies. “What do you feel like doing?”
“I feel like going to Paris,” says the invigorated Gresham, “and straightening out the peace talks.”
The Imposters was bold; it was subversive; it was trying to use the mechanisms of television to criticize television itself—and it never had a prayer of getting made. A few weeks after Chayefsky finished writing the pilot, he and Gottfried went to CBS to meet with Mike Dann, the executive who had inspired the script and who would now decide its fate. As Gottfried recalled, “We’re sitting there, and he looks us in the eye and he starts laughing. And he says, ‘You don’t really think I’m going to do this, do you?’ He meant on the air. Mike said, ‘I’m sorry—we can’t do this.’”
* * *
Television had no place for Chayefsky’s next pitch, either, a drama with the simple title The Hospital, which he described in a proposal as “a microcosm of society series”—“That is to say, the hospital represents American society, and all the stories in the series, which will be told through the hospital and its personnel, will nevertheless be satirical comments on the society as a whole.”
CBS rejected this idea, too. But he and Gottfried were committed to it, and to setting a tone that Chayefsky said was grounded in “the hardness of comedy which is based on total authenticity, and the fact that the institution itself is the star.” They decided they would instead produce it as a film, even though they had never made a movie together—Gottfried had never made a movie at all—and they brought the project to United Artists, where Chayefsky had made Marty and The Bachelor Party, and which was lately finding success with provocative contemporary dramas such as In the Heat of the Night and Midnight Cowboy. In 1970 the studio gave Chayefsky and Gottfried a two-picture deal whose first entry, the collaborators decided, would be this film, which they variously called The Latent Humanitarian and Right Smack into the Wind, though in time they came back to the original title, The Hospital. Their working arrangement with the studio offered them considerable freedom from its supervision and almost total control over their output.
“They didn’t bother you,” Gottfried said. “Once you got going, you were on your own.”
There was the usual behind-the-scenes butting of heads. United Artists wanted Walter Matthau to play the lead character, Dr. Herbert Bock, whose asphyxiation-by-bureaucracy at the Manhattan hospital where he is chief of medicine parallels the isolation, depression, and sexual impotence he endures in his personal life; but Chayefsky and Gottfried got their choice: George C. Scott. The filmmakers wanted Arthur Hiller, who had directed The Americanization of Emily and was a hot commodity coming off Love Story, to direct; the studio wanted the less costly and less accomplished Michael Ritchie. United Artists briefly prevailed, until Chayefsky declared that he “just couldn’t work” with Ritchie, and Hiller was in.
The setting of The Hospital is the interior of the Metropolitan Hospital Center at 1901 First Avenue, a dilapidated labyrinth of green tiles, cream-colored walls, and rusty steel beds that was nearly one hundred years old at the time of the film’s 1971 release. Scott, who offscreen was fighting the collapse of his marriage to Colleen Dewhurst (for the second time, after they had divorced in 1965 and remarried in 1967) and a lifelong battle with alcohol, gives a commanding performance as the supremely disillusioned yet steadfastly resolute Bock; he earned an Academy Award nomination for the performance and might well have won, had he not refused the honor the previous year, when he was named Best Actor for Patton. There is even an uncredited cameo from Chayefsky himself, who, with amused detachment and his avuncular Bronx dialect, narrates the opening story of a freshly arrived hospital patient who in a matter of hours is misdiagnosed to death.
Still, the star of the film is Chayefsky’s screenplay, a self-sustaining ecosystem of perfect frustration in which each of the three dozen speaking characters—doctors, nurses, administrators, patients, police officers, political radicals, subordinates, and flunkies—possesses a set of desires, vexations, and excuses that thwarts the wishes of someone elsewhere in the chain. This engine boils over in a few eruptive monologues, none more furious than one delivered by Bock on the night of an ominous and fateful rainstorm, just before he beds a free-spirited visitor played by Diana Rigg and explains to her why he has “lost even my desire for work, which is a hell of a lot more primal a passion than sex.”
I’ve lost my raison d’etre, my purpose, the only thing I ever truly loved. It’s all rubbish anyway. Transplants, antibodies, we manufacture genes, we can produce ectogenically, we can practically clone people like carrots, and half the kids in this ghetto haven’t even been inoculated for polio! We have assembled the most enormous medical establishment ever conceived, and people are sicker than ever! We cure nothing! We heal nothing! The whole goddam wretched world is strangulating in front of our eyes!
When his original screenplay for The Hospital won an Academy Award in April 1972, Chayefsky gave a brief acceptance speech, offering a mere forty-seven words about privilege, gratified feelings, and a spirit of solidarity with Ernest Tidyman, who had just won his own Oscar for the adapted screenplay of The French Connection. (Tidyman, whose mother had told him she wanted to see him victorious that night, said he replied, “Those other four guys, they got mothers, too.”) It would be years before the public again heard Chayefsky express himself in any meaningful way.
* * *
With the second Oscar of his career in hand, Chayefsky once again found himself the recipient of Hollywood’s awkward and unwanted advances. Warren Beatty, who had befriended Chayefsky along with his office neighbors Bob Fosse and Herb Gardner, recalled the screenwriter as shying away from schmoozy West Coast gatherings, too retreating or befuddled to accept an invitation to visit the Playboy Mansion and its pajama-clad proprietor, Hugh Hefner. “I remember he told me that someone had asked him to go up to Hefner’s,” Beatty said. “It was not I who asked him to go, he was just telling me someone had asked him to. There was a time at Hefner’s when every political columnist, et cetera, was up there—you know, studying. And he said, ‘Why would I want to go up there, and sit in a Jacuzzi and be pushed away from the wall?’”
Prior to the months he spent researching the screenplay for The Hospital—surveying scientific journals, interviewing professionals, and reviewing documents to learn the structure and language of such institutions—Chayefsky had gained some personal familiarity with modern medicine. He had been diagnosed with depression and had moved on from traditional psychoanalysis and cognitive therapy to newer and more unconventional treatments, including the drug Elavil, a pill prescribed to treat depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, as well as the occasional attempt at transcendental meditation.
Like her husband, Susan Chayefsky had tried psychoanalysis in the 1950s, a period when she also enrolled in and withdrew from Columbia University and attempted working as a children’s photographer before giving up the pursuit. This peripatetic pattern became the norm in the years and decades that followed, during which she was unable to settle into a steady vocation, beyond her role providing constant support to Paddy in his own career. “She was very, very talented,” said Dan Chayefsky, the couple’s son, “and remarkably unfulfilled in expressing that talent. And it made her very unhappy. I think it must have been hard for her to be part of that era, of women that didn’t have a voice of their own.”
As Dan Chayefsky would later recall, his mother had always been an introverted and reclusive person. “She was a perfectionist, and that made life impossible for her,” he said. “If she wanted to go out with my dad, she had to look perfect. And that makes it too exhausting, after doing that a lot.” But then she started having outright panic attacks, losing control of her body when she became overwhelmed from being out of doors or simply from the fear that she might have to leave her home. In one instance she went into a frenzy inside a public telephone booth; in another, a doctor had to be summoned to the living room of the Chayefskys’ apartment, where he found Susan on the floor writhing in pain from the muscle spasms shooting through her legs. Eventually, she was diagnosed with an adult-onset form of muscular dystrophy—untreatable at that time and most assuredly incurable—and this disease, Dan said, “reflected her fear of people. It almost gave her withdrawal a cause.”
Dan himself had been growing into a strong-willed teenager, and though he was hardly the “shaggy-haired Maoist” whom Bock decries in The Hospital, his father was finding it increasingly difficult to relate to him. The values of this new generation were a mystery to Paddy Chayefsky, and he was equally enigmatic to the young and vocal son who saw him as a sullen, withdrawn father. “He was a fortress, my dad,” Dan later said of Paddy. “He would occasionally come out and talk to people from the window. And sometimes he’d invite them into the fortress, and then at the end of the day, you’d leave the fortress again.”
Dan could sense “a tremendous amount of combustion” at home, created by the tense dynamics of the stubborn Chayefsky family, and felt that even though his father loved him, Paddy was never completely satisfied with him, either. “He had a very, very strong agenda of what he wanted to see his child grow up to be,” Dan said, “and I never fulfilled that for him. It was very, very hard for him and it was very, very hard for me, failing, and him being disappointed.”
In his late teens and early twenties, Dan began to exhibit self-destructive tendencies that were at times so fierce that his parents could not be around him. At one point, the family even attempted a trial separation of sorts: for about three months, Dan remained by himself in the family apartment, while Paddy and Susan moved into a room at the Hotel Navarro on Central Park South. On other occasions, Dan was sent to a rehabilitation facility to be monitored and to undergo treatment, which required him to drop out of college while his father told friends that his son had gone to live on a commune. “I was just very self-destructive and very lost,” Dan explained. “It was considered advisable that I would get residential treatment at the time. So I was there for a couple of years.”
Paddy Chayefsky was attracted to many forms of chaos, but not the kind he encountered on his own doorstep; he found it sufficiently difficult to work from home when it was calm, and as his family life became more volatile, he turned increasingly to his office and to his writing for sanctuary. “It’s almost like he took what was not working in the world around him and he brought this bonfire to his office, and he made something out of it creatively,” Dan said. “And the only time he was really happy was when he wrote. Even my mom said she had to get used to the fact that he loved writing more than his marriage.”
In his personal politics, Paddy Chayefsky rarely aligned himself with particular causes or parties for very long, and resisted efforts to apply simplistic labels to him. He was simultaneously a veteran of World War II and the screenwriter of The Americanization of Emily, which did not present the U.S. military in an entirely star-spangled light. And when he had strong feelings about affairs of state, he took his complaints to the top of the chain of command. In drafts of a letter to President Richard M. Nixon in 1971, Chayefsky wrote that he was not some “new-Mobe militant or placard carrier,” but rather “a careful man who keeps his own counsel and has almost a horror of making a public issue of my principles or my conscience.” He went on to say, “I have had and do not have now any simplistic feelings about the war in Vietnam. I have been against it for years because I thought it was a stupid and utterly unnecessary war whose principal victim would be the United States.” Even so, Chayefsky said he had to speak out about horrors such as the My Lai massacre because, as he wrote, “We are becoming a nation of good Germans, and if we don’t watch out we’re going to become a nation of bad Germans.”
At the same time, a growing fixation on the affairs of Israel was becoming increasingly apparent in his public remarks. Themes of Jewish culture and history had recurred throughout his work, but Chayefsky, who had traveled to Israel in 1960 and again in 1968, for Dan’s bar mitzvah, possessed a more aggressive and admittedly paranoid streak. He revealed this side of himself in a long, discursive interview with Women’s Wear Daily in 1971. In it, he said he believed all Jews around the world were in danger of imminent genocide. “Six million went up with a snap of the finger last time, and there is little reason to assume anybody’s going to protect the other 12 million still extant,” he said, adding that the risk was especially great in the United States: “There’s a lot of anti-Semitism in America, real gutter Munich stuff. You hear it in the New Left: ‘Kill the kosher pigs.’”
“Somebody wrote it—a Jew is a man with one bag packed in the hall closet at all times,” Chayefsky went on. And, he said, “Israel is that place you go when you have to grab the bag.”
During this period, Chayefsky changed the title of his personal company from Sidney Productions, reflecting his given name, to Simcha Productions, in honor of its Hebrew equivalent. On a visit to Washington to see a performance by the stand-up comedian David Steinberg, Chayefsky heard someone in the audience call Steinberg a “mocky,” an obscure Jewish slur. At the end of the night, Chayefsky and Steinberg found themselves in an elevator with the man who Chayefsky presumed was the heckler.
“I don’t know that it’s that guy,” Steinberg would later recall, “and Paddy recognizes the guy immediately. And he says to him, ‘Are you the guy that was heckling him?’ This is a big guy, and he starts stammering. Paddy goes, ‘You call him a mocky, you call all of us a mocky.’ And he didn’t put him up against the wall like you do in the movies, but he had his finger right in this guy’s chest.
“This guy was bigger than Paddy,” Steinberg added, “and [Paddy] just was at him.”
Privately, Chayefsky channeled his fervor into uncredited advertisements for the Anti-Defamation League, such as an announcement published at the height of the 1973 oil crisis that warned, “These Arabs would like you to believe that if we give in to their blackmail and change our Mid-East policy everything will be just like it used to be.” After an earlier trip to Israel in 1971, he had started writing a screenplay set in the West Bank about a pair of police officers, one Israeli and one Arab, whose amicable partnership collapses as they investigate a murder case. Then he dropped this idea and started over with a different scenario.
For the screenplay he called The Habakkuk Conspiracy, Chayefsky opened his story in the autumn of 1947, during the final, anarchic days of the British Mandate in Palestine. A prologue introduces a young scholar named Yakov Amiel, a Palestinian Jew who is traveling to Jerusalem in possession of three ancient leather scrolls. He is harangued on a bus (“There is a Jew dog here! Jew dog! Jew dog! I shall slice his Jew head off!” screams one excitable merchant), is beaten by Arab men, and finally has his throat slit “from ear to ear” by an assassin who makes off with his priceless artifacts: these turn out to be no less than the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The action then shifts to two other characters. One is Yakov’s younger brother, Micha, a nineteen-year-old militant who is hungry to avenge the murder and reclaim the stolen treasures. The other is Yakov’s widow, Elizabeth, a twenty-five-year-old British woman torn between her loyalty to her dead husband and her desire to escape the Middle East entirely. She is gradually won over to the Jewish cause by violent circumstances and the passions of Micha, who argues like a man more than twice his age. In a speech he delivers as “his ascetic passion explodes,” he tells Elizabeth:
I’ll tell you about your civilized world! For two thousand years, we Jews have depended on the civilized world for our survival. And for two thousand years, Jews have been crucified, burnt at the stake, thrown to the lions, to the ovens, to the gas chambers, crushed into ghettoes, forcibly converted, exiled, deported, slaughtered by Cossacks and peasants, Turks, Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, anybody and everybody, popes and Protestants and every mad minister from Haman to Hitler—and I’m tired of it! There’s just a couple million of us left, goddamit! We’re an endangered species! So we don’t trust the civilized world any more! We’ll take care of our own survival! Don’t come to me with your bloody Christian hands and scold me about killing. We don’t kill for conquest and empire, for profit and power! All we want is our home, the land of our forefathers, a patch of desert and swamp smaller than the state of Connecticut you’re going to live in. Where a Jew can walk in his own streets and not tremble before every gutter politician and street mob! We kill to survive! We kill so that we and our descendants shall live! When you’re stripped to survival, maybe you’ll understand that!
The film ends with Elizabeth striking “the figure of the fighting guerrilla, committed, triumphant,” as she shoots dead the last of a squad of British police officers pursuing her; and then a scene showing the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Jewish birthright, safely on display in the present day at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Chayefsky and Gottfried made one more trip to Israel in 1973, to scout locations for The Habakkuk Conspiracy, which they planned to make as the fulfillment of their two-movie agreement with United Artists. But the project was halted before work could go any further. For one thing, the studio had an arrangement with Otto Preminger to make his suspense film Rosebud, which similarly featured undercover Israelis and Middle Eastern terrorists and dealt with issues of Zionism in its story of a hostage crisis on a luxury yacht. Additionally, Chayefsky and Gottfried had become uncomfortable with the United Artists deal, whose terms required them to apply their profits from The Hospital to the production of their follow-up film. “Now, one might say it was in the contract,” Gottfried said. “But at that time, we wanted to make The Hospital. And I was unknown, so to speak.”
Maurice Spanbock, Chayefsky’s lawyer, said that rapid modernization in the Middle East had made it all but impossible for Israel to stand in for its pre-independence self. “They could have made it elsewhere,” Spanbock recalled, “but they said they couldn’t make it in Jerusalem because there were television antennae all over the place.” And the volatile nature of the script was also a strike against it. “One could read into it the fact that it wasn’t done,” said Spanbock. “You knew it obviously was coming up in a political world. But I never heard that articulated. You could make whatever surmise you elected to.”
The outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October of that year ensured that The Habakkuk Conspiracy would not be filmed soon, though United Artists retained ownership of the screenplay and regarded its deal with Chayefsky as completed. With nothing going forward at the studio, he and Gottfried began to question why United Artists was selling the television broadcast rights for The Hospital in a package with other less successful (or unsuccessful) features, a common industry practice that they said cheapened the value of their film. “Each of the movies in that package would get a sum of money,” Gottfried explained. “But the result of the bundling was that they broke up the fee for the whole bundle, and the bundle usually consisted of maybe one or two hit films, and some of their bum films that were not worth a nickel. They certainly weren’t worth what The Hospital was worth.” He and Chayefsky threatened legal action, putting a chill on their relationship with United Artists.
Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service had begun tightening its rules about commercially failed independent films and set its sights on Chayefsky’s 1958 movie The Goddess. The film, which stars Kim Stanley as a distraught screen idol not unlike Marilyn Monroe, had lost more than $700,000 when it was released by Columbia Pictures. Chayefsky produced it through an independent company using money from Columbia, and then spent the next decade and a half writing off the loss on his taxes as if it were a conventional loan from the studio. But now the IRS said The Goddess was Columbia’s property and thus Chayefsky, who had stood to receive half the film’s profits if it made any, had nothing to depreciate. When a court ruled against him in February 1973, Chayefsky was stuck with a tax bill of $86,770, plus a $5,248 penalty for late filing.
With his back to the wall, Chayefsky resumed pitching television projects, but a set of ideas he presented to NBC in 1974 were dispiritingly conventional and rang with the desperate echo of a man who was writing for his life. They included The Rabbi Mystery Show, which he described as “an hour mystery show in which the main character is a revered and retired old rabbi, a scholar and a mystic, one of whose sons happens to be an officer in Homicide Manhattan South or North. (Or Queens or the Bronx or whatever),” and The Stage Mother, “a half-hour sitcom about a woman with two daughters, one of whom is a model and the other (a teenager) is being hustled by her mother for commercials and movie bits.”
The concept that came closest to the airwaves was a situation comedy that would have starred James Coco as a newly divorced man adjusting to the unfamiliar singles scene in New York City. The project, which was essentially Chayefsky’s attempt at re-creating Marty twenty years after the fact, was originally titled Starting Over, and then, in a familiar mouthful, So What Do You Feel Like Doing Tonight?, and finally, Your Place or Mine. It was produced as a pilot for NBC in March 1974 and directed by Delbert Mann, who had handled both the television and film versions of Marty. But somehow, Chayefsky’s heart was not in the material. “He said he could not master it,” Dan Chayefsky recalled. “He was very involved in it, and then, after a certain amount of time, he didn’t see it—he couldn’t bring it to fruition.” Nor could NBC, which chose not to commission a series from it.
Paddy Chayefsky wasn’t welcome at home, he wasn’t wanted for the only work he knew how to do, and he wasn’t certain there would be a future for the world in which he lived. He was running out of options, and something, somewhere, had to give.
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Itzkoff