With the possible exception of his own death, Paddy Chayefsky never took anything lying down.
This, at least, was the prevailing perception of his public and professional life -- that of a feisty irascible, unapologetic iconoclast -- and it would be nice to think he ws faithful to it to the end. The end came Saturday when Paddy Chayefsky died, of cancer, in New York.
Although his first fat fame as a writer came with the gentle and beautifully crafted TV play "Marty," a cornerstone of the Golden Age of live drama in television, Chayefsky scored major successes in the '70s with two boisterous and ferocious scoial comedies, the films "Network" and "The Hospital."
His image as an angry middle-aged man, a sanguine scolder and mensch , was bolstered in front of millions of TV viewers at the 1978 Academy Awards ceremonies, when, before presenting the Oscar for best screenplay, he rebuked actress Vanessa Redgrave for using her acceptance speech as a forum for anti-Zionist claptrap earlier that evening.
"I am sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda," growled the man with the tidy, academical beard and the strangely cuddly nickname (real name: Sidney). Some cheered this, some booed this, but Paddy Chayefsky had, again, had his say, or rather, his roar.
To be perhaps appropriately overblown about it, it might be said that Paddy Chayefsky was a passionate man in an incresingly passionless age. His work never went out of vogue or go to be old-hat -- last year he wrote, though later disowned, the screenplay for the hit film "Altered States" -- but many may have thought of him, and he may have thought of himself, as a lone ranter for reason, a man who might have been a street-corner philosopher if he hadn't been blessed with a gift for occasionally exquisite and invariably fervent dramaturgy.
Both his attitudes and his prowess for recognizing marketable sentiments and frustrations were summed up in the catch-phrase that his "Network" contributed to American life in the frustrating '70s: "I'm as mand as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more."
Protesting that "Network" was not an attack on the television business but a "social commentary," Chayefsky once said, "It's about the dehumanization of the world. The whole world is going that way; we just happen to be the first ones there."
On screen, his characters fought, sometimes hopelessly, against outrages and oppressions meted out by corporate demagogues. Off screen, Paddy Chayefsky was a tireless scrapper for his own rights as a creative if solidly commercial artist. In a May interview with Robert F. Moss of Saturday Review, the author complained of the way director Ken Russell had treated "Altered States" and explained why he took his name off the screenwriting credit, replacing it with the pseudonym Sidney Aaron: "The difference between my script and what Russell did with it is the difference between art and hyperbole."
In his later works, Paddy Chayefsky committed hyperboles of his own, but in his early plays for live television, he composed economical, straightforward and affecting character studies and social portraits. Within the space of a few dazzling years, he wrote "Marty," "The Bachelor Party," "Middle of the Night" and "A Catered Affair," all of which were later made into motion pictures.
There really was a Golden Age of live drama -- those who refer to it as "the so-claled golden age" are usually apologists for the dominant mediocrity of modern-day television -- and Paddy Chayefsky was one of the chief creative architects. He and other writers like Reginald Rose and Rod Serling saw television as enticingly virgin territory, a place to perfect their skills. But more than that, television offered awesome possibilities for a new and truly national theater, piercingly intimate yet with access to the widest audience a playwright had ever known.
He looked back on the period later as "bohemia" and said that the rewards were all in terms of experience and challenge, not money -- "We were all broke and we worked for nothing." He was paid a mere $900 to write the original script for "Marty," perhaps the single most distinguished landmark of TV's ambitious infancy (a kinescope recording fo the original live play, with Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand, will be aired later this monty by PBS).
"Marty," which told of the romance of a Bronx butcher, set the new tone for TV drama; it made brilliant use of television's qualities. Its leap into the public consciousnes was perhaps best verified by the way people picked up on the sparse realism of the dialogue. To this day a casual conversation about an evening's plans may include a paraphrase of Paddy Chayefsky: "Whaddya wanna do tonight?" I dunno, Marty. Whaddyou wanna do?"
In an interview with fellow writer Max Wilk for Wilk's 1976 book "The Golden Age of Television," Paddy Chayefsky recalled that he once wrote the script for a TV drama in three days, noting that the script for "Hospital" had taken 11 months and the drawing up for contracts by lawyers to make the deal for the film took 12 months.
"Back in those days, we had so much more latitude," he told Wilk. "If you had an idea for a story, it didn't have to be a blockbuster. The way it has become today, you can't deal in small stories about people. And I must say, I think that sort of portraiture is the best thing you can do for the TV screen.
"Sure, we were stuck with every possible technical difficulty. None of the Hollywood efficiency. We were doing those shows out of old radio studios that ha been rebuilt, with ceilings about nine feet high, no place to put the lights, nothing elaborate in the way of scenery. But when you were stuck with those restrictions, the writing had to be better. You had to accommodate the difficulties. Go out to Hollywood, and they hand you everything in the world -- except the need to do imaginative work."
The networks killed live drama late in the '50s when, led by the lamentable example of ABC and Warner Bros., CBS and NBC also decided it would be cheaper and less trouble to fill prime-time with filmed programming cranked out witlessly in La-La Land.
When he returned to television, for the purpose of using it as a manic metaphor in "Network," the writer insisted he wasn't settling any scores or indulging in vendetta. ABC's Barbara Walters, among the television figures who denounced the film as "unfair," said, "It is obviously the result of Paddy Chayefsky's bitterness toward what happened to him in television." To which the author responded, "I've never had any bitter experiences in television," though he did concede that a pilot project he had submitted to a network a few years earlier never made it past the usual numerous phalanxes of network executives.
"I'm really glad it was turned down," he said, "because I wouldn't want to have to be hysterical all the time. Television is an hysterical medium. They really do go crazy seven days a week."
Though he insisted he had no personal hostilities toward the people running television, he did acknowledge that he wa completely appalled by its unequivocal surrender to ratings and profits. No Paddy Chayefsky movie was complete without a Great Speech, and, in "Network," it was William Holden who got to speak it, playing the fired head of a network news division who accuses his replacement, who is also his mistress (Faye Dunaway),of having made the ultimate sell-out:
"You are television incarnate, Diana -- indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death, are all the same to you as bottles of beer. The daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into jagged fragments of minutes, split-seconds and instant replays. You are madness, Diana, virulent madness, and whatever you touch dies with you."
Although he was hurt that some of his friends in broadcasting took the movie personally, Paddy Chayefsky said later he had no regrets about voicing such sentiments. "I meant every word of it," he said. "I watch television and I become numb."
He complained about the way his dialogue was spoken in "Altered States," but the lines were still his, and the reflect his outlook as he approached 60 and confessed himself increasingly impatient with "all the bull----" that he'd had to deal with in protecting his work from directors, producers, sponsors and executives over the years.
The hero of the film is descried in its first reel as "a Faust freak," who would sell his soul "to find the great truth," but at the end of the film, after several traumatic benders in isolation tanks that send him all the way back to the primordial first burp of the human race, he tells the woman who loves him, "The final truth of all things is that there is no final truth. Truth is what's transitory. It's human life that is real."
In a movie that he did not write, "Citizen Kane," another hero, of sorts, is asked by a banker what he would like to have become in life. And Kane replies to the banker, "Everything you hate." Paddy Chayefsky made lots of money for lots of people, including himself, with the movies and books and TV dramas he wrote, but he wore his cantankerousness and fanaticism as badges of honor, which they were. So that he could have said at any time to powers-that-be that even in his succes he was still able to represent, to some extent, everything they hated -- individualism, artistic possessiveness, independence, trouble.
Paddy Chayefsky was indisputably the embodiment of what people mean when they say of anyone, "He puts his heart into his work." His heart, his spleen and -- yes, if people really have such things -- his soul.