We'll all be dancing on the rings of Saturn before we see another Golden Age of Television. What made it golden is that for a few fleeting years, television was a writer's medium. Now, of course, it is a committee's medium, evolving into a computer's medium.

Of all the original live dramas the era produced, few remain as trenchant and affecting as "Marty," to be shown again tonight at 8 on Channel 26 as part of a continuing "Golden Age" retrospective. The play was scheduled before the recent death of its author, Paddy Chayefsky, so its rebroadcast -- the first in 28 years -- makes an accidental but apt memorial tribute.

(TV was a producer's medium then, too, and this "Goodyear Playhouse" presentation, like many other live video dramas of its day, was produced by Fred Coe, who later directed the film "A Thousand Clowns" and who died in 1979).

Dated only in superficial ways -- many of them having to do with the technological limitations of early TV cameras and studios -- "Marty" kept much of a nation enthralled one Sunday night in 1953 with the spare, sketchy account of an incipient romance between a 36-year-old Bronx butcher and the 29-year-old high school teacher he meets at a seedy dance hall.

Some plays are ripped from the headlines and some are ripped from the heart. Chayefsky opened a vein and "Marty" came out, tender and sweet and sad and yet safely in a realm beyond pathos. Chayefsky breathed subtle and stirring dignity into the homely and overweight mama's boy who repeatedly calls himself "a fat, ugly little man," and who always has to be fixed up with a date on New Year's Eve.

Chayefsky had, among other talents, a knack for the vernacular. His barroom dialogue between Marty and another unmarried galoot is familiar to people who've never seen the original play: "Well, whaddayou feel like doin' tonight?" "I don't know. Whaddayou feel like doin'?" "Well. We oughta do somethin'. It's Saturday night."

Soon Marty is on the phone trying with pure futility to make a date with a girl he'd met a week earlier. "Come on now, you remember me," he says into the phone. "I'm the stocky one." Marty's mother tells him the Waverly Ballroom is "loaded with tomatoes," and reluctantly Marty goes there, to stand among the wayward ranks of the unattached. A man offers him five bucks to take a blind date, "a dog," off his hands, and though Marty refuses, he later meets the woman on a balcony, where she is sobbing.

"Marty" is the story of two lives saved from joylessness because they happen to intersect. As a portrayal of loneliness, it is timeless; it is also a play about the profound necessity of simple companionship. Chayefsky was writing about human needs long before they had been codified into the cliche's of the '70s, and what "Marty" has to say in its final act on the topic of misogyny couldn't be said better today even by a consciousness raised to the rafters.

Rod Steiger's performance as Marty is more than a study in despair and alienation; he lets the ugliness of Marty's self-pity show through. Nancy Marchand as the teacher leans toward caricature, at least at first; she's angst with a purse. But overall, the performances are as shrewdly economical as the script.

In snippets of interviews stitched -- very badly -- together at the beginning of the hour, some of the surviving principals talk about the play. Marchand, now Mrs. Pynchon on "Lou Grant," recalls of the era, "It was like going to California in a covered wagon. We were all pioneers." Betsy Palmer says Steiger was so overcome with the play that he wept at rehearsals.

Steiger himself says the role was originally written for Martin Ritt, but Ritt was a victim of the blacklisting of the early '50s, so Steiger got the part. Ritt went on to direct films such as "Norma Rae," "Conrack" and "The Front," a 'Marty's' Magic Paddy Chayefsky's Classic TV Play Returns on PBS By Tom Shales Washington Post Staff Writer

We'll all be dancing on the rings of Saturn before we see another Golden Age of Television. What made it golden is that for a few fleeting years, television was a writer's medium. Now, of course, it is a committee's medium, evolving into a computer's medium.

Of all the original live dramas the era produced, few remain as trenchant and affecting as "Marty," to be shown again tonight at 8 on Channel 26 as part of a continuing "Golden Age" retrospective. The play was scheduled before the recent death of its author, Paddy Chayefsky, so its rebroadcast -- the first in 28 years -- makes an accidental but apt memorial tribute.

(TV was a producer's medium then, too, and this "Goodyear Playhouse" presentation, like many other live video dramas of its day, was produced by Fred Coe, who later directed the film "A Thousand Clowns" and who died in 1979).

Dated only in superficial ways -- many of them having to do with the technological limitations of early TV cameras and studios -- "Marty" kept much of a nation enthralled one Sunday night in 1953 with the spare, sketchy account of an incipient romance between a 36-year-old Bronx butcher and the 29-year-old high school teacher he meets at a seedy dance hall.

Some plays are ripped from the headlines and some are ripped from the heart. Chayefsky opened a vein and "Marty" came out, tender and sweet and sad and yet safely in a realm beyond pathos. Chayefsky See MARTY, B9, Col. 2 MARTY, From B1 breathed subtle and stirring dignity into the homely and overweight mama's boy who repeatedly calls himself "a fat, ugly little man," and who always has to be fixed up with a date on New Year's Eve.

Chayefsky had, among other talents, a knack for the vernacular. His barroom dialogue between Marty and another unmarried galoot is familiar to people who've never seen the original play: "Well, whaddayou feel like doin' tonight?" "I don't know. Whaddayou feel like doin'?" "Well. We oughta do somethin'. It's Saturday night."

Soon Marty is on the phone trying with pure futility to make a date with a girl he'd met a week earlier. "Come on now, you remember me," he says into the phone. "I'm the stocky one." Marty's mother tells him the Waverly Ballroom is "loaded with tomatoes," and reluctantly Marty goes there, to stand among the wayward ranks of the unattached. A man offers him five bucks to take a blind date, "a dog," off his hands, and though Marty refuses, he later meets the woman on a balcony, where she is sobbing.

"Marty" is the story of two lives saved from joylessness because they happen to intersect. As a portrayal of loneliness, it is timeless; it is also a play about the profound necessity of simple companionship. Chayefsky was writing about human needs long before they had been codified into the cliche's of the '70s, and what "Marty" has to say in its final act on the topic of misogyny couldn't be said better today even by a consciousness raised to the rafters.

Rod Steiger's performance as Marty is more than a study in despair and alienation; he lets the ugliness of Marty's self-pity show through. Nancy Marchand as the teacher leans toward caricature, at least at first; she's angst with a purse. But overall, the performances are as shrewdly economical as the script.

In snippets of interviews stitched -- very badly -- together at the beginning of the hour, some of the surviving principals talk about the play. Marchand, now Mrs. Pynchon on "Lou Grant," recalls of the era, "It was like going to California in a covered wagon. We were all pioneers." Betsy Palmer says Steiger was so overcome with the play that he wept at rehearsals.

Steiger himself says the role was originally written for Martin Ritt, but Ritt was a victim of the blacklisting of the early '50s, so Steiger got the part. Ritt went on to direct films such as "Norma Rae," "Conrack" and "The Front," a comedy-drama about blacklisting.

And Delbert Mann, the director, remembers getting a hold of the script and wondering along with other members of the team, "Is this as good as we really think it is?" That's something most of the people working in network television today never have to worry about. They only have to worry about getting up the nerve to show their faces in public.

The kinescope of "Marty" transferred to tape for this airing is in poor condition, worse than many movies which are half a century old; some of the plays of early TV were virtual art compared to today's tale charades but they were treated like journalism. Maybe nobody thought people in 1981 would care about a play that was televised and then evaporated into electrons in 1953.

"Marty" should have been shown EXACTLY as it was first televised. But no. Instead of working harder to improve the sound and picture quality of the old recording, the producers lopped off the original opening of the broadcast and threw it away. It was probably discarded because it included identification of the program's sponsor, Goodyear, but a 28-year-old commercial is not a commercial. It is a peep of cultural history.

"Marty" is a pearl that merits a finer setting than the one slapped together by public TV drones. It deserves respect, especially from those who, with all the technical refinements of television today, couldn't duplicate it to save their souls.