Books

02.16.14

Paddy Chayefsky: The Dark Prophet of ‘Network’ News

The 1976 movie darkly foretold the future of television news. Dave Itzkoff’s new book describes the drama behind the scenes, and the making of its screenwriter’s mordant vision.

You know the phrase even if you don’t know, or have never seen, the film. You may have have seen it on a best-film-clips-ever TV show. You may have heard it bellowed parodically by a comic, bug-eyed and sweating: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” It was originally spoken by Peter Finch in his most famous scene as Howard Beale, the distressed, exploited newsreader of the 1976 movie Network, who is murdered live on-screen by his bosses for ratings. 

The film, about a TV corporation’s ruthless, extreme determination to sensationalize its news show for a higher audience share, is both satire and—as it depressingly turned out—prescient prophecy. Dave Itzkoff’s book, Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, both meticulously reconstructs the making of the film and sketches, with depth and sensitivity, the complex, troubled life of its screenwriter-creator Paddy Chayefsky.

Itzkoff, a culture reporter at the New York Times, shows how Network came to be in a world where independent, intelligent films like Easy Rider, The French Connection, Taxi Driver, and All The President’s Men were proving their mettle alongside mainstream fare like The Towering Inferno, Airport and King Kong. A real world of upheaval was also unfolding, in which, for example, a 1976 bomb at La Guardia airport had killed 11 people. The radical group featured in Network, who eventually inspire their own primetime show, was modeled on groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army.

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Paddy Chayefsky (1923 - 1981) smokes a cigarette while seated behind a typewriter. He wears a tweed jacket and a tie. (Walter Daran/Hulton Archive/Getty )

Beale was born of Chayefsky’s many frustrations. “Where others avoided conflict, he cultivated it and embraced it,” Itzkoff writes. “His fury nourished him, making him intense and unpredictable, but also keeping him focused and productive.” He wasn’t violent or a drunk. “But he knew what it was like to have desires and see them denied.” Compliments would earn their deliverer a stream of invective, while an insult or dirty joke “would earn his respect.”

Chayefsky’s best-known characters were “thwarted people who feared nothing so much as unfulfillment.” Their struggle “for a minimal amount of autonomy” mirrored Chayefsky’s refusal to cede control in his life and work. He was the rare writer who had supremacy over his directors and producers, though his intense, nervous presence on the edge of movie sets was off-putting. He wanted to make sure not a word of his was changed and that every word was delivered as he intended it. Itzkoff shows how consumed Chayefsky was with saying something definitive.

The stocky, intense son of immigrant parents, Chayefksy was born and raised in the Bronx. His parents weren’t great writers, but they were readers, he said. He was named Sydney, but renamed Paddy by an army senior when Chayefsky told him one day he couldn’t attend a training exercise because he had to go to Mass. Chayefsky first set words down on paper after convalescing from injuries suffered from an exploding landmine. He co-wrote a musical, then wrote for radio and television.

The writer-for-TV, Chayefsky said, had his words mangled, and was treated with a mixture of mock deference and outright contempt. Still, he wrote 10 plays for NBC in the mid-1950s, including his most famous, Marty, about a socially awkward man who falls in love. It would later be made into a film and win him his first Oscar in 1955 (for Best Adapted Screenplay), as well as the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Rod Steiger, who played Marty in the TV version, said later the central character seemed like Chayefsky to him, in being “hungry for love.” Throughout the book, Chayefsky comes across as, variously, intensely troubled, a huge egomaniac and control freak, dispirited about the world, wryly comic, and a both present and absent family man. 

An Oscar didn’t seal a smooth, glittering career path for Chayefsky. His theater directorial debut, The Passion of Josef D., was not well received in 1964. In the run-up to Network, he created a series for CBS called The Imposters, another satire of television. A lead character noted that Eugene O’Neill might win the Nobel Prize, “but Bonanza draws a 38 share in the ratings,” and that “Americans don’t want drama, especially good drama, they just want their boredom killed.” CBS nixed it. But Chayefsky’s dark, satirical voice won him another Oscar in 1972 for Best Original Screenplay for The Hospital, whose lead character presides over a hospital and private life both falling apart.

In his own life, Chayefsky’s wife Susan, who already lived in private isolation, would be diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, while his son Dan reveals to Itzkoff that he was a self-destructive teen who brought more pressure to the family home. Chayefsky retreated to his office; he loved writing more than his marriage, Dan says. At the time of making Network, Chayefsky thought anti-Semitism was increasing exponentially, and he was paranoid about growing Arab influence in the world. He had awful tax problems. His career was in a tailspin.

As he worked on Network, Itzkoff shows, the fiercely critical and self-critical Chayefsky scored his script with admonishing notes as he tried to ascertain how the characters fit together, mulling whether they were allegorical figures or caricatures. “The Show Lacks A Point of View,” he underlined, next to gentler notes to himself: “I guess what bothers me is that the picture seems to have no ultimate statement beyond the idea that a network would kill for ratings,” and “We are making some kind of statement about American society, and its lack of clarity is what’s bothering me. Even more, I’m not taking a stand—I’m not for anything or anyone—If we give Howard a speech at the end of the show, what would he say?”

The film, Itzkoff says, was always a “bundle of contradictions,” an exercise in populist Hollywood filmmaking “expressed by a man who never subscribed to the movement.” One mass medium (film) was being used to indict another (TV), as well as what Chayefsky saw as the degradation of contemporary life. He hated TV for chasing fads and its vacuousness, but also because it paid him too little, notes Itzkoff dryly. He goes on to relate a great story of Chayefsky, his producer and friend Howard Gottfried and Mel Brooks having lunch in the Carnegie Deli. Brooks decides—as a joke to show just how stupid TV people are—to see if if he can get, on the phone right then and there, a TV producer to commission a drama of The Threepenny Opera. Brooks goes through to NBC’s drama department and convinces a TV producer he is the (risen from the dead) Bertolt Brecht (“Berrrrrrtolt Breeecht”), keen to sell the TV rights.

Researching Network, Chayefsky trailed Richard Wald, then president of NBC News. He met with then über-anchors John Chancellor and Walter Cronkite. In 1974, a Florida local news anchor, Christine Chubbuck, committed suicide live on air. Chayefsky observed the heightened tone of local news—the folksy smiles of its hosts alongside the sex and murder agenda of the newscasts themselves—and saw it infecting network broadcasts. When you watch Network now, even the extremest of conversations—the idea of actually killing someone live on air—is not an exactly alien stretch of our reality TV-soaked imaginations. Chayefsky forecast perfectly the changing universe of TV news, with news ceding ground to entertainment, blowhard posturing, personality and extremity.

Itzkoff skilfully draws the web of relationships between Network’s leading players. Chayefsky originally wanted Paul Newman in the lead role, but despite personal entreaties was unsuccessful in his mission. Of Chayefsky, Network director Sidney Lumet said, “His cynicism was partly a pose, but a healthy dose of paranoia was also in his character.” Kay Chopin, Network’s script supervisor, recalled Chayefsky “prowling like a caged tiger” on set.

Roman Polanski had called Faye Dunaway a “gigantic pain in the ass” when she was filming Chinatown, and Lumet at the beginning of shooting Network, in which she played villainess Diana, told her, “I know the first thing you’re gong to ask me: ‘Where’s her vulnerability?’ Don’t ask it. She has none. Furthermore, if you try to sneak it in, I’ll get rid of it in the cutting room, so it’ll be a wasted effort.”

“My rage isn’t against television,” Chayefsky said. “It is a rage against the dehumanization of people.”

Before filming, Dunaway bought a wig for her character for $970.64, billing the producers, who sent her agent a tactful letter telling them that while they were anxious she feel “comfortable and look her best at all times,” this move was “destructive and an affront to the other creative people” on the film. Dunaway also insisted—successfully—that her sex scene involve no exposure of her breasts or vaginal area. Lumet considered firing Dunaway after she flubbed her way through her dialogue.

Dunaway was not interviewed for the book, but Itzkoff’s painstaking reconstruction of the filming is gleaned through others’ testimony and diaries, and Chayefsky’s own archive. Finch’s “mad as hell” speech was constructed from two takes. Robert Duvall would moon people on the street as they filmed high above Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Of Chayefsky’s writing, Finch noted: “He has a very strict rhythm, like George Bernard Shaw, and you can never break that rhythm.” You can see this poetry realized in the timbre and pace of the “mad as hell” speech.

Network grossed more than $20 million in its original theatrical release and was greeted by a roiling pro-and-anti hubbub from the TV world. Some were disdainful of its depiction of an insanely venal and morally corrupted broadcast universe, others were amused, others affected weary uncaring. Barbara Walters told the Washington Post it was “exaggerated.” Walter Cronkite called it “fantasy burlesque.” Chayefsky sent two ameliorating letters to Cronkite and Chancellor insisting, meekly but implausibly, he had never meant to cause offense. “My rage isn’t against television,” Chayefsky told a group of students attending one screening. “It is a rage against the dehumanization of people.”

Finch died after the film’s release. His wife Eletha collected his Oscar for him after being beckoned on stage by Chayefsky (this after speculation that Oscars producers decided it would be improper for her to collect the award as she was black and this might, they thought, make viewers “uncomfortable”). When he collected his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Chayefsky himself thanked his wife and son “for their indestructible support and enthusiasm, for their ideas, their discussions, their stimulation, and for their very presence.” The movie won four Oscars, including Dunaway for Best Actress (Lumet lost out for Best Director to John G. Avildsen for Rocky, which also won Best Picture).

After making a film version of his novel Altered States, Chayefsky fell ill, dying of cancer on August 1, 1981. His last words were written to Susan on a pad: “I tried. I really tried.” They could also be the words of one of his many thwarted heroes. In one of his last interviews, Chayefsky said, “A writer is what he writes, and I would like to be remembered as a good writer. I would like the stuff I write to be done and read for many generations. I just hope the world lasts that long.”

When Aaron Sorkin collected his Oscar for the screenplay of The Social Network in 2011, he said: “It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to be handed the same award that was given to Paddy Chayefsky thirty-five years ago, for another movie with Network in the title. The commoditization of the news and devaluing of the truth are just part of our way of life now. You wish Chayefsky could come back to life long enough to write The Internet.”