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Chayefsky, Sidney Aaron ("Paddy")

CHAYEFSKY, Sidney Aaron ("Paddy")

(b. 29 January 1923 in New York City; d. 1 August 1981 in New York City), dramatist for television, stage, and screen, whose hour-long television plays, or teleplays, won acclaim in the 1950s. When the television industry abandoned this form of programming, Chayefsky turned his attention to writing for stage and film, efforts that won him three Academy Awards.

Chayefsky was the only child of Harry Chayefsky, an executive of a dairy company, and Gussie Stuchevsky, a homemaker. He grew up in the Bronx, attending DeWitt Clinton High School and the City College of New York, where he earned his B.S.S. in 1943. He then joined the U.S. Army, serving with the 104th Infantry Division in Germany. While recovering in a British hospital from a landmine explosion he wrote his first play, a musical, No T.O. for Love (1945). Produced by a service entertainment unit, the show proved so successful that it was mounted for the London stage. In the meantime, the writer had been jokingly dubbed "Paddy" for his attempts to be excused from duty to attend mass. Any Catholic so devout, his comrades had concluded, must surely be an Irishman.

Following his discharge from the army in 1945, Chayefsky worked in his uncle's printing shop, played semiprofessional football, took bit parts in plays, and wrote gags for radio personalities as he struggled to make a career as a writer. Television, which was in its infancy, had not drawn the attention of many established writers, and the young Chayefsky saw an opportunity and seized it. In 1952 he contributed scripts to two television anthology crime-drama series, Danger, on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and Manhunt, on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). That same year, he met Fred Coe, production manager of NBC's Goodyear-Philco Television Playhouse and a key figure in creating the conditions for what is now remembered as "the golden age of television drama." Coe encouraged Chayefsky to write hour-long, commercially segmented "teleplays" for the series.

Marty, the third Chayefsky script produced for Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse during the 1952–1953 season, catapulted the young writer to fame quite literally overnight, winning high ratings and enthusiastic attention from the New York press. It is the story of a depressed and pathetic unmarried butcher (Rod Steiger), who lives with his mother in a decaying house in the Bronx. Describing himself as "an ugly little man," he has given up on the possibilities of love or marriage for himself. One of the early scenes in the teleplay, during which Marty and a fellow bachelor discuss plans for the weekend, contains what 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman described as "the greatest vaudeville routine in all of existentialist philosophy."

The popular and critical acceptance of Marty put Chayefsky much in demand. Over the next two years he penned ten original teleplays for prime time television, including The Bachelor Party, Sixth Year, and The Catered Affair. Beckoned by Hollywood to adapt Marty into a motion picture, he won an Academy Award for his screenplay, while the film won the best picture award for 1955. Other adaptations of Chayefsky's teleplays followed. The theatrical premiere of The Middle of the Night in 1956 marked the first time that a television script had served as a source for a Broadway production. It was further adapted into a 1959 film starring Frederic March and Kim Novak. The Bachelor Party was also adapted for film in 1957.

Chayefsky's star had risen on the strength of his live television plays, but by the 1960s he found himself the master of a literary form that had become all but obsolete. As television expanded from its early base in large cities to national saturation, the networks dropped live drama in favor of filmed action series featuring outdoor shooting. Testifying at a congressional hearing concerning television programming, NBC president Robert Sarnoff dismissed the work of Chayefsky and other "golden age" writers as "depressing Beatnik stuff." Rejected by the medium that had "made" him—and that he had helped to make—Chayefsky turned his attention to writing new works for the theater. The results were less than spectacular. Two plays, The Tenth Man (1960), a retelling of a Yiddish folk-tale set in contemporary Long Island, and Gideon (1961), directed by Tyrone Guthrie, each ran in New York for about six months to mixed reviews. A third play, The Passion of Josef D (1964), was an outright flop.

Tied to the 1950s by a tendency to base motivation on Freud-meets-Sartre psychobabble, Chayefsky's work lacked political content, explicit sexuality, drug experimentation, or any of the other indicators of "relevance" that were finding cultural currency. Attempts to break away from type did little to help. Such attempts included screenplays for The Americanization of Emily (1964), a wartime romantic comedy starring Julie Andrews, and Paint Your Wagon (1969), one of the many attempts to revive the Hollywood musical that littered the decade.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, however, Chayefsky began to rebound. This phase culminated with his writing an extraordinary pair of screenplays, The Hospital (1971), and Network (1976), both of which won him Academy Awards. Directed by Arthur Hiller, Hospital is a blistering satirical attack on bureaucracy, demonstrating how even the most benevolent of institutions can be turned into an instrument of death by an uncaring power structure. Sharing the spirit and ideological bent of such 1960s novels as Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H (as well as the film adaptations they spawned), Chayefsky championed the capacity for love as the key to human survival by focusing on the way that the problems of illness, pain, and death have been handed over by society to institutions whose first duty is to mass production rather than to the alleviation of suffering.

In the film, George C. Scott plays Dr. Herbert Block, head of surgery at a large metropolitan teaching hospital. Although aware of the absurdities that surround him, he accedes to the political necessities of running a hospital out of sheer helplessness. Impotent, divorced, disowned by his children, and perplexed by a seemingly inexplicable juggernaut of daily blunders that have made the hospital as dangerous to patients as their illnesses, Block is at the brink of suicide as the film opens. Like Marty, however, Block falls in love (with Barbara Drummond, played by Diana Rigg) just when love seems to have passed him by. She wants to remove her comatose father from the hospital so she can take him back to the Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where he operated a clinic. The rebirth of eros in the doctor is accompanied by a rebirth of empathy, which turns his daily exercise in denial into an impossible nightmare. The prismatic quality of sudden shifts between tragic and comic circumstances is comparable to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and the film adaptation by Mike Nichols.

In Network (1976), Chayefsky takes revenge on the medium that declared him a genius and then sent him into enforced exile during the 1960s. Directed by Sidney Lumet, a fellow veteran of the "golden age" of television drama, the film critique of American commercial television is in some ways reminiscent of the sketches produced during the 1960s at the East Village theater in New York by the "underground television" collective known as Channel One. In one scene, a crazed network news anchor urges Americans to open their windows and shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." This was Chayefsky's most memorable line of dialog since Marty. The writer's final project, a screen adaptation of his only novel, Altered States (1980), was a science-fiction drug adventure. Unhappy with changes imposed on the screenplay, Chayefsky took his writing credit as "Sidney Aaron."

Having disproved the adage that "there are no second acts in American life," Chayefsky died of cancer in New York City. The funeral was held at the Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan. He is survived by his wife Susan Sackler, whom he married on 24 February 1949, and a son. Asked about his success in film after experiencing enforced departures from television and theater, Chayefsky said, "The simple truth is that Hollywood producers and executives are not the idiots they are frequently supposed to be."

Two critical biographies, John M. Clum, Paddy Chayefsky (1976), and Shaun Considine, Mad as Hell: The Life and Word of Paddy Chayefsky (1994), both offer detailed bibliographies. An obituary is in the New York Times (2 Aug. 1981).

David Marc

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