Mention the name of Jewish screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, and most people think of “Marty,” the path-breaking 1950s teleplay turned film about a lonely Italian-American butcher in the Bronx. Or they think of the electrifying scene in the 1976 Sidney Lumet film, “Network,” in which a TV anchorman demands that all New Yorkers throw open their windows and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”
The only screenwriter to win three solo Oscars, Chayefsky’s star has fallen somewhat since his death in 1981. But now it is rising again, with an Off-Broadway revival of his 1956 play, “Middle of the Night,” and a new biography by New York Times culture writer Dave Itzkoff, “Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies.” In an age in which society becomes ever more bureaucratized and de-personalized, Chayefsky’s uncompromising insistence on the dignity of the common person is as compelling and relevant as ever.
Born Sidney Aaron Chayefsky in the Bronx in 1923, the writer was once described by drama critic Martin Gottfried as “compact and burly in the bulky way of a schoolyard athlete, with thick dark hair and a bent nose that could pass for a street fighter’s.” He got the nickname “Paddy” when he evaded KP duty in the army by claiming that he needed to attend Roman Catholic mass. After the war, he started writing plays and teleplays; one of his teleplays was “Holiday Song,” about a cantor who reunites a Holocaust survivor with his wife.
Chayefsky vaulted to prominence with “Marty,” which was telecast live starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand; the film version won him his first Oscar. Chayefsky then started writing Broadway plays, including “The Tenth Man” (revived at Lincoln Center in 1989), about a depressed Manhattan lawyer who inadvertently ends up in an Orthodox synagogue on Long Island where a group of congregants are attempting to exorcise a dybbuk from the body of a young woman. Chayefsky also wrote for film; he won Oscars for “Hospital,” about a doctor fighting against a corrupt medical establishment, and “Network.”
In an interview with Jewish Week, Shaun Considine, author of the only comprehensive biography of Chayefsky, “Mad as Hell” (Random House, 1994), lauded Chayefsky’s “gift of the vernacular, the natural speech of the streets.” What’s more, Considine observed, Chayefsky “poured all of who he was and what he experienced into his work — the anger, the heartbreak, the absurdity, the black humor — and, at the heart, the genuine concern for the depersonalization of human beings by the corporate world.”
Considine said that “you would only have to meet Chayefsky once, in the street or at the Carnegie Deli (his usual hang-out), to be caught by his energy and the wealth of his vocabulary.” Screenwriters Aaron Korsh (“Suits”), Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”), and Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”) are all, Considine observed, following in Chayefsky’s footsteps. Indeed, in his 2011 Oscar acceptance speech for “The Social Network,” Sorkin gave a shout-out to Chayefsky; he later explained that “No predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’”
Indeed, according to Itzkoff, whose book about the making of “Network” was published in February by Times Books, Chayefsky was a “key person in the birth and popularity of TV as a popular art form.” But while he was successful quite quickly in the new medium, Chayefsky “didn’t think of himself as blessed with talent. He went about his craft in a more workmanlike way, writing about working class and overlooked people who had not been given credit for having inner lives.”
Chayefsky’s recurring theme, Itzkoff said, was of a protagonist who has never articulated his feelings, who “finally has one explosive moment when everything pours out of him.” Much of this stemmed from his own experience as a writer, Itzkoff speculated, as he repeatedly saw how his work was “almost ancillary to the final production,” while others made the decisions about how the piece was cast, directed, and shot.
Chayefsky’s relationship to his Jewishness “fluctuated over time,” Itzkoff noted, but it became more central to his identity in the 1960s and ’70s as the State of Israel came under siege from the Arab world. Chayefsky wrote some of the full-page ads that ran in The New York Times, urging that attention be paid to Israel’s plight, and he penned a screenplay, “The Habakkuk Conspiracy,” about a Palestinian Jew during the final days of the British Mandate who is murdered while carrying the Dead Sea Scrolls. Itzkoff pointed out that among the personal frustrations Chayefsky carried into his work on “Network” was the fact that “The Habakkuk Conspiracy” had been dropped by United Artists, partly because of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.
Jonathan Silverstein is the artistic director of The Keen Company, which is reviving “The Middle of the Night.” The tale of a widowed, middle-aged Jewish garment manufacturer who falls for a much younger, non-Jewish woman, the play opened on Broadway in 1954, starring Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands. Stung by less than stellar reviews, Chayefsky wrote in the Times that he felt like he was being “looked down upon as a nouveau riche” who wore the wrong kind of necktie.
But in the era of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Chayefsky’s play resonated with an audience that was captivated by stories of ordinary people caught in emotionally fraught situations; it ran for almost 500 performances. The film version, starring Fredric March and Kim Novak, premiered in 1959, with the manufacturer’s Jewishness almost entirely sanitized, as often happened in Hollywood films based on plays about Jewish characters.
But Silverstein’s production restores the Jewish feel of the play, with Broadway veteran Jonathan Hadary (who has played Jewish roles in “Gypsy,” “Awake and Sing!” and other shows) starring in the role of the widower who is looking for love; he plays opposite Nicole Lawrance as the young receptionist he falls for. In an interview with Jewish Week, Hadary said that the play was a “revelation” when he first auditioned for it. He called Chayefsky an “underrated playwright” with a “Chekhovian” ability to have his characters express profound emotions in “oblique” ways. “The characters are humble,” he said, “without an inflated sense of their importance — they belong to the pre-cellphone era.”
Hadary described his character as a “lonely mensch who falls in love with a needy, waif-like creature” whose marriage is disintegrating. The Jewishness of the piece, he said, is subtle. “When my character storms out after an argument with his sister about his relationship with the girl, he doesn’t apologize; when he comes back, they just take up where they left off. It was the same in my house growing up — we just started talking again, after all the barbs and bitterness.”
A turning point comes, he said, when the manufacturer and the girl find themselves staring at each other, discovering their ability to communicate their yearnings.
“They find what seems like a safe harbor in their relationship with each other.” Despite the disapproval of all of their friends and relatives, “She convinces him that it’s real.”
The playwright’s whole career was similarly dedicated to getting Americans to recognize that their own half-submerged ideals and yearnings were valid despite the depredations of corporate America. Calling Chayefsky an “accidental prophet,” Itzkoff said that the writer “felt that he had a moral obligation to inform people that they were in danger. Today, he would be taking on fracking and the NSA.”
Do any writers fulfill that role nowadays? Or was Chayefsky, as Itzkoff asked in his book, the “last member of a class of dramatists who would grab you by the lapels and shout in your face if that’s what it took to get you to pay attention?”
“Middle of the Night” runs through March 29 at the Harold Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $62.50, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.