Paddy Chayefsky, Keeping it Real

Paddy Chayefsky was the leading screenwriter during TV’s golden age and remains the only solo scribe to win three Academy awards. On his 88th birthday, we look back at his life and work.

Born in the Bronx to a Jewish family who’d emigrated from the Ukraine, Sidney Aaron "Paddy" Chayefsky was the youngest of three boys. His mother noted his early interest in words and books, and her tastes would seem to be an early influence on the American incarnation of "kitchen sink realism" he’d later become known for. Eschewing fairy tales and anything whimsical or fantastic, she only wanted to expose him to stories that were 'realistic.' Her favorite book, passages of which Chayefsky memorized, was Last of the Mohicans.

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, Chayesky attended the City College of New York while also playing semi-pro football. When WWII broke out, he joined the U.S. Army and served in the 104th Infantry Division. He received the nickname 'Paddy' after pretending to be Catholic so he could attend Mass in order to avoid kitchen duty (he would later go by the name exclusively – only his mother refused to use it). While in Germany he was wounded by a land mine, and during his recovery wrote his first drama, the musical comedy T.O. for Love. It toured European bases for two years and later opened in London’s West End.

Returning from the war, he worked in radio as a gag writer for comedian Robert Q. Lewis and did adaptations for Theater Guild on the Air. In 1949 he made the leap to America’s newest medium, one which was just beginning to find its audience. Early television depended largely on filmed stage dramas performed live, and Chayefsky got his start with a theatric adaptation of Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run?. After the success of 1952's Holiday Song – an original drama by Chayevsky – he eschewed doing further adaptations to focus on his own creations.

His first major work was Marty, which premiered on The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1953. Starring Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand, it’s a story about an unmarried, 34-year-old Italian butcher in the Bronx who falls in love with a homely woman against the wishes of his clinging mother. The teleplay was a critical hit and in 1955 was made into a film starring Ernest Borgnine.

Marty was praised by critics for bringing a heightened level of realism to television, focusing as it did on unglamorous, everyday people. Unlike its British cousin which focused on the lives of the working class, American TV largely steered clear of social issues and politics. And Chayefsky may have been a realist, but he was a dramatist first and understood the appeal of a happy ending.

The success of Marty allowed Chayefsky to leave television just as teleplay dramas were beginning to die out. Nonetheless, three of the projects he’d written for television found their way to the silver screen, including The Catered Affair, a work adapted by Gore Vidal. His initial forays into film didn’t yield the same kind of success he’d seen in TV – movie audiences proved less willing to embrace his workaday characters and sometimes dark subject matter. The Goddess (1958), based loosely on the life of Marilyn Monroe (after seeing the screenplay, she threatened to sue), was typical of this period in Chayefsky’s career. Critics lauded it (The New York Times called it a shattering but truly potent film, in which a lot of characters are groping for the fulfillment they cannot seem to find) but audiences mostly stayed away.

Chayefsky returned to the stage, with the production of his Broadway play The Tenth Man garnering multiple Tony nominations in 1959. Other plays didn’t fare as well – The Passion of Josef D., a play about Josef Stalin, closed after only 15 performances. The Latent Heterosexual didn’t even get a Broadway opening. Back in the film world, his version of the 1951 Broadway hit Paint Your Wagon (1969) was one of the most expensive flops of its time.

He wouldn’t hit his stride again until the 1971 film The Hospital, a satire which won Chayefsky his second Academy Award. So scathing was his send-up of the medical profession, that when Chayefsky was later diagnosed with cancer, he decided to forego surgery, saying he feared retribution from doctors angered by the film.

He remains best known today for his third Oscar-winning film, the prescient Network, a satirical look at a struggling TV network. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film starred greats like William Holden, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway. The Writers Guild East voted Chayefsky’s script as one of the top ten ever written, while the American Film Institute recently included Network among the Top 100 Greatest American Films.

Chayefsky would also write the screenplay for Altered States, based on his own novel, but so hated Ken Russell’s hallucinatory final product that he took his name off the credits. It would be his last produced screenplay, as he died of cancer Aug. 1, 1981 at 58. The 1982 Oscars included a special tribute to the only scribe who'd ever carried the little golden man home three times all on his own.