This Day in Jewish History / 'Network’ Dramatist Whose Career Began With a Land Mine Dies

Paddy Chayefsky refused surgery for cancer because he thought doctors whom he had savaged in 'The Hospital’ might take revenge.

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Paddy Chayefsky. 'Marty,' 'The Hospital' and 'Network.'
Paddy Chayefsky. 'Marty,' 'The Hospital' and 'Network.' Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On August 1, 1981, Sidney “Paddy” Chayefsky, one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed dramatists, died at the age of 58. Chayefsky was the only person to have won three Oscars by himself for original screenplays – for the films “Marty” (1955), “The Hospital” (1971) and “Network” (1976).

Sidney Aaron Chayefsky was born in the Bronx, New York, on January 29, 1923, to parents of Jewish-Ukrainian origin, Harry Chayefsky and the former Gussie Stuchevsky. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School, followed by the City College of New York, where he played on a semiprofessional football team, and from which he graduated in 1943.

During World War II, Chayefsky served with the U.S. 104th Infantry Division in Europe. It was during this chapter in his life that he acquired the nickname “Paddy,” apparently after he attempted to be excused from early-morning kitchen patrol by telling his commanding officer that he had to attend Mass. “Okay, Paddy,” said the officer facetiously — and the name stuck, with only Chayefsky’s mother refusing to refer to him by the Irish-sounding moniker.

Bored in the hospital

His career in entertainment was to begin with Chayefsky stepping on a mine near Aachen, Germany. While recovering in a hospital in England, he wrote a musical comedy that went on to be produced at army bases over the next two years, and later in London’s West End.

After the war he tried making a living as a writer on both the east and west coasts before settling permanently back in New York. He worked on radio dramas, stage plays, television and finally film, with significant successes – and disappointments — in each of those fields.

Probably his most acclaimed work was the TV play “Marty,” first produced in 1953 for the Philco Television Playhouse with Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand, and transferred to the big screen two years later with Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. The play, about a simple but good-hearted Bronx butcher who to his great surprise finds love in the person of a shy schoolteacher, moved audiences and cinema professionals alike, winning Academy Awards for best picture, best actor and best screenplay.

Although early in his career Chayefsky raised the possibility that then-nascent television would be “the basic theater of our century,” he despaired of the medium and its limitations, with his frustration finding its sharpest expression in “Network,” a satire on the craven hypocrisy of network TV that in 1976 already anticipated the emergence of reality TV. It was in “Network” that actor Peter Finch voiced the cri de coeur “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” as he hurled his TV set out the window.

Finch and co-star Faye Dunaway took home Oscars for their performances in the movie, along with Chayefsky and Best Supporting Actress Beatrice Straight.

The secular Jew and the dybbuk

Chayefsky was interested in Jewish themes throughout his career, writing dramas about a secular Jew who finds himself part of a synagogue minyan involved in exorcising a dybbuk from a woman’s body (“The Tenth Man”), and about a cantor despairing of his faith who gets the chance to reunite a couple divided by the Holocaust after meeting the two partners on separate subway journeys (“Holiday Song”). There was also a late, never-produced screenplay called “The Habakkuk Conspiracy” about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Chayefsky had a heart attack in 1977, and in 1980 he developed cancer, for which he refused to undergo surgery. He said he “feared retribution by the doctors” for his savage portrayal of the medical profession in his 1971 film “The Hospital.” He died on this day in 1981.

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