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Chayefsky, Paddylocked

(29 January 1923–01 August 1981)
  • John M. Clum

Chayefsky, Paddy (29 January 1923–01 August 1981), writer for stage, screen, and television, was born Sidney Chayefsky in the Bronx, New York, the son of Harry Chayefsky, at the time an executive with a dairy, and Gussie Stuchevsky. After school at DeWitt Clinton High School and City College of New York, where he graduated in 1943, Chayefsky was drafted into the army and shipped to Germany. A notoriously sloppy and lazy soldier, Chayefsky earned his nickname, Paddy, when he tried to get out of kitchen duty to attend Catholic mass. After he was injured by a land mine he was shipped to a London hospital, where he and a composer friend wrote a musical, No T.O. for Love (1945), which was produced successfully in London and Paris by the Special Services. The author and director Garson Kanin saw the show and had Chayefsky assigned to work with him on a documentary, The True Glory (1945). After the war, Chayefsky returned to the United States and tried to make a living as a playwright while supporting himself by working in his uncle’s printing shop and through playwriting grants, some small acting parts, magazine fiction, and radio scripts. In one of these lean years, 1949, Chayefsky married Susan Sackler; they had one son. Undaunted by rejections of some stage and film scripts, Chayefsky finally carved his niche as a television writer, first by writing for two weekly series, “Danger” and “Manhunt” (both 1952). His series work attracted the attention of David Susskind, the producer of the “Philco Television Playhouse” (1953–1955), an hour-long Sunday night drama series. Chayefsky wrote eleven dramas for the series, only one of which was an adaptation.

Unlike other television writers, many of whom were more interested in quantity than quality, Chayefsky was a perfectionist who insisted on control of his material, participation in rehearsals, and, eventually, producing his own shows. While this attitude (more common in writers for the stage than in those for film or television, where the writer is hardly at the top of the pecking order) caused friction, it also gave Chayefsky a name recognition and prestige unusual for television and screen writers.

Chayefsky’s teleplays are the dramatic equivalent of the short story. Chayefsky understood well the limitations of his medium. He had an excellent ear for the language of simple New York working-class men and women. He was interested in the lives of people who saw themselves as ordinary. Marty (1953), perhaps his greatest success, dramatizes the falling in love and blossoming of a homely Bronx butcher who has hitherto lived with his mother and spent Saturday nights with his male buddies.

Chayefsky was also able to adapt his scripts so that they could be successful in three media. The teleplays Marty (1954) and Bachelor Party (1957) became successful films. Marty won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Picture. The teleplay Middle of the Night (1956) was expanded into a successful Broadway play that was a triumph for its star, Edward G. Robinson. In 1959 it was made into a film with Fredric March and Kim Novak. From his television work Chayefsky was able to claim the prestige and fame hitherto accorded only stage writers like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge.

The film version of Marty came at a time when prestigious, black-and-white serious films, America’s version of foreign “art” films, were one of the film industry’s responses to the inroads made by television. There is some irony to the fact that people would leave their homes to see something they had already seen on television, but Marty’s success, and Hollywood’s subsequent awarding the film its top prize, said much about the new, uneasy marriage between television and film. What was particularly interesting about Chayefsky’s participation in the film version of Marty was the extraordinary amount of artistic control he was given. His contract stipulated that he would be present for rehearsals and shooting and that he would execute any needed rewrites. Hollywood seldom, if ever, gave its writers such authority. In 1957 Chayefsky began his own producing organization, Carnegie Productions, so that he could more fully control his material.

The 1950s were Chayefsky’s salad days. His television plays and their film and stage adaptations brought him success and prestige. However, television moved to Hollywood, and the days of the live New York–based drama ended by the mid-1950s, and with them Chayefsky’s primacy on the small screen. Except for a television adaptation of his stage play Gideon in 1971, Chayefsky’s career as a television writer ended in 1955. Chayefsky was a creature of New York. Even his most successful films were set and filmed there. It is interesting to note that his first film not based on a teleplay was a dark vision of Hollywood stardom, The Goddess (1958).

In the late 1950s and 1960s, Chayefsky focused his energies on the stage. The Tenth Man (1959), a romantic, secularized updating of Ansky’s Yiddish classic The Dybbuk, was a hit in the 1959–1960 Broadway season. The quasi-Shavian Biblical drama Gideon followed in 1961. His attempt at a Brechtian history play, The Passion of Josef D., failed on Broadway in 1964. His last produced play, the satire The Latent Heterosexual, was a success in regional theaters and in England but was never produced in New York.

As Chayefsky had defined a kind of television drama that had its heyday in America in the 1950s, for the 1970s he created a hyperarticulate genre of dark satiric film in The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976). Both films are unusually wordy and articulate, but both were enormous successes. They show the cynicism and dehumanization of two major American institutions, the health industry and television. In a medium that was more and more youth oriented, Network and The Hospital center on the moral and spiritual awakening of disillusioned middle-aged men. Chayefsky took his name off the screen credits for the film adaptation of his novel Altered States (novel, 1978; film, 1979) when the director, Ken Russell, had actors spout Chayefsky’s dialogue at breakneck speed and, often, minimum intelligibility. In a Chayefsky film, the words are everything. Altered States was Chayefsky’s first foray into science fiction. It was also his only published novel.

Paddy Chayefsky’s major work came in the early years of television when it was still New York–based and live serious drama was both popular and prestigious for the fledgling industry. In the mid-1950s Chayefsky proved himself the master of realistic drama for the stage as well as the small and large screen. By the time he died of cancer in New York, still lionized as the representative of a lost era of literacy and quality in writing for television and film, he was considered by many to be the best television writer and the best screenwriter of his, and perhaps any, generation.


Chayefsky’s work has been published in a three-volume collection: Plays, Screenplays I, and Screenplays II (1994). Two full-length studies of Chayefsky’s life and work are John M. Clum, Paddy Chayefsky (1976), and Shaun Considine, Mad As Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky (1994). Both contain extensive bibliographies. Helpful comprehensive essays are Francie C. Brown, “Paddy Chayefsky,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists (1981); and Sam Frank, “Paddy Chayefsky,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 44: American Screenwriters (1986). A comprehensive bibliography of writings on Chayefsky can be found in Philip C. Kolin, ed., American Playwrights since 1945: A Guide to Scholarship, Criticism, and Performance (1988). An eloquent obituary, written by Herbert Mitgang, was published in the New York Times, 5 Aug. 1981.