“Television is a strange medium, limited by a thousand technical problems, hemmed in by taboos and advertising policies, cheapened by the innumerable untalented and officious people you will always find in a billion-dollar industry. Nevertheless, for the writer there is still area for deep and unprobed work. I am just now becoming aware of this area, this marvelous world of the ordinary. This is an age of savage introspection, and television is the dramatic medium through which to expose our new insights into ourselves." — Paddy Chayefsky
Marty Pilletti was timid, short, and thickly built. An Italian butcher in the Bronx, he was also an unlikely hero — lonely, ordinary, homely, the antithesis of the Hollywood idol. Yet when his story was telecast by Philco Television Playhouse on May 24, 1953, with Rod Steiger in the title role, it electrified the nation's viewers. Marty became the most acclaimed live drama in the medium's history. And its author, Paddy Chayefsky, became the foremost dramatist of television's golden age.
"I set out in Marty to write a love story, the most ordinary love story in the world," Chayefsky wrote shortly after the teleplay was broadcast. "I didn't want my hero to be handsome, and I didn't want the girl to be pretty. I wanted to write a love story the way it would literally have happened to the kind of people I know. I was, in fact, determined to shatter the shallow and destructive illusions — prospered by cheap fiction and bad movies — that love is simply a matter of physical attraction.
Because there were no Emmy awards in 1953 for performances in a single telecast, Marty won no television honors. But in 1955, the teleplay was given a new production and transferred from the home screen to the silver screen, this time with Ernest Borgnine as Marty. The movie won three Oscars — Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture of the Year — making Chayefsky the first television writer to triumph in the movies.
Sidney Chayefsky ("Paddy" was a wartime nickname he preferred) was born in the Bronx on January 29, 1923, into what he called "a standard Jewish family with standard Jewish values." As he grew up, his education focused on literature, music, and, because of his family's love for it, the popular Yiddish theater. At DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he edited the campus newspaper and literary magazine. He went on to attend City College of New York, where he studied such playwrights as Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, and Clifford Odets. It was from the work of Odets that he learned to appreciate what he would later refer to as the "marvelous world of the ordinary."
After graduating from CCNY in 1943, Chayefsky enlisted in the army and served with the 104th Infantry Division; he was wounded in a land-mine explosion in Germany and sent to a London hospital. To occupy his time while he recovered, Chayefsky wrote a musical comedy called No T.O. [Table of Organization] for Love. The show, produced on army bases in London and Paris, was admired by author-director Garson Kanin, who became Chayefsky's first mentor. After the war, Kanin, finding Chayefsky at work in his uncle's printing shop, gave the young man $500 as encouragement to continue writing.
For the next several years, before he found his way into television, Chayefsky was variously a student at the Hollywood Actors' Lab, a gag writer for comedian Robert Q. Lewis, an unsuccessful playwright, a sometime standup comic, and an occasional radio writer. In the early fifties, however, he began writing for the half-hour live television mysteries Danger and Manhunt. His scripts for these productions caught the attention of then-agent David Susskind, who encouraged him to investigate NBC's Philco/Goodyear Television Playhouse, then the cornerstone of all of television's dramatic programming.
Chayefsky's first contribution to that Sunday evening anthology series was Holiday Song (1952), an hourlong adaptation of a Reader's Digest article about a cantor who loses faith just before the Jewish High Holy Days and cannot bring himself to conduct services. Of that teleplay, Chayefsky would later write, "It shows a lack of awareness of the television medium. I approached the script as I would have approached a movie."
The Reluctant Citizen, Printer's Measure, and The Big Deal followed. By then, Chayefsky had mastered the technique of writing for the new medium and had developed a philosophy about it:
It is my current belief that the function of the writer is to give the audience some shred of meaning to the otherwise meaningless patterns of their lives. Our lives are filled with endless moments of stimulus and depression. … The man who is unhappy in his job, the wife who thinks of a lover, the girl who wants to get into television, your father, mother, sisters, brothers, cousins, friends — all these are better subjects for [television] drama than Iago.
Chayefsky sensed that the home screen was the perfect place to explore the longings, the loneliness, and the loves of the unexceptional Everyman. Viewers in the 1950s apparently agreed; the impact that Marty had on the nation was tremendous. Said Rod Steiger, "People from all over the country and all different walks of life, from different races and religions and creeds, sent me letters. The immense power of that medium!"
Marty, together with Chayefsky's later works The Catered Affair, The Bachelor Party, and Middle of the Night, steered television toward personal drama, toward the intimacy of psychological confrontations. Chayefsky helped to invent television's dramatic language, a language in which, according to broadcast historian Erik Barnouw, "the close-up became all-important. … The human face became the stage on which the drama was played."
When live television drama began its decline, Chayefsky turned increasingly to film, adapting his most effective teleplays, such as The Bachelor Party, to screenplays. He also turned to the stage with his adaptation for Broadway of Middle of the Night; later, he readapted it for the movies. Later still, he wrote directly for the motion pictures (The Goddess and Hospital) as well as directly for the stage (The Tenth Man and The Passion of Josef D.). He became one of the few artists celebrated for work in three media.
In 1976, Chayefsky wrote the critically acclaimed box-office hit Network, a black comedy about television and dehumanization in contemporary America.
Of that vanished era that TV historians now call golden, Chayefsky once recalled, "I first wrote nine one-hour dramas for [producer] Fred Coe in one year — 1953-54 — a year on which I look back with the deepest affection and longing. It was, I suppose, the only genuine bohemia I ever knew — that extraordinary efflorescence of young talent and friendship clustered in the anteroom of Fred Coe's fourth-floor office at NBC. It was a time when we were just beginning to have faith in ourselves."
Paddy Chayefsky, the bard of the home screen, the man who gave television writers a stature they had never before enjoyed, died on August 1, 1981.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Paddy Chayefsky’s induction in 1984.