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BOOK REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY : Creative Genius Who Was Fueled by a Deep-Seated Anger : MAD AS HELL: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky by Shaun Considine ; Random House $25, 304 pages

October 19, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Precious few writers can be conjured up by a single phrase from their work: "To be or not to be," "Call me Ishmael," "Do not go gentle into that good night." But a streetwise boy from the Bronx named Paddy Chayefsky muscled his way into the company of Shakespeare, Melville and Dylan Thomas with one enduring line from the motion picture "Network."

"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

Chayefsky was mad indeed, and in more than one sense--Shaun Considine's accomplished biography of the late Paddy Chayefsky allows us to see that the writer was both afflicted with and inspired by volcanic anger and a certain kind of lunacy.

"Paddy has something I call divine madness," observed Peter Finch, the actor who spoke the famous lines in "Network." "There's a manic quality in his work that I adore."

Many of us also remember Chayefsky for other memorable work in motion pictures: "Marty" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and contributed its own distinctive catch phrase to the popular culture: "Whaddya wanna do tonight, Marty?" "The Americanization of Emily" is a cult classic, and Chayefsky remains the only screenwriter to win three Academy Awards: "Marty," "Hospital" and "Network" were each honored with an Oscar.

Considine, an admiring and compassionate biographer who hails Chayefsky as "a plenary artist," depicts him as a man driven not only by genius but also by an ambition to redeem himself from the self-doubt and even self-loathing that plagued him throughout his troubled life.

Born in the Bronx in 1923 to a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Chayefsky came of age in the superheated environment of Depression-era America. At first, his skill at the well-spoken word was put to use not on the stage but on the mean streets of New York, where his gift of gab allowed him to survive the unfriendly attention of neighborhood gangs.

"Like a sudden, biting summer squall, he let loose with a rapid, nonstop, brilliant, absolutely incisive commentary on everything that stood or moved on Tibbett Avenue," Considine writes of young Chayefsky. "The linguistic storm, charged by a rich, pungent vocabulary, mesmerized and captivated the hostile forces."

But Chayefsky was also afflicted with fear, despair and anger that sometimes spiraled downward into depression. An early adolescent rejection at a school dance--"He's too short and fat," said one girl as she passed him over--became an emblem of the barbed anxiety that triggered "dark dreams" that persisted even to his deathbed.

Considine fancies that Chayefsky was, like the Jekyll-and-Hyde scientist in "Altered States," something of a split personality, and he summons up two incarnations of the man, calling one by his given name, Sidney, and the other by the more familiar nickname that Chayefsky picked up when he saw combat in World War II.

"Paddy was a persona," recalls Dan Chayefsky, Paddy's son, "whereas Sidney was the vulnerable being he was born with."

From Considine's chatty account emerges a portrait of Chayefsky as an ambitious man who invented himself as an artist in an era when no one had yet figured out the rules of the game. Chayefsky managed to distinguish himself as a playwright, a screenwriter and a television scriptwriter--and often with the very same story. "Middle of the Night," for example, started out as a television production, went to the legitimate stage, and ended up on the screen.

As a hungry young playwright, Chayefsky would pitch jokes to Milton Berle at Lindy's delicatessen for a quick five or 10 bucks. Later, when he was flush, Chayefsky became a regular player at floating poker games on both coasts; Chayefsky tended to chatter at the table, Considine writes, but fellow player Neil Simon kept a poker face. And he achieved a moment of self-redemption when the short and fat Chayefsky conducted a flirtation with the sublime Kim Novak on the set of "Middle of the Night"--but she quickly dumped him in favor of Cary Grant.

Paddy, of course, gets most of the attention in "Mad As Hell," but Considine's book also serves as a star-studded and wholly absorbing history of the entertainment industry in New York and Los Angeles during a particularly tumultuous but also fecund period.

Pop-culture buffs will appreciate Considine's loving attention to the so-called Golden Age of Television and the making of Chayefsky's movies, all of it told with sharp insight into entertainment industry politics, a frank interest in who did what to whom, and a genuine passion for the antics of writers, actors, directors, producers and assorted moguls.

For example, Considine allows director Sidney Lumet to explain in rather charming technical detail exactly how he shot a nude scene in "Network" in which Faye Dunaway straddles William Holden so that certain specified features of Dunaway's anatomy would not be seen on the screen. And he gives the final budget for "Altered States" right down to the last dollar.

"Altered States," as it turns out, was Chayefsky's last and most troubled project. "On 'Altered States' it was a constant inner battle between my father and his ego," recalls Chayefsky's son. The ego won, and the man himself was a casualty; barely two years later, at the age of 58, he was diagnosed with the cancer that killed, but we might as well call it terminal anger.

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