Written By April | May 2014 : Page 44
WRITTEN BY DAVID POLLOCK What Do You Want to Do, Paddy? GUIDING PADDY CHAYEFSKY ON HIS ONLY SITCOM PILOT INTO THE “SEXUAL WORLD OF THE PREDATORY SINGLE.” Elias Davis, David Pollock, and Paddy Chayefsky 44 • in his New York office, 1974. WG A W WRITTEN BY APRIL | MA Y 20 14
What Do You Want To Do, Paddy?
GUIDING PADDY CHAYEFSKY ON HIS ONLY SITCOM PILOT INTO THE “SEXUAL WORLD OF THE PREDATORY SINGLE.”
The January 7, 1974, call from our agent, Bernie Weintraub, sounded improbable from the start: Paddy Chayefsky, he said, was in town looking for writers to work with him on a situation comedy pilot to be produced in New York. In our cramped, windowless office on South Beverly Drive, my writing partner, Elias Davis, and I exchanged quizzical glances. Chayefsky, a sitcom?
Bernie explained the project was a half-hour NBC comedy to star James Coco, then still basking in the afterglow of his Tony-nominated Broadway run in Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers. Chayefsky would be reading writingsample scripts.
Paddy Chayefsky was movie royalty, having just grabbed his second Academy Award for The Hospital. Why, we wondered, would he want anything to do with television? But contemplating imponderables was not in Weintraub’s DNA, especially when a job was on the line. “Get me your two best sitcom scripts by tomorrow,” he barked.
We didn’t exactly have a lot to choose from. At the time we had mostly written late-night and comedy-variety shows. A bundle of Steve Allen sketches wouldn’t do the trick, and we had long ago squeezed any conceivable cachet out of The Pat Boone Show.
Over lunch at Maison Gerard the next day, we slipped Bernie a script from a short-lived CBS sitcom, We’ll Get By, and a recent Mary Tyler Moore episode, figuring, if nothing else, they were both intelligent series. Three anguished-filled days followed, which we put to excellent use second-guessing our choices of material, all the while trying to convince ourselves such a longshot was not worth getting excited about. We were sticklers when it came to driving ourselves crazy— not to mention each other.
Finally, on Friday, January 11, Weintraub called: Chayefsky “loves the stuff,” my 1974 Week at a Glance calendar quotes Bernie as saying. We couldn’t believe it. Whatever Paddy’s motives were for jumping back into TV now no longer seemed important. A 4:30 drink with Paddy at the Beverly Hills Hotel was hastily proposed, pending his confirmation.
After waiting a couple of hours—and on the verge of another round of second-guessing—Bernie again called, explaining messages had somehow gotten screwed-up at the hotel; we were to go right over to room 254.
The Latent Heterosexual
We were greeted by Paddy’s producing partner, Howard Gottfried, a slender, engaging New Yorker and former Off- Broadway theater impresario. Howard, also an attorney, had produced The Hospital and was a longtime member of Chayefsky’s Wednesday-night poker group. He called Paddy and said the guys are here.
Upon entering Howard’s room, Paddy remarked, “Don’t get up.” But we did. Of course, we were in total awe, a fact we did our best to conceal. If Chayefsky was feigning a similarly Off-hand attitude toward us, he was way more convincing.
Paddy Chayefsky, short and expansive, both in demeanor and circumference, wore a light-blue turtleneck and flared Levis. As prepared for intimidation as we were, he immediately made us feel comfortable and accepted. “You guys write like I do,” he told us. Sure, good chance he was merely being ingratiating, but regardless, we both knew we would run with it.
Over drinks, Paddy laid out the basic premise he had sold NBC. As an article of blind faith, Elias and I already loved it based solely on his involvement but wisely held off saying so until he first explained what it was. The concept was called Your Place or Mine? (initially titled So What Do You Want to Do Tonight?), a lampoon of the sexual revolution as experienced by a 40-year-old newly divorced traveling plastics salesman from a lower-middle-class Bronx background. The more he told us, the better it sounded.
It should be remembered, back then the sexual revolution was not yet a tired media subject. Ms. Magazine had only been on the newsstands for about a year-and-a-half, and Erica Jong’s The Fear of Flying was still in its first printing—not that Elias and I were ever charting these things.
The job would entail working with Paddy in New York on the pilot to be shot in March, and—assuming a greenlight from NBC—the series, with production to start in June. As to why Paddy Chayefsky suddenly wanted to jump back into television, it remained an open question... one we chose not to pursue, at least not at this point.
Our impression—backed up by our respective diaries— was that Paddy wanted to “sitcom-ize himself.” As we chatted at the hotel, he made it clear that he wasn’t necessarily seeking clones of himself but rather writers with comedic ideas and concepts. Accordingly, he let it be known that he and Howard were also interviewing others, a couple in particular referred to only as “two zanies.”
Suddenly seeing Paddy’s “you guys write like I do” comment possibly costing us the job, we instinctively pivoted into a spiel about having also written nightclub material for Jack Benny’s recent Vegas engagement and two years of sketches On The Steve Allen Show.
Paddy seemed impressed. “No kidding, you wrote those mustache things?” he asked, citing Allen’s makeup preference when portraying some of his sketch characters. “I love Steve.”
Paddy went on to tell us his last comedy gig happened in the late 1940s when he was dumped from Robert Q. Lewis’ CBS radio show, kicked off of a staff that also included George Axelrod and Danny and Neil Simon. Afterward, Robert Q. had remarked, “Chayefsky was the first writer I ever had who looked like he was here on a football scholarship.”
When our conversation was momentarily interrupted by a knock at the door, Paddy opened it to discover no one was there. “If this was New York,” he said, “there would’ve been a hooker just taking a chance.”
As the meeting evolved, Howard and Paddy did a lot of Talking at once; we kept pitching Steve Allen and Jack Benny. Finally Howard explained they were going to have dinner that night and decide. Our scribbled notes indicate we left feeling “that close to being on the plane.”
Saturday morning, Weintraub called again. He had just spoken to Howard who said he and Paddy wanted another meeting; it was set for three o’clock, again at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “It’s not an audition,” Bernie said.
Paddy began the session by saying, “Obviously, we’d like you to join us.” Whatever followed is lost; our heads were spinning. Afterward, he walked us out to the front desk; his last words were: “Wear boots.”
On January 16, we headed for New York where Howard Gottfried had arranged accommodations at the Park Sheraton, ground-zero for lore-filled stories of Jackie Gleason’s battle- scarred writers slipping their material under his penthouse office suite door and of mobster Albert Anastasia being gunned down in the hotel’s barbershop while getting a haircut. It’s always nice staying in a place that’s rich in history.
Headquarters for our working sessions was Paddy’s office at 850 Seventh Avenue. Though comfortable, the place was dingy, spare, and lived-in. It was a converted efficiency apartment, recalled Gottfried over a February 2014 breakfast, “roughly 17- by-12,” adding, “My god, I spent enough time there.”
The most impressive feature was its location—11 floors above the Carnegie Delicatessen. We would soon learn that Paddy’s longtime poker pals, Bob Fosse and Herb Gardner, also had offices on the same floor, though we never saw them. The furnishings were strictly utilitarian, consisting of Paddy’s desk, swivel chair, a couch, and some filing cabinets. A baby grand piano took up one corner. With the exception of a dozen or so framed blackand- white photos, the walls were bare. Chayefsky’s Marty and Hospital Oscars were nowhere to be seen. You entered directly from the corridor, and there was no receptionist or secretary. When you called Paddy, he answered the phone himself.
On the inside of the door, an impressive column of cylinder locks and deadbolts formed his first line of defense against the city’s early-1970s decay-and-graffiti era of prostitutes, pimps, addicts, and muggers.
As a backup, just inches from the door a ball-peen hammer rested within easy reach—a still vivid image some 40 years later.
Paddy told us he was nervous about the project. He had thought the original Marty and several of his other early ’50s live TV plays were comedies. It was a surprise to him when audiences found them sad. When a network half-hour Marty pilot with Tom Bosley in the title role was produced in 1965, he chose not to be involved with the writing.
Still, it was hard for Elias and I to reconcile his trepidations, even more so after digging up a paperback copy of his Play, The Latent Heterosexual, a hysterical satire starring Zero Mostel produced a few years earlier. Any overinflated opinions we might have harbored about our own talents certainly did not include teaching a crashcourse in how to write a successful sitcom pilot—least of all to Paddy Chayefsky. In our minds, we were simply two fans turned hired guns.
Our daily working procedure was simple—if unorthodox: for the first week or so, the three of us would plot out the pilot story together, scene-by-scene. Elias and I would then go off to our office and write the teleplay, and Paddy would stay in his office and write the teleplay. He would then end up with two complete scripts, each a parallel version of the same narrative.
There never was any question that Paddy’s script would be the one shot, though I’m sure my partner and I each imagined that, in an emergency, should he conclude— unlikely as it would be—that his version somehow fell short, ours (like his ball-peen hammer) would be a ready backup.
In fact, our script was intended to be more-or-less a security blanket. Chayefsky was willing to take on a sitcom, but only if he wasn’t “bogged down writing [the series],” Gottfried explained at our breakfast. “It was the burden of being responsible for the continuing series: His thinking was you and Elias would handle it, the writing aspects of the series. You guys would be running the show.”
Paddy and Howard could then pursue their film projects. One they subsequently alluded to, a scathing, Hospitallike satire of television, was already taking up an increasing amount of their time. My immediate—if embarrassingly naïve— reaction was concern for how our potential series might be negatively affected by the network’s response to such an indictment. They would never notice, Paddy assured us.
The concerns of any network were then not uppermost in Paddy’s mind, Howard recalled in 2014, adding that the networks were “so blind to any kind of criticism,” it wasn’t an issue with them.
Concluding our first, brief New York session, Paddy told us, “There are no rules. Work however you guys like to work. After four hours, I start to fink out. …We start tomorrow at 11:15.” Elias and I suppressed smiles. This was our kind of guy.
Two Rooms of Their
Own As is common with writers thrown together in a room, there was no discussion of respective styles or methodologies. Friday morning, January 18, the three of us simply started cobbling together a story arc and without realizing it, by day two had created our own group paradigm.
Paddy, with a graying beard and lightly tinted glasses of the era, favored short-sleeved turtlenecks, baggy slacks, and cigarillos with a holder. He was principled, informed, funny, and inspiring, tinged with a street-savvy Bronx vibe. He made you feel proud to be a writer.
When collaborating in group sessions, it takes only one skilled procrastinator to inspire a timely, work-avoiding distraction for all. Elias Davis—always a team player—is quite deft at this; but, in all modesty, he learned from me. For decades, my mastery of irrelevant anecdotes and pointless observations derailed countless story meetings, sparing grateful colleagues—if only temporarily—hours of excruciating concentration. I’d cautiously hoped this gift would be one of my chief contributions to our daily sessions with Paddy.
Happily, he welcomed any and all digressions with the same enthusiasm he applied to the work, once even instigating his own: After enduring my and Elias’ blathering on about Nathan’s hotdogs and our excitement over the thenrecent opening of a Midtown location, the succulent Nathan’s taste got the best of him. Bolting from his desk, Paddy grabbed his coat and said, “Let’s go!”
The three of us marched down Seventh Avenue to the new Nathan’s Famous in the grime and sleaze of Times Square. There we sat in total ecstasy wolfing down hotdogs and cottage fries. When it was time to head back, Paddy asked, “Do you want to take a cab? What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, Paddy,” Elias said, “What do you want to do?” We all broke out laughing. If Elias was the 3,019th person to ask him that question, Paddy kept it to himself.
When it came to putting off work, Paddy Chayefsky didn’t need help from anyone. It was he who taught us how a huge chunk of a workday morning could be lost with a 10:30 omelette break downstairs at the Carnegie, including a greeting from the loquacious, show business– steeped maitre d’, Herbie Schlein. The same applied to afternoons when trying to get anything accomplished after a Lunch of the deli’s five-inch-high pastramis on rye washed down with cream soda—even without cheesecake.
As we did upon starting any new project, Elias and I immediately set out to capture the right voice. Only this time it was the voice of our fellow writer as he assumed the speech rhythms of the characters. For the tone of our script to be compatible with Paddy’s, we felt compelled to mimic his style. Only there was no Paddy Chayefsky situation comedy template to study. We, of course, had both seen The Hospital and Marty—the 1955 movie with Ernest Borgnine, that is, not the original 1953 NBC live version with Rod Steiger. But luckily there had been 11 other Chayefsky hour dramas on The Philco- Goodyear Television Playhouse, including such classics as The Middle of the Night and The Bachelor Party. Never mind that we hadn’t seen any of them.
In my early teens, Sunday-night TV viewing pretty much began and ended with The Colgate Comedy Hour. If I ever caught any part of a Philco drama, it was to avoid starting my homework. Now, two decades later, Paddy Chayefsky was the homework. Fortuitously, I had a Simon & Schuster volume of six of his original TV plays I’d inherited years before from my father. All dealt with every-day, working-class people caught up in easily identifiable, slice-of-life situations. “The world of the mundane, the ordinary, and the untheatrical,” as Chayefsky noted on the accompanying pages, and each teleplay involving main characters that are “typical rather than exceptional.”
Our main character, Charlie Pellegrino, fit the mold perfectly. Averaging about $22,000 a year, Charlie, as Paddy defined him, was “one of 400 faceless tenants in an anonymous building managed by a nameless organization of representatives of an absent corporate owner.”
In the back story, he had returned to his Newburgh, N.Y., home from his upstate sales territory earlier than expected and discovered his wife of 11 years screwing around. She had only recently been entering a stage of, as Paddy put it, “enhanced women’s consciousness,” and had decided she was entitled to “a fuller expression of her natural desires.” The sexual revolution came late to upstate areas like Newburgh, Paddy explained. It was the wife who demanded the divorce.
Our pilot would involve Charlie, having just moved to Manhattan and a one-bedroom apartment, now living in “the sexual world of the predatory single,” as Paddy called it, and dealing with women who were now suddenly “seeking relevance.”
In truth, Charlie was Marty-like, 20 years later: a middle- age, overweight, Italian-American, old-fashioned fellow seeking love in the Manhattan singles scene some 20 years before Sex & the City. Not that Charlie Pellegrino ever would have popped-up on Carrie Bradshaw’s radar. Charlie knew all about the sexual revolution but just didn’t know where to find it. As Paddy defined him, Charlie “still thought you had to take out a girl four times before anything happened.”
To get the character’s voice in his ear, Paddy would roll A sheet of yellow paper into his Olympia manual and bang out stream-of-consciousness riffs of dummy dialogue. We assumed this had always been his custom. Later, when writing the actual dialogue, it would be tailored to Paddy’s sense of literal reality by envisioning the characters seemingly caught in unguarded moments of real life—as he described it, dialogue written “as if it had been wiretapped.”
A believer in extensive research, Paddy had already attended trade shows and sales conventions dealing in plastics. From a recent Atlantic City gathering, he armed us with a blizzard of brochures promoting the glories of plastic trashcans, kitchen canisters, wall sconces, and figurines. When choosing character names, Paddy liked to peruse baseball box scores and also kept The Baseball Encyclopedia on an office shelf. Another trait was a scholarly love of words with the most precise one seemingly always at his command. On a sturdy stand next to his desk was a dictionary as thick as a Carnegie pastrami sandwich.
No Bachelor Party
At the time, Paddy and his wife, Susan, had temporarily moved from their five-room apartment up on Central Park West to the Hotel Navarro on Central Park South. We met her when our wives later joined us in New York, and the six of us had dinner together at Patsy’s on 56th Street, one of Chayefsky’s favorite Italian haunts. He was his usual gregarious self.
With our wives’ arrival, our rooms were upgraded. An upgrade at the Sheraton meant rooms at the St. Moritz hotel, coincidentally, just a couple doors east of (but several bucks a night cheaper than) the Navarro.
When it came time to begin our respective scripts, Paddy lent us a typewriter and Howard dug up a small office for us on West 48th Street in the north edge of the theater district, a few floors above the Latin Quarter. By then, the iconic nightspot was a forsaken sight, its doors padlocked and chorus lines and showgirls long gone. It had recently been converted into a soft porn art house and then raided by the police for showing X-rated films.
Our pilot story was structured as a one-set, two-act play, each with just one continuous real-time scene set in Charlie’s apartment; it would be taped in front of a studio audience. The presence of an audience meant there had to be big laughs, which required big jokes. Paddy’s naturalistic ethos of literal reality and “wiretapped” dialogue demanded the comedy be strictly based in character and attitude only. Pop-culture joke references and familiar setup/punchline rhythms were not in Chayefsky’s playbook (as Robert Q. Lewis had discovered). The episodes could be farce, occasionally satire, but, Paddy emphasized, “The premise is always serious. …We do not intend to do Love American Style.” It was a challenge Elias and I embraced and, in fact, one we had already been striving for, with varying degrees of success.
If we needed to confer with Paddy, we’d call or stop by his office when walking back uptown. As a matter of pride, we desperately wanted to impress him so we agonized over every line, sometimes to ludicrous extremes: A character we had named Wally—an off-stage doorman heard a few times by voiceover on Charlie’s intercom—precipitated one lengthy debate between the two of us. It centered on whether the name Wally was too evocative of familiar, jokey stock characters in similar supporting roles from fluffy, mid-’50s Broadway comedies; the kind that often starred Tom Ewell or Tony Randall. Ultimately, Wally stayed in. (Paddy, in his version, left the doorman unnamed.)
We were proud of our script and felt we did a good job capturing Chayefsky’s tone and dialogue cadences. We didn’t hesitate trading on it thereafter as a writing sample, usually with positive responses. Not surprisingly, we couldn’t help but be impressed with Paddy’s script. Given the cheery sitcom sensibilities of the day, it represented a seismic shift: outrageously funny and satirical, while unrelentingly candid, explicit, and blunt, with characteristic Chayefsky monologue- like speeches lasting over a page.
The resolution of the pilot story finds Charlie’s wife, Mari Lyn, showing up in response to his request for a discussion of a possible reconciliation, a conversation she broaches with, “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not going to do any crawling.”
I think we ought to have a frank and open discussion about what was wrong with our marriage so we don’t wind up back in the same bind. Okay?
All right, go ahead. MARILYN Well, the first thing that was wrong with our marriage is I was completely unsatisfied sexually.
CHARLIE (TAKES A MOMENT TO SWALLOW THIS ONE)
Okay. Fine. All right, I can accept that. Okay, that’s the first thing. What’s the second thing?
Let’s straighten out the first thing … And I’ll tell you another thing wrong with our marriage. You never loved me.
Okay, so that’s two things we found wrong with our marriage. The sex was lousy, and we don’t love each other. Any more complaints?
The pair finally conclude that getting back together would be a “terrible mistake,” with Marilyn convinced “we get along a lot better divorced.” Love American Style it wasn’t.
Mad as Hell
By late February, Delbert Mann had responded to a persuasive call from Paddy to direct his script, with rehearsals to start a month later. Mann had helmed both the original live Marty TV version, as well as the later bigscreen remake for which he too won an Academy Award. In addition to James Coco, other accomplished New York stage actors were signed, including Doris Roberts, Cynthia Harris, Andrew Duncan, and Julie Garfield.
“When I read the script, I had grave apprehensions,” Delbert Mann later wrote in his memoirs. “Hindsight says I should have gotten out of it, but I couldn’t find a way to do that knowing that my withdrawal would torpedo the project for Paddy. And obviously it had significant financial potentials for him.”
Mann also felt the casting of James Coco was “an equally major mistake.” He was a good actor as well as a fun guy, Mann wrote, “but his forte was getting laughs. The reality and pain were eliminated… I believe both Paddy and I harbored secret fears about the project.”
Elias and I too questioned the choice of Coco but only to each other as he’d already been signed. We’re most competent when it comes to railing against a done deal.
Rehearsals began in late March, followed on Friday, March 29—during an unpredicted snowstorm—by two performances, a dress and air show, in NBC’s Studio 8H, next door to the studio where Mann had directed most of Chayefsky’s Philco episodes.
When edited together, it was “just simply not very good,” Mann wrote, “a sad mistake all around.” It was their last show together.
Paddy felt both tapings were “exceptionally good” and, in an April letter after Elias and I had returned home, wrote that he and Howard were waiting for the results of NBC’s “various market analysis surveys.” But when the fall schedule was announced in May, Your Place or Mine? Was among the missing. The sitcom conventions of 1974 notwithstanding, all of us naturally assumed NBC knew what they were getting. “What would you expect?” Howard asked. “When you buy a certain writer, you expect his kind of approach to something, don’t you think?”
To recoup some of their losses, the networks were then in the habit of airing two or three failed pilots backto- back during the summer, under stigmatizing umbrella titles such as Vacation Playhouse. Such was the fate for Your Place or Mine? Only it took NBC over two years to find an appropriate time spot: 9:30 Friday night, August 13, 1976, lumped behind a rejected Patty Duke entry called Philip and Barbara.
Referring to the package of three sitcoms, New York Times TV critic Les Brown searched for a positive approach: “Since the networks are subjected to ridicule each fall for what they have accepted…they perhaps deserve some credit for what they choose not to accept.” Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times was less circuitous, dubbing Your Place Or Mine? “unsavory” and “more smirk than smart.”
So much for Paddy Chayefsky’s return to television. Whatever NBC explanations were forthcoming—even if the truth—Paddy had no time for them. That same May, he and Howard Gottfried were already in Atlanta for a week of observing local TV newsroom operations. They were still “kicking around” that movie project, Howard told us, referring to a little opus soon to be titled Network. “We were kind of searching.”
Evidently, Paddy didn’t need us for that one.
Whenever Elias and I have reflected on our shared Chayefsky impressions in the decades since, inevitably the last time we saw him comes to mind: After a visit at our hotel to retrieve the typewriter he’d loaned us, we then accompanied him back downstairs. Our still indelible image is of Paddy Chayefsky, his arms cradling a bulky desktop typewriter, walking unnoticed through the St. Moritz lobby and heading west on 59th Street until receding into a crowd of oblivious passersby.