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Q&A

The fateful vision of 'Network,' nearly 40 years later

In 1976, 'Network' skewered the media and modern life and introduced 'mad as hell' to the cultural landscape. David Itzkoff discusses his new book about the prophetic film.

By Susan King

9:30 AM EST, February 21, 2014

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"I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore." So said Howard Beale in "Network."

When the movie opened in fall 1976, critics and audiences — not to mention network news bosses — were divided on this dark satire revolving around a longtime news anchor who has a breakdown only to become the mad prophet of the airwaves.

Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film starred Peter Finch as Beale (Finch, who died of a heart attack in early 1977, was posthumously nominated for lead actor — and won) as well as William Holden and Faye Dunaway (who also won an Oscar). But the real star of the film was Paddy Chayefsky ("Marty," "The Hospital"), the passionate, volatile and uncompromising screenwriter who earned his third Oscar for his brilliantly prophetic skewering of the media and modern life.

In his new book, "Mad as Hell: The Making of 'Network' and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies" (Times Books, $27), New York Times cultural writer David Itzkoff explores the colorful, dramatic and complicated story behind the scenes of one of the seminal films of the 1970s.

Itzkoff recently talked about "Mad as Hell" over the phone from New York City.

It's eerie revisiting "Network" nearly 40 years later and seeing just how prophetic Chayefsky was about the medium.

If there is anything that people do remember about the film, what they do respond to immediately is the TV news aspect of it. That is one element he predicted pretty much on the nose in terms of what the TV news landscape was going to look like, but there are all of these other facets as well. The movie anticipates the growth of reality television.

The news divisions at the three networks were very upset over the film, and Chayefsky even sent out letters of apology, including one to the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite.

It was pretty well decimated by the news industry, who wanted nothing to do with it and was offended by it, if they saw the film at all. There was still an innocence left for the news business to lose at that time. They could still sort of maintain a fig leaf as they professed to be shocked by this comedic film.... There is no more dignity for the news industry to lose anymore.

Would you discuss the genesis of "Mad as Hell"?

The New York Public Library owns the bulk of Paddy Chayefsky's papers, and they invited me — this would be three years ago — to come and take a look at a selection of papers that dealt specifically with "Network"... There was such a deep and vivid sense of Chayefsky still in those papers. "Network" was the emanation of a single person's vision. It really took a person with a very strong idea, following that idea all the way through, to make that movie happen. It made me want to know more about this person.

It was difficult to find an actor to play Howard Beale.

Even people who had this huge admiration for Chayefsky's writing and would have loved to have been in a film that he wrote, they could sense that this was going to be a challenging character and there was even a fear that it was a vulgar character. Chayefsky wrote directly to Paul Newman to urge him to consider the script. And as often happens in cinema history, you kind of have to exhaust all of your candidates until you get to the person you would have never considered before, who turns out to be the exact right person

Even if you have never seen "Network," the phrase "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore" immediately became part of the cultural landscape. But it upset Chayefsky that the phrase overshadowed the entire film.

I think all of Chayefsky's words mattered to him. The idea that a film was teeming with all of these different kinds of ideas and trying to make these larger points about our alienation and the rapidness with which modern life is moving, could be boiled down to this one scene and this one phrase, over a time became a frustration to him.

At 7 p.m. on Feb. 25, Itzkoff will be in conversation with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, whose latest series is HBO's "The Newsroom," at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. More information is available here.

susan.king@latimes.com