When it was released in 1976, Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” was celebrated as satire by some, dismissed as the bitter rantings of an old crank by others. What no one at the time realized was that one day, it would be neither. It would be prophetic.
Not every aspect of the film — the story of a fictional television network, UBS, whose struggling news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has a nervous breakdown on-air, exhorting his viewers to scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” and becomes a much bigger star as a result — has come true in the 38 years since the Sidney Lumet-directed film premiered. But more of its DNA can be found in today’s pop culture — the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment, the rise of reality television and the general coarsening of the medium — than even the cynical Chayefsky, one of the architects of TV’s first Golden Age of drama with teleplays like “Marty,” could have imagined.

The film would go on to win Oscars for Chayefksy, Finch (who died in the midst of campaigning for the award), Faye Dunaway (as ruthless UBS executive Diana Christensen) and Beatrice Straight (as the scorned wife of William Holden’s news executive Max Schumacher) and become a huge influence on a later generation of writers. (Aaron Sorkin, for instance, is as much inspired by Chayefsky as by Frank Capra.)
Now it’s the subject of a terrific book, “Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies,” by New York Times culture writer Dave Itzkoff, which is being released on Tuesday. Though Chayefsky and many of the other principal figures are deceased, Itzkoff spoke to everyone he could and had access to a collection of Chayefsky’s personal papers that included multiple drafts of the script, letters to actors he hoped would play Beale (Paul Newman was one of many who turned down the role), and more. “Mad As Hell” tells the story of how this amazing, deeply subversive film got made by a pair of major motion picture studios, the conflicts on the set (it will surprise no one to learn that Dunaway caused problems), and the larger story of the brilliant, profoundly difficult man who dreamed up the film.
I spoke with Itzkoff about the book, and the film that inspired it.
When did you first see “Network”? How old were you?
Dave Itzkoff: I'm sure it was when I was a kid. I was born in 1976, so I was just really obsessed with the popular culture of that particular year and learning at some point that “Rocky” had been the movie that won Best Picture that year, but the film that won all the other acting awards was this movie called “Network.” I'm sure the only portion that I remember from being very young was Peter Finch's “mad as hell” speech. I didn't really reconnect to the movie until I was much older, probably in college or even after that.
In college, it still would've been before a lot of Chayefsky's predictions had really come true to the extent they have today. What do you remember making of it when you started watching it again when you were older?
Dave Itzkoff: Yeah, I think with successive viewings and as I've grown up, the tone of it in my mind seems to shift, that I always remember it being more outlandish than it really is or than it became. Even the form of it, where there are as many long monologues as there are actual interchanges of dialogue between characters, that in and of itself sets it apart from even other movies of its era. You know, there was a time when it probably seemed about as crazy as the original “RoboCop,” that it was just describing this world that just seemed on the one hand not too far away yet also patently ridiculous. And then in later and later viewings you start to realize, “Oh, actually it's not in the least preposterous, and actually it's very, very familiar.”
You talk about this in the narrative and especially when you get the last chapter, but do you feel Chayefsky believed this is what television was in the mid-‘70s, or do you think he saw that this is what was going to be coming?
Dave Itzkoff: I think his own public face about this vacillated. I think there were times when at his lowest or his most cynical, when he was least positively disposed to the medium of television, he would tell you, “This is exactly what's going to happen.” And then there were times when I think he just genuinely believed that it was a satire, but he wasn't solely commenting on television. Television was a format that he was very familiar with and had to refamiliarize himself with in order to write it, but it was just a place to put all these ideas and feelings and misgivings that he had about the era that he lived in. There were other things, not only the downfall of the medium or this loss of innocence that he anticipated, but other things going on in society and in politics and in industry that he was just as fearful of and he genuinely believed were coming.
How many times over the course of writing the book did you watch the movie?
Dave Itzkoff: Actually probably not as many as you might think. There were specific scenes that I looked that very, very closely. Not only the “mad as hell” speech but the break-up scene between Bill Holden and Faye Dunaway where I really wanted to look at specific camera angles and edits and that sort of thing. But watching it in its entirety, this is back of the envelope estimation but maybe five or ten times in the course of just writing the manuscript. Because you want to get specific lines right, you want to remember the sequence of events that things take place in, but there's so much other material that was in front of me as I'm writing. I'm looking at so many different incarnations of the screenplay and there's so many other elements and aspects of Chayefsky's life and the timeline of that period of movie making that I'm also looking at. So the movie itself is in a way just one piece of the puzzle.
Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com