National News

Howard Gottfried, 94, Producer of ‘Network,’ Is Dead

Posted December 15, 2017 11:09 p.m. EST
Updated December 15, 2017 11:12 p.m. EST

Howard Gottfried, a producer who was a crucial calming influence and an ardent defender of ornery screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, with whom he worked closely on the Academy Award-winning films “The Hospital” (1971) and “Network” (1976), died Dec. 8 in Los Angeles. He was 94.

His death, at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, was confirmed by his wife, Mary Lynn Gottfried.

In a partnership that lasted more than a decade, Howard Gottfried was the more moderate, levelheaded yin to the volcanic yang of Chayefsky, who could be as hot-blooded as Howard Beale, the “Network” anchorman who was arguably his most famous creation.

The production of “Network,” a scathing satire about irresponsible broadcasters who find unexpected success with an angry, mentally unraveling news anchor, was often difficult — sometimes because of its rapid pace and the usual vagaries of Hollywood, and sometimes because of Chayefsky’s shifts in temper. Gottfried provided vital support behind the scenes.

He helped cast the pivotal role of Beale, rejected by illustrious actors like Paul Newman and George C. Scott before it was finally accepted by nomadic British-born actor Peter Finch, who was then living in semiretirement in Jamaica.

And it often fell to Gottfried to put out the fires started by the exacting and uncompromising Chayefsky, who could be his own worst enemy in creative and financial negotiations.

Chayefsky, who had balked at an offer for Columbia Pictures to release “Network,” was meeting with United Artists about the film when he took umbrage with a business affairs executive who told him he thought the Howard Beale character didn’t work.

Chayefsky, in frustration, stormed out of the meeting, leaving Gottfried alone with the executive.

As Gottfried recalled the ensuing scene in a 2012 interview: “I’m still there and I look at him. I knew the guy well. I said, ‘You dumb son of a bitch.’ Paddy really was an easy guy, but it was coming from the wrong place.”

Within a few weeks, Gottfried had made a deal for “Network” to be released as a coproduction of United Artists and MGM.

Howard Kenneth Gottfried was born on Nov. 13, 1923, in Manhattan, to Louis and Fanny Gottfried, and raised in the Bronx. His father was a furrier, his mother a homemaker. After serving in the Army during World War II and earning his law degree at New York University, he worked as a producer of off-Broadway theater.

He worked in Los Angeles at United Artists Television, the studio that produced “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Fugitive,” before returning to New York, where he worked for Ed Sullivan’s production company.

Author Noel Behn introduced him to Chayefsky, the celebrated film, theater and TV writer who had won an Academy Award for the 1955 film adaptation of his teleplay “Marty.” Chayefsky had recently been pushed off the 1969 movie musical “Paint Your Wagon,” having clashed with its lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, and was in search of new projects.

Gottfried helped Chayefsky secure a deal at CBS for a TV pilot that would ultimately go unproduced: “The Imposters,” a socially conscious series about an aging comic actor and a disillusioned television executive.

When the networks were not interested in their next project, a proposed slice-of-life series set in a New York hospital, Gottfried got it set up as the motion picture “The Hospital,” starring George C. Scott as its existentially frustrated chief of medicine. The film, directed by Arthur Hiller, won Chayefsky his second screenwriting Oscar.

Gottfried also oversaw the roughly two-year research and writing period during which Chayefsky created “Network,” his magnum opus, drawn from visits to the newsrooms of ABC, CBS and NBC and the author’s own manifold fears of rampant corporate integration, social alienation, domestic terrorism and the power of TV.

In an affectionate gesture that illustrated his dyspeptic sense of humor, Chayefsky named his anchorman character — who memorably declares in an on-air outburst, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” — Howard, for Gottfried. (The name Beale came from Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, the eccentric socialites seen in the 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens.”)

“Network,” directed by Sidney Lumet, won four Academy Awards, including another screenwriting trophy for Chayefsky, as well as acting honors for Faye Dunaway, Beatrice Straight and Finch, who died two months before the Oscar ceremony.

But on their next film collaboration, the metaphysical science-fiction thriller “Altered States,” Gottfried could not spare Chayefsky from the wrath of its director, Ken Russell, who had been brought into the production to replace Arthur Penn.

When Russell had Chayefsky ejected from the set for his constant interference, Chayefsky demanded that Gottfried fire Russell. Gottfried reminded Chayefsky that they had already dispensed with a previous director and that, with time running short, the only person who could replace Russell was probably Chayefsky himself.

As Gottfried recalled his interaction with Chayefsky: “He said, ‘Well, I can’t do that. I won’t do that. And if you’re not going to do that, I’m going to have to leave the movie.'” The two never worked together again. Chayefsky died in 1981.

Gottfried produced other films, including the 1988 adaptation of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” and “Suburban Commando,” a 1991 comedy starring wrestler Hulk Hogan.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by their daughters, Elizabeth Colling and Norah Weinstein, and four grandchildren.