A look back at TV's 'golden era': it really was golden

The golden age of television is about to be revived -- but this time on public broadcasting. And once and for all the argument that memories are invalid, that the supposed high quality of TV dramas of two and three decades ago is wishful thinking, mere figments of collective nostalgia, will be resolved.

Many television buffs have constantly derided the general quality of contemporary television drama as they publicly yearn for the good old days of 1948-1960, when TV drama was presented live on such shows as "Playhouse 90," "The Goodyear Playhouse," "The U.S. Steel Hour," and "Philco Playhouse."

Now, starting Aug. 27 in most cities (check your local PBS station for premiere and repeats), kinescopes (film shot off the face of a TV monitor) of eight of the best live dramas of that era have been assembled by Sonny Fox Productions in association with KCET/Los Angeles and will be presented to audiences during the 1980s.

"The Golden Age of Television" will lead off with the show which is probably remembered with the most nostalgia -- "Marty" (1953) by the late Paddy Chayefsky. The three succeeding shows (the final four have not yet been selected) will be "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956) by Arnold Schulman from a book by Mark Harris; "No Time for Sergeants" (1955) by Ira Levin, adapted from a book by Mac Hyman; and "The Days of Wine and Roses" (1958), an original by J.P. Miller.

All of these shows have been seen since "the golden age" in either movie or sitcom form, most often with different casts.

I attended a reception at WNET/NY designed to kick off the series. Many of the stars and writers of these classic shows had agreed to appear. The late Mr. Chayefsky had been scheduled as one of the major participants, since his orginal "Marty" with Rod Steiger (rather than the movie version with Ernest Borgnine) was scheduled to lead off the series.

So the panel discussion turned out to be not only reminiscences about the good old days, but also a series of reminiscences about Paddy, a man apparently beloved by just about everybody he came in contact with, despite his sometimes irritating intensity. The younger generations will recognize his name mostly as the author of such films as "Hospital," "Network," and the most recent, "Altered States" (from which he had his name removed).

Later on, the original "Marty" was screened and I want to report that nostalgia had nothing to do with it. Despite some awkward camera work, this "golden age" veteran is definitely 20-karat gold. It is a shatteringly sensitive portrait of outsiders, written and acted with uncompromisingly truthful intensity.

If the other dramas, chosen by Mr. Fox, live up to the standards of "Marty," with its superb performances by Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand in the leads, the series will certainly prove for all time that the "golden age" was truly a golden age. Miss Marchand -- you may know her as the publisher of Lou Grant's newspaper -- sat near me and sobbed throughout the 58-minute drama.

One of the top writers of the period, Tad Mosel, probably summed up the "golden age" best: "It happened because it had to happen." The primitive technology of the era made it essential that there be almost total rapport among the writers, actors, directors, and producers.

Now, with almost everything on tape or film, with live TV performance practically a relic of the past, with network interference in program content, "it" isn't happening very often (if at all), because "it" doesn't have to happen. Now so many people prevent "it" from happening -- "it" being the sense of creative unity which audiences sense, resulting from the vision of the writer being successfully transmitted by all of the people involved in acting it out.

Some of those "golden age" people present at the session were Eileen Heckart, Nancy Marchand, Julie Harris, J.P. Miller, Tad Mosel, and Richard Thomas (he just managed to slip in as a child performer). Before the round table concluded its session, producer Fox asked those participants who had known Paddy Chayefsky to say a few words about their experiences working with him. It was a time not for sadness, but for reflections on the glorious spirit of creativity which was exemplified by Paddy.

Tad Mosel said it best:

"I think Paddy set the standard for the rest of us. . . . There was something rocklike about him. Paddy was the ideal of the goal. It wasn't the goal to write like Paddy, it was that we wanted to be as good as Paddy. He was the gauge on which everything else was graded as far as I was concerned.

"I remember when Sumner Locke Elliot [another golden age writer] once did a satire about all the 'Philco Play- house' writers, he gave me a line which I kept saying: 'Oh, I wish I had a typewriter like Paddy's.

"In a way, Summer captured the real feeling that I had and I still have. I wish I had a typewriter like Paddy's."

A typewriter -- and a no-compromise integrity -- like Paddy Chayefsky's are hard to come by these days, just as they were in the golden age of television. High-Voltage TV jingles

Justice sometimes moves in mysterious ways.

When Robert Evans, former top movie executive, was arrested on cocaine-possession charges last year, he was sentenced to put his moviemaking skills to work on an antidrug project.

The results of that sentence will be aired on NBC during the week of Sept. 20 -27 when commercial spots using jingles with the theme "Get high on yourself" will be scheduled throughout the week.

Top stars such as Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Joanne Woodward, and Paul Newman volunteered their services and will be seen and heard singing the jingle. NBC plans to kick off the campaign with a one-hour special.

Meantime, Mr. Evans is back in the movie business and this added p ublicity will certainly do him no harm professionally

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