Before Rod Brogan became a full-time actor in his late 20s, he studied journalism in college and worked as a radio reporter after graduation. In FST’s Mainstage production of Network, Brogan gets to revisit his time in the newsroom. Brogan plays Max Schumacher, the Head of the News division for the fictional TV network, UBS. In the play, Max’s best friend and co-worker, Howard Beale, is let go due to poor ratings. In his final broadcast, Howard unravels on live TV…and his ratings skyrocket. While UBS executives are eager to capitalize on Howard’s newfound popularity, Max is more interested in getting his friend some help.
We sat down with Rod to talk about his personal connection to Paddy Chayefsky’s original film, his character, Max, and why Network is still relevant today.
Do you have a personal connection to the 1976 film Network?
As a young actor in on-camera scene study classes, I was always aware of the iconic Peter Finch “I’m mad as hell” speech. It was like Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” monologue or Henry the V’s tennis balls speech in that everyone watched it and studied it.
A lot of people don’t know that, in another life, I was a radio reporter before I decided to become an actor full-time. After college, working in a corporate news environment, I heard “I’m mad as hell” referenced by newsroom workers…probably a lot more than management would’ve liked.
You play Max Schumacher, Howard Beale’s friend, co-worker, and the Head of UBS News in Network. How would you describe Max? What makes him “tick?”
Max is like the old time journalism professors I had in college. They were from the Murrow Boys-era of radio and TV journalism, when it was a working class job and hard-drinking and hard-driving people with curious minds, a love of words, and a certain panache took it upon themselves to deliver to the audience a sophisticated news report.
Max has watched the standards and the product degrade as a more corporate environment is imposed on the news business. “If it bleeds, it leads” has become the new ethos, with 25-second news bytes that deliver nothing more than a headline and a few graphics. He’s gone along with it, because he’s a lifer, but when the time comes, he is thrilled to accommodate, and perhaps even encourage, his old buddy Howard’s lambasting of corporate news culture.
What appeals to you most about Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network?
Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the original film’s screenplay, is a titan of mid-twentieth century television and theatre writing. Lee Hall was smart enough to keep a lot of Chayefsky’s original dialogue, but couched it in a very modern, broadcast news staging. The scene transitions jump because of it, and there’s a great sense of forward momentum in Hall’s script.
Why do you think that Network is still relevant, almost 50 years after the original movie was released?
At its heart, Network is about the interconnectedness of humans. Part of that is sharing both our truths and our myths. A question the play asks is, “What role should mainstream news play in that sharing? Should the news report to the people what’s vital and necessary for them to know, so that they can make their own decisions, or should it tell them what to think? And who determines what is truth and what is myth? What happens when news becomes ‘info-tainment?'”
These were questions the writer Paddy Chayefsky was grappling with in 1976, and Americans are still grappling with them. A Gallup poll from last summer (2022) found that only 16% of Americans had either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers, and only 11% of Americans trust broadcast news. There’s a moment in Network where the play’s protagonist, Howard Beale, says to my character: “What we do is lie, Max.” Almost half a century on from the film’s release, a lot of people agree.
Were there any discoveries about Max Schumacher that you made during the rehearsal process, or during any of the performances so far?
What I’ve learned through performances, which I didn’t quite catch in the rehearsal hall, is that Max’s personal and professional journeys are both along moral lines. Max, the news director, talks about not blurring the line between news and entertainment, but Max, the husband, regularly cheats on his wife. Watching the disintegration of the UBS news division he once ran, and the disintegration of his marriage, Max realizes the consequences of abandoning what he calls “basic human decency,” which should have extended across every aspect of his life.
Due to audience demand, FST’s production of Network has been extended and is now running through March 26, 2023, in FST’s Gompertz Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.
Header image: Sheffield Chastain and Rod Brogan. Photo by John Jones.