Link: THE FACTS VS. ‘FARNSWORTH’.
November 30, 2007 — CAN Aaron Sorkin handle the truth – or does he just not care? So wonder Philo T. Farnsworth fans who’ve seen Sorkin’s new Broadway play.
Opening Monday, "The Farnsworth Invention" describes Farnsworth’s struggle to build a TV system and protect his work against RCA and its leader, David Sarnoff. Audiences leave believing Farnsworth was a failed, drunken genius.
In truth, Farnsworth won his patent fight, showed off a working TV system in 1934 and was manufacturing TVs by 1939.
Farnsworth’s admirers, who’ve tried for decades to adjust the fuzzy historical picture, say Sorkin’s drama plays like a bad rerun.
"After 30 years of telling that story, we finally see it turned into popular entertainment, and it’s wrong!" says Paul Schatzkin, author of the Farnsworth biography "The Boy Who Invented Television."
Follow this link for a scene-by-scene analysis of the play -v- the true story
Sorkin, the Emmy-winning writer of TV’s "The West Wing" and
playwright of "A Few Good Men," refused to comment for this story, as
did "Farnsworth" director Des McAnuff.
Granted, it’s not easy
cramming decades of history into two hours, but the play, Farnsworth
aficionados say, often veers into falsehood.
As played by
Jimmi Simpson, this Farnsworth is frequently intoxicated, even on the
night in 1926, when he proposed to Elma "Pem" Gardner – an action that
would have infuriated Pem’s devout Mormon family.
And it wasn’t (as the play depicts) Pem’s cigarette smoke visible in Farnsworth’s first TV test – because Pem never smoked.
Pem, who died in 2006, sold the rights to her 1989 memoir, "Distant
Vision," to producer Fred Zollo, who brought in Sorkin to write a
"She had a lot of respect for Aaron, but she was a
straight talker," says Georja Skinner, who has known the Farnsworth
family since the 1970s. If Pem were alive, "She would be greatly
appalled," Skinner says.
From his home in Indiana, Kent
Farnsworth, the couple’s youngest surviving son, tells The Post that
working with Zollo and Sorkin was "a long and mostly miserable
"I am a staunch Sorkin fan," he writes in an
e-mail. " ‘West Wing’ was such a joy to me. I hate like hell to be at
odds with him now." Neither he nor his brother Russell were invited to
the play’s opening night, even though Russell lives in Manhattan.
Sarnoff’s past has also been tweaked for the stage.
In the play, the future RCA honcho – then 10 – tells a Russian officer
"Go f – – k yourself" and watches as the family’s home is torched, a
moment found in no Sarnoff biography.
The pogrom is used more
than once to explain his ruthlessness. Sarnoff, played by Hank Azaria,
justifies his fight with Farnsworth with the line, "I burned his house
down so he wouldn’t burn mine down first."
Another scene shows
Sarnoff sending scientist Vladimir Zworykin to track down Farnsworth in
a speakeasy. It suggests Farnsworth was duped into handing Zworykin
Zworykin did tour Farnsworth’s lab in 1930,
but it was a planned three-day visit. Months later, Zworykin and RCA
announced a breakthrough in the development of television.
The competing systems sparked a legal showdown. In 1935, the U.S. Patent Office awarded "priority of invention" to Farnsworth.
In the play, exactly the opposite occurs.
"You can’t be any more wrong than that," Schatzkin says.
Farnsworth did lose control of his invention, his biographer concedes,
"but it’s more complicated than what comes across in the play."
Schatzkin has created a Web site (thefarnsworthinvention.com) that
identifies and corrects the play’s missteps. Kent Farnsworth is editing
the site’s material.
Ultimately, Philo Farnsworth did succumb
to heavy drinking before he died in 1971. Documentaries produced by the
triumphant television networks seldom mentioned his pioneering work.
Schatzkin isn’t surprised.
"How many times have we heard that history is written by the victors?"