For the past week or so, many Americans have been focused on the deaths of two giants – John McCain and Aretha Franklyn – and justifiably so. But,on August 26 we lost another giant, and his death went somewhat under the radar, except for devotees of the theatre.
Marvin Neil Simon was one of, if not the, most accomplished playwrights and screenwriters of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He was born on July 4, 1927 in New York City. He had one older brother. He was a child of the Great Depression, and his childhood was characterized by financial hardship and turmoil. His father was a garment salesman, who had difficulty providing for his family and was often absent from the home. At times, circumstances forced Neil and his brother to live with relatives, and Neil’s mother often had to take on boarders to make ends meet. When his father was home, his parents often fought. It was an unhappy family situation exacerbated by financial hardship. Later, Simon would tell one interviewer [that as a child] he could never figure out the reasons for all the fighting and turmoil, but it fueled his desire to become a successful writer, so he could escape all the turmoil and support himself.
As a boy, Simon took refuge in movies, especially comedies. Some of his favorite stars were comedians Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He recalled how he “appreciated their ability to make people laugh.” Moreover, he recalled being “constantly dragged out of movies for laughing too loud[ly].” At an early age, he realized “I was never going to be an athlete or a doctor.” Writing comedy was his ticket to success.
He began writing comedy while still in high school. After a stint in the military he began writing comedy for tv shows, such as Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and “The Phil Silvers’ Show,” both of which were long-running hit shows in the early and mid 1950s. Simon always said that the former boasted “the most talented group of writers that up until that time had ever been assembled together,” such as Caesar, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, among others. One can only imagine the plethora of jokes that flew around the writers’ room in those days.
It took Simon three years to write his first Broadway play, “Come Blow Your Horn,” and he claimed he rewrote it some 20 times before he was satisfied. But it was a rousing success. It ran for 678 performances, and his career was launched. Hit followed hit, too many to name all of them here. Overall, he received 17 “Tony” nominations and won three. Furthermore, he won a “Pulitzer” for “Lost in Yonkers,” and in 1966 he had four hit shows running on Broadway simultaneously. (For those of you who are not Broadway savants, they were “Barefoot in the Park,” “Sweet Charity,” “The Odd Couple,” and “The Star=Spangled Girl.”)
In addition, Simon wrote screenplays for more than 20 films. Many of them were adaptations of his successful plays, but one of my favorites – “The Out-of- Towners” – was an original. He was box office “gold.”
Like most writers, Simon wrote about his own experiences and what he knew. Many of his plays were set in NY, often in working class neighborhoods, such as the one in which he was raised. Many of the characters are imperfect, but likeable and decent. The audience likes them and roots for them, despite their imperfections. Furthermore, the conventional wisdom is that the Brighton Beach trilogy is largely autobiographical. Matthew Broderick, who played the lead in “Memoirs” unabashedly claims “I owe him [my] career.” Hyperbole? Perhaps. But, that role did establish him as a Broadway star. Furthermore, although he was superb in that particular role, I wouldn’t exactly label him a “mega-talent.”
Simon was the only playwright to have a theatre named after him while still alive. In addition to the awards I mentioned above he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1983.
Neil Simon passed away on August 26 at the age of 91. Although the official cause of death was complications from pneumonia, he had also been diagnosed with renal failure and Alzheimer’s. He is gone, but his work will live forever, as it should.
What are your favorite Neil Simon plays/movies? There are so many to choose from. For me, there are three – “The Odd Couple,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and “The Goodbye Girl.”