Neil Simon in 1974
|Born:||July 4 1927
New York City, U.S.
|Died:||August 26 2018 (aged 91)
New York City, U.S.
|Occupation(s):||Playwright, screenwriter, author|
|Literary genre:||Comedy, drama, farce, autobiography|
Marvin Neil Simon (July 4, 1927 – August 26, 2018) was an American playwright, screenwriter and author. He wrote more than 30 plays and nearly the same number of movie screenplays, mostly adaptations of his plays. He received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer.
Simon grew up in New York City during the Great Depression, with his parents' financial hardships affecting their marriage, giving him a mostly unhappy and unstable childhood. He often took refuge in movie theaters where he enjoyed watching the early comedians like Charlie Chaplin. Appreciating the value of humor, Simon decided on a career writing comedy. He skillfully took relatable characters in everyday real life situations, complete with their tragedies and absurdities, and made people laugh.
His Broadway plays Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), for which he won a Tony Award made him a national celebrity. Overall, he garnered 17 Tony nominations and won three. During one season, he had four successful plays running on Broadway at the same time, and in 1983 became the only living playwright to have a New York theatre, the Neil Simon Theatre, named in his honor.
An important feature of Simon's writing is his adherence to traditional values regarding monogamous marriage, which he regarded as necessary to give stability to society. Perhaps because of his own life experience, including his parents' troubled marriage and his own marriages, in Simon's plays infidelity rarely, if ever, brought happiness to his characters.
Neil Simon was born on July 4, 1927, in The Bronx, New York, to Jewish parents. His father, Irving Simon, was a garment salesman, and his mother, Mamie (Levy) Simon, was mostly a homemaker. Simon had one brother, who was eight years older, television writer and comedy teacher Danny Simon. His family lived in Washington Heights, Manhattan, during the period of the Great Depression. Simon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School when he was sixteen, where he was nicknamed "Doc" and described as extremely shy in the school yearbook.
Simon's childhood was difficult and mostly unhappy due to his parents' "tempestuous marriage" and financial hardship caused by the Depression. He would sometimes block out their arguments by putting a pillow over his ears at night. His father often abandoned the family for months at a time, causing them further financial and emotional hardship. As a result, Simon and his brother Danny were sometimes forced to live with different relatives, or else their parents took in boarders for some income.
During an interview with writer Lawrence Grobel, Simon admitted, "To this day I never really knew what the reason for all the fights and battles were about between the two of them ... She'd hate him and be very angry, but he would come back and she would take him back. She really loved him." Among the reasons Simon became a writer was to fulfill his need to be independent of such emotional family issues, a need he recognized when he was seven or eight: "I'd better start taking care of myself somehow ... It made me strong as an independent person.
To escape difficulties at home he often took refuge in movie theaters, where he especially enjoyed comedies with silent stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. Simon appreciated Chaplin's ability to make people laugh and made writing comedy his long-term goal, and also saw it as a way to connect with people. "I was never going to be an athlete or a doctor." Simon recalls, "I was constantly being dragged out of movies for laughing too loud" and acknowledged that these childhood movies inspired him to write comedy: "I wanted to make a whole audience fall onto the floor, writhing and laughing so hard that some of them pass out."
I think part of what made me a comedy writer is the blocking out of some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude ... do something to laugh until I was able to forget what was hurting.
He began getting paid for writing comedy while still in high school, when at the age of fifteen, Simon and his brother created a series of comedy sketches for employees at an annual department store event. To develop his writing skill, he often spent three days a week at the library reading books by famous humorists such as Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman and S. J. Perelman.
Soon after graduating from high school, he signed up with the Army Air Force Reserve at New York University, and was eventually sent to Colorado as a corporal. It was during those years in the Reserve that Simon began writing professionally, starting as a sports editor. He was assigned to Lowry Air Force Base during 1945 and attended the University of Denver from 1945 to 1946.
Simon was married five times. His first marriage was in 1953 to dancer Joan Baim, a Martha Graham dancer. They had two daughters, Nancy and Ellen. Joan died of bone cancer in 1973, aged 41. That same year Simon married actress Marsha Mason. The marriage lasted ten years, and three of her four Oscar-nominated roles were in films written by Simon. His third wife was actress Diane Lander, to whom he was married twice (1987–1988 and 1990–1998). He adopted her daughter, Bryn, from a previous relationship. Finally, he married actress Elaine Joyce in 1999, and this marriage lasted until his death in 2018.
Neil Simon died on August 26, 2018, aged 91, of complications from pneumonia after being on life support while hospitalized for renal failure.
Simon began writing radio and television scripts with his brother Danny Simon, tutored by radio humorist Goodman Ace who ran a short-lived writing workshop for CBS. The Simon brothers wrote for the radio series The Robert Q. Lewis Show, which led to other writing jobs. Max Liebman hired the duo for his popular television comedy series Your Show of Shows. He later wrote scripts for The Phil Silvers Show; the episodes were broadcast during 1958 and 1959.
Simon credited these two latter writing jobs for their importance to his career: "between the two of them, I spent five years and learned more about what I was eventually going to do than in any other previous experience." He added, "I knew when I walked into Your Show of Shows, that this was the most talented group of writers that up until that time had ever been assembled together." Simon described a typical writing session with the show:
There were about seven writers, plus Sid, Carl Reiner, and Howie Morris ... Mel Brooks and maybe Woody Allen would write one of the other sketches ... everyone would pitch in and rewrite, so we all had a part of it ... It was probably the most enjoyable time I ever had in writing with other people.
Simon incorporated some of their experiences into his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993). A 2001 TV adaptation of the play won him two Emmy Award nominations. The first Broadway show Simon wrote for was Catch a Star! (1955), collaborating on sketches with his brother, Danny.
During 1961, Simon's first Broadway play, Come Blow Your Horn, ran for 678 performances at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Simon took three years to write that first play, partly because he was also working on writing television scripts. He rewrote the play at least twenty times from beginning to end: "It was the lack of belief in myself. I said, 'This isn't good enough. It's not right.' ... It was the equivalent of three years of college." That play, besides being a "monumental effort" for Simon, was a turning point in his career: "The theater and I discovered each other."
After Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), for which he won a Tony Award, Simon became a national celebrity and was considered "the hottest new playwright on Broadway." Those successful productions were followed by many others. During 1966, Simon had four shows playing at Broadway theatres simultaneously: Sweet Charity, The Star-Spangled Girl, The Odd Couple, and Barefoot in the Park.
His professional association with producer Emanuel Azenberg began with The Sunshine Boys and continued with The Good Doctor, God's Favorite, Chapter Two, They're Playing Our Song, I Ought to Be in Pictures, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, Jake's Women, The Goodbye Girl and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, among others. His subjects ranged from serious to romantic comedy to more serious drama. Overall, he garnered seventeen Tony nominations and won three.
Simon also adapted material written by others for his plays, such as the musical Little Me (1962) from the novel by Patrick Dennis, Sweet Charity (1966) from a screenplay by Federico Fellini and others (for Nights of Cabiria, 1957), and Promises, Promises (1968) from a film by Billy Wilder, The Apartment. Simon was occasionally brought in as an uncredited "script doctor" to help hone the book for Broadway-bound plays or musicals under development such as A Chorus Line (1975). During the 1970s, he wrote a string of successful plays, sometimes having more than one playing at the same time to standing room only audiences. By then he was recognized as one of the country's leading playwrights, but his inner drive kept him writing:
Did I relax and watch my boyhood ambitions being fulfilled before my eyes? Not if you were born in the Bronx, in the Depression and Jewish, you don't.
Simon drew "extensively on his own life and experience" for his stories, with settings typically in working-class New York City neighborhoods, similar to ones in which he grew up. In 1983, he began writing the first of three autobiographical plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985) and Broadway Bound (1986). With them, he received his greatest critical acclaim. After his follow-up play, Lost in Yonkers (1991), Simon was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Simon also wrote screenplays for more than twenty films, for which he received four Academy Award nominations. Some of his screenplays are adaptations of his own plays, along with some original work, including The Out-of-Towners, Murder by Death, and The Goodbye Girl. Although most of his films were successful, for Simon movies were always secondary in importance to his plays:
I always feel more like a writer when I'm writing a play, because of the tradition of the theater ... there is no tradition of the screenwriter, unless he is also the director, which makes him an auteur. So I really feel that I'm writing for posterity with plays, which have been around since the Greek times.
Simon chose not to write the screenplay for the first film adaptation of his work, Come Blow Your Horn (1963), preferring to focus on his playwriting. However, he was disappointed with the film, and tried to control his film screenplays thereafter. Many of his earlier screenplays were similar to the play, a characteristic Simon observed in hindsight: "I really didn't have an interest in films then ... I was mainly interested in continuing writing for the theater ... The plays never became cinematic." The Odd Couple (1968), however, was a highly successful early adaptation, faithful to the stage play but also opened out, having more scenic variety.
Simon's characters are portrayed as "likable" and easy for audiences to identify with, often having difficult relationships in marriage, friendship, or business, as they "struggle to find a sense of belonging." Theater critic John Lahr described his primary theme as being about "the silent majority," many of whom are "frustrated, edgy, and insecure."
One of Simon's hallmarks is his "great compassion for his fellow human beings." There is always "an implied seeking for solutions to human problems through relationships with other people [and] Simon is able to deal with serious topics of universal and enduring concern," while still making people laugh. Simon's plays "are essentially about friendships, even when they are about marriage or siblings or crazy aunts ..."
Many of Simon's plays are set in New York City, which gives them an urban flavor. Within that setting, they include themes of marital conflict, sometimes infidelity, sibling rivalry, adolescence, bereavement, and fear of aging. Despite their serious nature, Simon continually managed to tell the stories with humor, developing the theme to include both realism and comedy. Simon said he would tell aspiring comedy playwrights "not to try to make it funny ... try and make it real and then the comedy will come."
"When I was writing plays," he said, "I was almost always (with some exceptions) writing a drama that was funny ... I wanted to tell a story about real people." Simon explained how he managed this combination:
My view is, "how sad and funny life is." I can't think of a humorous situation that does not involve some pain. I used to ask, "What is a funny situation?" Now I ask, "What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?"
Politics seldom had any overt role in Simon's stories, and his characters avoid confronting society despite their personal problems. "Simon is simply interested in showing human beings as they are—with their foibles, eccentricities, and absurdities." His popularity relies on his ability to portray a "painful comedy," where characters say and do funny things in extreme contrast to the unhappiness they are feeling.
Simon's plays are generally semi-autobiographical, often portraying aspects of his troubled childhood and first marriages: "I suppose you could practically trace my life through my plays." They also "invariably depict the plight of white middle-class Americans, most of whom are New Yorkers and many of whom are Jewish, like himself." In plays such as Lost in Yonkers, Simon suggests the necessity of a loving marriage, opposite to that of his parents', and when children are deprived of it in their home, "they end up emotionally damaged and lost."
One of the key influences on Simon was his Jewish heritage, although he was unaware of it when writing. For example, in the Brighton Beach trilogy, the lead character is a "master of self-deprecating humor, cleverly poking fun at himself and at his Jewish culture as a whole." Simon himself said that his characters are people who are "often self-deprecating and [who] usually see life from the grimmest point of view," He explained, "I see humor in even the grimmest of situations. And I think it's possible to write a play so moving it can tear you apart and still have humor in it." This theme in writing "belongs to a tradition of Jewish humor ... a tradition which values laughter as a defense mechanism and which sees humor as a healing, life-giving force."
Simon's characters are typically portrayed as "imperfect, unheroic figures who are at heart decent human beings." Simon's style of comedy can be traced to that of Menander, a playwright of ancient Greece. Menander also used average people in domestic life settings, blending humor and tragedy into his themes.
Before writing, Simon tried to create an image of his characters. He said that the play Star Spangled Girl, which was a box-office failure, was "the only play I ever wrote where I did not have a clear visual image of the characters in my mind as I sat down at the typewriter." He considered "character building" an obligation, stating that the "trick is to do it skillfully."
Simon's characters often amuse the audience with sparkling "zingers," believable due to Simon's skill with writing dialogue. He reproduced speech so adroitly that his characters are usually plausible and easy for audiences to identify with and laugh at. His characters may also express "serious and continuing concerns of mankind ... rather than purely topical material." They are always impatient "with phoniness, with shallowness, with amorality," and sometimes express "implicit and explicit criticism of modern urban life with its stress, its vacuity, and its materialism." However, Simon's characters are never seen thumbing his or her nose at society.
The key aspect most consistent in Simon's writing style is comedy, situational and verbal, presenting serious subjects in a way that makes audiences "laugh to avoid weeping." He achieved this with rapid-fire jokes and wisecracks, in a wide variety of urban settings and stories. This creates a "sophisticated, urban humor," and results in plays that represent "middle America." Simon created everyday, apparently simple conflicts with his stories, which became comical premises for problems which needed be solved.
Another feature of his writing is his adherence to traditional values regarding marriage and family. This thread of the monogamous family runs though most of Simon's work, and is one he felt was necessary to give stability to society. As a result, some critics described his stories as somewhat old fashioned, although most members of his audiences "are delighted to find Simon upholding their own beliefs." Where infidelity is the theme in a Simon play, rarely, if ever, do those characters gain happiness: In Simon's eyes, "divorce is never a victory."
Another aspect of Simon's style is his ability to combine both comedy and drama. Barefoot in the Park, for example, is a light romantic comedy, while portions of Plaza Suite were written as farce, and portions of California Suite can be described as high comedy.
Simon was willing to experiment and take risks, often moving his plays in new and unexpected directions. In The Gingerbread Lady, he combined comedy with tragedy; Rumors (1988) is a full-length farce; in Jake's Women and Brighton Beach Memoirs he used dramatic narration; in The Good Doctor, he created a "pastiche of sketches" around various stories by Chekhov; and Fools (1981), was written as a fairy-tale romance similar to stories by Sholem Aleichem. Although some of these efforts failed to win approval from many critics, they nonetheless demonstrate Simon's "seriousness as a playwright and his interest in breaking new ground."
During most of his career Simon's work received mixed reviews, with many critics admiring his comedy skills, much of it a blend of "humor and pathos." Other critics were less complimentary, noting that much of his dramatic structure was weak and sometimes relied too heavily on gags and one-liners. As a result, "literary scholars had generally ignored Simon's early work, regarding him as a commercially successful playwright rather than a serious dramatist." Seldom did even the most astute critic recognize the depths that really exist in the plays of Neil Simon. Clive Barnes, theater critic for The New York Times, wrote that like his British counterpart Noël Coward, Simon was "destined to spend most of his career underestimated," but nonetheless very "popular."
Simon towers like a Colossus over the American Theater. When Neil Simon's time comes to be judged among successful playwrights of the twentieth century, he will definitely be first among equals. No other playwright in history has had the run he has: fifteen "Best Plays" of their season.
This attitude changed after 1991, when he won a Pulitzer Prize for drama with Lost in Yonkers. Pulitzer Advisory Board member Douglas Watt noted that it was the only play nominated by all five jury members, and that they judged it "a mature work by an enduring (and often undervalued) American playwright."
Biographer Edythe McGovern compared Simon with noted earlier playwrights, including Ben Jonson, Molière, and George Bernard Shaw, pointing out that those playwrights had "successfully raised fundamental and sometimes tragic issues of universal and therefore enduring interest without eschewing the comic mode." She concludes, "It is my firm conviction that Neil Simon should be considered a member of this company ... an invitation long overdue." McGovern attempts to explain the response of many critics:
Above all, his plays which may appear simple to those who never look beyond the fact that they are amusing are, in fact, frequently more perceptive and revealing of the human condition than many plays labeled complex dramas.
Similarly, literary critic Robert Johnson explains that Simon's plays have given us a "rich variety of entertaining, memorable characters" who portray the human experience, often with serious themes. Although his characters are "more lifelike, more complicated and more interesting" than most of the characters audiences see on stage, Simon has "not received as much critical attention as he deserves."
While other writers have created vivid characters, they have not created nearly as many as Simon did: "Simon has no peers among contemporary comedy playwrights," stated biographer Robert Johnson. Lawrence Grobel, in fact, called him "the Shakespeare of his time," and possibly the "most successful playwright in history."
Because Americans have always tended to underrate writers who make them laugh, Neil Simon's accomplishment have not gained as much serious critical praise as they deserve. His best comedies contain not only a host of funny lines, but numerous memorable characters and an incisively dramatized set of beliefs that are not without merit. Simon is, in fact, one of the finest writers of comedy in American literary history.
In 1965, he won the Tony Award for Best Playwright (The Odd Couple), and in 1975, a special Tony Award for his overall contribution to American theater. Simon won the 1978 Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay for The Goodbye Girl. For Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), he was awarded the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, followed by another Tony Award for Best Play of 1985, Biloxi Blues. In 1991 he won the Pulitzer Prize along with the Tony Award for Lost in Yonkers (1991). In 2006, Simon received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Simon held three honorary degrees; a Doctor of Humane Letters from Hofstra University, a Doctor of Letters from Marquette University and a Doctor of Law from Williams College.
In 1983 Simon became the only living playwright to have a New York City theatre named after him. The Alvin Theatre on Broadway was renamed the Neil Simon Theatre in his honor, and he was an honorary member of the Walnut Street Theatre's board of trustees. Also in 1983, Simon was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
Simon was credited as contributing writer to at least 49 plays on Broadway:
In addition to the plays and musicals above, Simon has twice rewritten or updated his 1965 play The Odd Couple, both of which versions have run under new titles. These new versions are The Female Odd Couple (1985), and Oscar and Felix: A New Look at the Odd Couple (2002).
Simon, as a member of a writing staff, penned material for the following shows:
The following made-for-TV movies were all written solely by Simon, and all based on his earlier plays:
All links retrieved October 29, 2018.
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