Simon, (Marvin) Neil

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SIMON, (Marvin) Neil

(b. 4 July 1927 in New York City), playwright and screenwriter whose works, such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, became classics of 1960s stage and film.

Simon's father, Irving, was a salesman of piece goods, or fabric for dresses. He had an uneven temperament and often abandoned his family and then returned. Simon's mother, Mamie (Levy), made money by running poker games, taking in boarders, and working at Gimbel's department store. Simon attended Woodside High School and DeWitt Clinton High School, graduating in 1944. Briefly, in 1944, he attended New York University, hoping to major in engineering, but he was a member of the reserves and was called to duty in the Army Air Corps. He was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi, for training and then to Lowry Field, Colorado, where he served as editor for the base newspaper and where he briefly attended the University of Denver. He never earned a college degree. In 1946 Simon was discharged from the army, and his brother, Danny, helped him get a job in the mailroom of Warner Bros.

He and Danny eventually found jobs writing comedy for radio shows, usually as a team. During the 1950s they began writing for television shows as well. Simon married the dancer Joan Baim on 30 September 1953; they had two children, and he settled into what seemed to be a comfortable career of writing for Sid Caesar and other television stars. Even though he received Emmy nominations in 1957 and 1958 as a writer for the series Caesar's Hour, Simon decided that he had to try to break free of the constraints of television.

Simon's first play, Come Blow Your Horn, went through perhaps forty producers, each one liking the play and suggesting changes while declining the chance to stage it. Finally, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, the Bucks County Playhouse agreed to put on his play in August 1960. Simon took his wife and children to Pennsylvania with him. The producers of the play were Michael Ellis and William Hammerstein, the son of Oscar Hammerstein. The play had a first-time director, Stanley Prager, with the game-show host Gene Rayburn in the lead. Simon listened to audience responses to his play about his own family and made seemingly endless rewrites in an effort to eliminate dead spots in the performances.

The play was brought to the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway on 22 February 1961 and ran for eighty-four weeks, a very good run. It would become a staple of repertory theaters, yet the success was not easy. After the first night, the producers were ready to close the show in a week, because the audience had been small and not particularly responsive. Instead of quitting, the producers, Simon, and others connected with the play distributed free tickets everywhere they could think of, building interest by word of mouth. After a week or so, this began to work. The play was funny, and people liked it. The veteran character actor Davey Burns, who milked his every line for all the laughs it could receive, played Simon's father. Irving Simon, who saw the play a few days after it opened on Broadway, told his son that the play was very funny, especially the character of the father—apparently not realizing that he himself was the basis for the father.

During the run of Come Blow Your Horn, Simon and Joan worried that fame and fortune would ruin their marriage—that constant public attention would prove too great a strain on their private family life. As it turned out, their marriage remained strong. Another anxiety for Simon was that he would prove a one-play wonder and that failure lay just ahead. While struggling to write a new play, Simon received a call from the producer Ernest Martin, who asked him to write the dialogue for a musical, Little Me, based on a book by Patrick Dennis. In it, a poor girl marries seven men successively, each husband richer than the previous one; eventually she reaches the man who had loved her many years earlier, when she was still poor. One of Simon's contributions to the musical was the idea to have one actor play all seven husbands, and he suggested that Sid Caesar be cast for the part. The musical opened first in Philadelphia to good reviews, but Simon was not satisfied and revised sections of the dialogue. On 17 November 1962, Little Me opened in the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on New York's Broadway. Simon was still not satisfied with the tone of the show, which he thought was uneven, tilting back and forth from farce to satire, but reviews were excellent.

Simon's next play was Barefoot in the Park. Like Come Blow Your Horn, it had a first-time director, Mike Nichols, who launched his brilliant directorial career with Simon's play. Again, Simon revised the play many times while it ran in the Bucks County Playhouse. It was inspired in part by Joan and the early years of their marriage. In it, Paul and Corie Bratter argue almost the whole time, even though they are in love. Corie wants warmth and companionship, but Paul is too absorbed in his work as a lawyer. In casting the play, Simon, Nichols, and the producer Saint Subber settled on Robert Redford, who was then just beginning to build a name for himself, to play Paul. Elizabeth Ashley played Corie.

The pair was electrifying, the actors delivering their lines with conviction, as if the words were their own. The comedy was character-driven, meaning that the humor came out of what the audience learned about the characters' lives. When Barefoot in the Park opened in the Biltmore Theater on Broadway on 23 October 1963, theater reviewers loved the production. Still insecure about his success, Simon fretted that the play would be his last, that he would never have another success. Barefoot in the Park ran for more than fifteen hundred shows on Broadway and became an international hit. Simon wrote the screenplay for the 1969 motion picture version, in which Redford again played Paul, and Jane Fonda played the part of Corie. The movie was popular and helped extend Simon's fame beyond Broadway.

It was with his next play, The Odd Couple, inspired by Simon's brother, Danny, and one of his roommates, that Simon secured his place in literary history. The main characters—Oscar Madison, an incorrigible slob, and Felix Unger, a fanatic for neatness and order—quickly became icons of popular culture, known to hundreds of millions of people through the play, the motion picture, and the television series. The premise was that these two divorced men lived together and irritated each other with the personal qualities that had caused their divorces.

The Odd Couple debuted in Wilmington, Delaware, where problems with the third and final act became apparent. The play next appeared in Boston, with a new third act that still proved neither funny nor well organized. The Boston theater critic Elliot Norton helped Simon by suggesting that the Pigeon sisters of the second act be included in the third. The possibilities for character development and comedy in the suggestion struck Simon right away. On 10 March 1965 the play opened with Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, with Mike Nichols directing and Saint Subber producing, at the Plymouth Theater on Broadway. Simon received a Tony for best author for the play, which ran on Broadway for two years. Simon's screenplay version of The Odd Couple became a 1968 Paramount motion picture starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. The film was a hit, but, unfortunately, Paramount persuaded Simon to sell the licensing rights for $125,000. Paramount then made the television series, from which Simon received nothing. Simon believed that he lost more than $20 million in the deal.

Simon was not satisfied with his next two productions, Sweet Charity and The Star-Spangled Girl. Bob Fosse directed Sweet Charity, and Simon loved his work, but the play was based on a fairly serious work, The Nights of Cabiria, by Federico Fellini. Simon thought the depth of characterization of the original was lost during revisions of his script for the musical. It opened at the newly remodeled Palace Theater on Broadway on 29 January 1966 to standing room only and became the most popular of Simon's musicals. Simon believed that he made numerous mistakes with The Star-Spangled Girl that ended up making the characters too shallow. The play opened 21 December 1966 in the Plymouth Theater to mostly friendly reviews. This opening gave Simon the distinction of having four shows on Broadway at the same time.

Simon's next play was Plaza Suite, which began as a series of four one-act plays that he reduced to three because he thought the fourth was not to up his standards. Each short play tells a story of an event that takes place in a hotel. Mike Nichols directed the production, and George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton starred in each play. Scott suffered from bouts of profound depression, and one problem in producing Plaza Suite was that Scott disappeared more than once, the second time vowing that he was quitting for good. About a week later he showed up, put on his makeup, and went on stage as if nothing had happened. Plaza Suite began its Broadway run on 14 February 1968 in the Plymouth Theater and was a triumph. Simon wrote the screenplay for the 1971 motion picture version, which was also a popular success.

Simon's wife, Joan, died in 1973. Later that year he married the actress Marsha Mason. The couple had no children and divorced in 1982. In January 1987 Simon married Diane Lander, and they adopted a daughter. They divorced in 1988, remarried in February 1990, and divorced again in 1998. Simon married Elaine Joyce in September 1999. Simon finished the 1960s with the plays Promises, Promises (1968), a reworking of the film The Apartment, and Last of the Red-Hot Lovers (1969), about a middle-aged man's love affairs. His next big hit was The Sunshine Boys in 1972. In 1985 he won a best drama Tony Award for Biloxi Blues (1984), and in 1991 he repeated the Tony win with Lost in Yonkers, for which he also received the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Simon is recognized not only as America's most prolific playwright but also as one of the country's most consistently good playwrights—and probably the most loved. Millions of people attend his plays and view his motion pictures simply because they associate his name with high-quality writing and entertaining comedy.

Simon's Rewrites: A Memoir (1996) is a brilliantly written account of his life up to the mid-1970s and is entertaining reading. The Play Goes On: A Memoir (1999) is somewhat more diffuse than Rewrites, but it, too, is entertaining. In "I Try to Walk a Fine Line Between Laughter and Tears," an interview in U.S. News & World Report 98 (22 Apr. 1985), Simon tells about what he hopes to achieve in a play. Alec Foege and Michael Fleeman outline Simon's private life in "What's Up, Doc?" in People Weekly (8 Nov. 1999). William A. Henry III offers details of Simon's family relationships in "Reliving a Poignant Past: Neil Simon's Best Comedy Looks Homeward" in Time (15 Dec. 1986).

Kirk H. Beetz