Simon, Neil (1927—)

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Simon, Neil (1927—)

Since the early 1960s, Broadway has almost never been without a Neil Simon hit play, which has earned the prolific New Yorker the title of the world's most commercially successful playwright. In his earlier work, with such hits as The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys, Simon garnered a reputation for churning out charming comedies that were virtually guaranteed long Broadway runs. But in his later work, including the 1980s bittersweet autobiographical trilogy composed of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound, Simon conclusively proved that he was capable of more than light comedy. In the early 1990s, when Simon's Lost in Yonkers earned four Tony Awards and the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, the transformation of Neil Simon from Broadway wonder to "serious author" was complete. With plays that both bespeak and laugh at the human condition, Neil Simon is one of the world's best-loved playwrights and a fixture of American popular culture.

Born Marvin Neil Simon in the Bronx, New York on July 4, 1927, America's greatest living comedic playwright was raised in a troubled Depression-era household, which would ultimately provide the inspiration for much of his future work. Growing up with a father who frequently abandoned his family, and a mother for whom young Neil felt a great sense of responsibility, the boy looked up to his older brother, Danny, who would become his most important influence. With eight years difference in their ages, Neil idolized his older brother, who had dropped out of high school to become a comedy writer. Danny Simon, about whom Woody Allen would later say, "Everything I know about comedy I learned from Danny Simon," was a comic genius. But so, as it all turned out, was his younger brother, Neil, whom Danny nicknamed Doc, because of Neil's childhood infatuation with a toy medical set. By the time Doc, as he was always called, was sixteen, the two brothers had begun working together.

During World War II, both Simon brothers joined the armed forces, and when they returned to New York City, they soon found work writing for television, which was in its infancy. During the early 1950s, in what would come to be known as the Golden Age of Television, Danny and Doc Simon were staff writers for such classic programs as Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows and Phil Silvers's The Sergeant Bilko Show. However, although the Simon brothers almost exclusively wrote for small screen, one of their sketches did make it to Broadway in the 1956 revue New Faces, starring Maggie Smith.

After working with his brother for many years, Neil Simon went out on his own. But as the quality of the shows for which he wrote gradually began to dwindle, Simon began dreaming of writing for the theatre. He began his first play when he was thirty years old. Almost two years and twenty-two drafts later, Come Blow Your Horn, based on Simon's family and, specifically, the relationship between Neil and Danny, opened on Broadway in 1961. Although the initial revues were lukewarm, audiences loved it. And when Noel Coward and Groucho Marx were quoted in a Broadway column as finding the play hilarious, Come Blow Your Horn took off, playing 677 performances.

Neil Simon's career as a playwright was launched. His next effort was the book for a 1962 Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh musical called Little Me, a vehicle for Sid Caesar, for whom Simon had previously written. A year later, Barefoot in the Park, directed by first-timer Mike Nichols and starring Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford, opened at the Biltmore. Although the play would go on to become a huge success, running for over 1,500 performances, Simon was greeted with the dual-edged reviews that would forever plague him. Howard Taubman of The New York Times wrote that "Mr. Simon evidently has no aspirations except to be diverting, and he achieves those with the dash of a highly skilled writer."

Two years later, Simon followed up with his second unqualified hit, The Odd Couple, starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Author. By 1966, with Barefoot in the Park still running, Simon, who had also written the book for the 1966 Bob Fosse musical, Sweet Charity, was now earning approximately $20,000 a week as a playwright. Not yet forty years old, Simon was already the most commercially successful playwright in the world.

Throughout the 1960s, Simon continued to write hit after hit—Plaza Suite, Promises, Promises, Star Spangled Girl, and The Last of the Red Hot Lovers. However, despite this string of successes, Simon continued to be attacked by the critics for his glib comedy and commercialism. And so he set out to write his first "serious play." The Gingerbread Lady opened in 1971; The Prisoner of Second Avenue followed a year later. Both were successful, but still critical recognition continued to elude him. Then tragedy struck in his personal life in 1973 when his wife of twenty years and the mother of his two daughters, Joan Baim Simon, died of cancer. Always a prolific writer, Simon struggled through Joan's illness and death while writing The Sunshine Boys, a play about aging vaudevillians, which would open at the end of 1973.

By the early 1970s, Simon had written ten Broadway plays, which had grossed over $30 million and had run almost 7,000 performances. He also had written three books for musicals, which had run over 2,000 performances, and still he continued to work, rarely going a day without writing.

Just a year after his wife's death, Neil Simon married actress Marsha Mason, an Academy-Award nominated actress and the star of Simon's 1974 play, The Good Doctor. Not long thereafter, the couple moved to Hollywood, where they soon became popular members of the film community. Although Simon had written a number of screenplays based on his Broadway hits—Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite —he soon began to write exclusively for films, usually creating vehicles in which Marsha Mason starred. The Goodbye Girl, Chapter Two, and Only When I Laugh earned Mason three Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. Simon himself was nominated for four Oscars for screenwriting. But Simon's heart was still in the theatre, and so he continued to write for Broadway, where his California Suite opened in 1976—a play that the New York Times ' Clive Barnes called " Plaza Suite gone West."

Throughout his prolific career, much of Simon's material continued to be inspired by the people in his life. He said, "I've written about my brother over and over, my mother and father, my past wife, good friends. I've tried to write about them truthfully; these are all people I care for. I try to show the good and bad parts." In the early 1980s, Simon embarked on a trilogy that would chronicle his younger years. The first play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, opened on Broadway in 1982, with Matthew Broderick playing Simon's alter ego, Eugene. Chronicling the trials and tribulations of a Brooklyn family struggling through the Depression, Brighton Beach Memoirs was awarded Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle. Running for over 1,500 performances at the Alvin, the theatre was renamed the Neil Simon Theatre during the run of the play.

In 1983, Neil Simon and Marsha Mason were divorced. The next year, Simon returned to Broadway with Biloxi Blues, the second play in his autobiographical trilogy. This time, Simon was awarded the Tony for Best Play. Matthew Broderick returned to Broadway as Eugene, undergoing Army Basic Training during World War II. It would be two more years before the third play of the trilogy, Broadway Bound, would find it its way to the New York stage.

Simon followed up his award-winning trilogy with a witty piece about an attempted suicide at a dinner party, called Rumors, which ran for 531 performances on Broadway during the 1988-89 season. But his next play, Jake's Women, would prove one of Simon's first flops in years, initially not even making it to Broadway after a tryout at the Old Globe in San Diego. Thus, it came as a wonderful kind of redemption when Simon's 1991 play, Lost in Yonkers, received not only four Tony Awards, including Best Play, but also the coveted Pulitzer Prize. Because Simon had long been decried as a "popular" playwright, he had never expected to win the prestigious Pulitzer. Finally, after years of commercial success, Simon had been accepted into the pantheon of America's great playwrights.

Throughout the 1990s, Simon continued to write at his usual breakneck pace, although his Broadway hits were fewer and farther between. With plays appearing on the London stage and even off-Broadway, Simon focussed his energies on reworking Jake's Women, writing The Goodbye Girl for the stage, and even penning the first volume of his memoirs, Rewrites. Although Simon is not the prolific playwright he once was, he still remains one of the theatre's most recognizable figures. A Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle, and Tony Award-winning playwright and an Academy-Award nominated screenwriter, Neil Simon is one of the icons of twentieth-century film and theatre—a man whose comic view of American life has helped to shape popular culture.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Brown, Gene. Show Time: A Chronology of Broadway and the Theatre from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York, Macmillan, 1997.

Costanzo, Peter. "The Title Page Interviews." January 25, 1999.

Simon, Neil. Rewrites: A Memoir. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.