July 4, the American Independence Day, is the birthday of the most popular living playwright in the United States, Neil Simon.
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Born 86 years ago today, between 1961, when “Come Blow Your Horn” premiered on Broadway, and 2003, the last year he presented a new play on Broadway, Simon has had more than 30 original plays. He has also written the screenplays for almost as many films.
Simon not only won a Pulitzer Prize and three Tony awards (with 17 nominations): he is the only playwright to have a Broadway theater named for him during his lifetime.
Marvin Neil Simon was born in 1927 in New York, and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Irving Simon, was a clothing salesman, and his mother, Marnie Simon, raised him and his older brother, Danny (1918-2005), who himself became a successful television writer.
The marriage was an unhappy one, with Irving abandoning the family for long stretches, at a time, and with Danny and Neil sometimes being farmed out to relatives. Neil Simon later told an interviewer that he believed the instability of his home life helped him become a writer because, “I began to think early on, at the age of seven or eight, that I’d better start taking care of myself somehow, emotionally.”
Indeed, the world that Simon portrayed was that of middle-class Americans, usually New Yorkers, quite often Jewish. Though the plays were almost always comedies, often side-splitting ones, they always conveyed the pain, frustration and terrible human conflicts that are part-and-parcel of day-to-day life.
Simon has reported that he spent much of his childhood in movie theaters, and that he made his mark among friends by making them laugh -- not with jokes or one-liners, but with stories. When he was 15, he and his brother Danny took on the assignment of writing comedy sketches for employees of a department store to be performed at an annual company event.
After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, in 1945, Simon enrolled with the Army Air Force reserves, and began college at New York University. Later, sent to serve at a base in Colorado, he studied briefly at the University of Denver, but he didn’t earn a bachelor’s degree.
Mel Brooks, a most uniquely funny man
By 1948, Simon was back in New York and working in the mailroom at the Warner Brothers offices there, when he started working together with Danny writing scripts for radio and television. During the next five years, he wrote for TV’s “Phil Silvers Show” and for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” experiences that he has described as essential to the development of his craft. At the latter, the writing team included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart (creator of “Mash”) and Joseph Stein (who wrote the book for “Fiddler on the Roof”).
In a 1992 interview with James Lipton in Paris Review, Simon described the period as “the most excruciatingly hilarious time in my life.” It was also painful for him, he went on, because of his own shyness: “So I sat next to Carl Reiner and whispered my jokes to him. He was my spokesman, he’d jump up and say, He’s got it! He’s got it!”
Simon also recalled how the team would bicker continuously among themselves, often about who was “slacking off. Mel Brooks was the main culprit. We all came in to work at ten o’clock in the morning, but he showed up at one o’clock. We’d say, That’s it. We’re sick and tired of this. Either Mel comes in at ten o’clock or we go to Sid and do something about it. At about ten to one, Mel would come in with a straw hat, fling it across the room, and say, Lindy [Charles Lindbergh, who had flown across the Atlantic more than 25 years earlier] made it! -- and everyone would fall down hysterical. He didn’t need the eight hours we put in. He needed four hours.” Brooks, he concluded “is, maybe, the most uniquely funny man I’ve ever met.”
Simon spent three years writing “Come Blow Your Horn.” The process was lengthy because he was still working in TV at the time, but also because he has said he rewrote the play some 20 times, “And I mean from beginning to end.” It opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater in 1961, and ran for 678 performances, played in London’s West End, and was adapted for the screen, starring Frank Sinatra. Norman Lear wrote the screenplay, and Simon was not happy with the way it turned out; thereafter he usually wrote the screen versions of his plays.
His first Tony
For the next three decades, Simon turned out hit after hit, and at one peak, in 1966, had four plays running on Broadway at one time. Two of them were “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple,” which starred Walter Matthau and Art Carney, and was directed by Mike Nichols. That play, about two men, the insufferably fastidious Felix Ungar, whose wife has left him, and the slovenly and long-divorced Oscar Madison, with whom Felix moves in, was adapted for the screen and also was a long-running TV series. In its theatrical form, it won Simon his first Tony. (The other two plays running simultaneously were “Sweet Charity” and “The Star-Spangled Girl.”)
Other Simon hits have included “Promises, Promises,” “The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers,” “Plaza Suite,” “The Gingerbread Lady” and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.” For 1991’s “Lost in Yonkers,” a comic drama about the coming-of-age of a Jewish boy in a highly dysfunctional family, he won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony.
Among Neil Simon’s original screenplays have been “The Goodbye Girl,” “The Out-of-Towners” and “The Heartbreak Kid.”
One of Simon’s most important achievements is the trilogy he wrote in the 1980s comprised of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.” A series of semi-autobiographical works, they depict, respectively, the late-1930s childhood, army service and first professional steps of Eugene Jerome as a comedy writer. All three were commercially successful, and the first two were adapted for the screen. And yet, four years ago, when “Brighton Beach Memoirs” was revived, at the cost of $3 million, on Broadway, it closed after a week. Which perhaps says more about the changing sensibility of American audiences and their taste in humor than it does about the quality of the play itself.
Simon’s first marriage, to Joan Bairn, lasted 20 years and ended with her death. Since then, he’s been married four more times, and the ups and downs of his family life have been reflected in much of what he’s written. In the 1970s, after the death of Bairn, he moved to California, and has been based there since.