Marvin Neil Simon (born July 4, 1927) is an American playwright, screenwriter and author. He has written more than 30 plays and nearly the same number of movie screenplays, mostly adaptations of his plays. He has received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer.
Simon grew up in New York 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. After a few years in the Army Air Force Reserve, and after graduating from high school, he began writing comedy scripts for radio and some popular early television shows. Among them were Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows from 1950 (where he worked alongside other young writers including Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Selma Diamond), and The Phil Silvers Show, which ran from 1955 to 1959.
He began writing his own plays beginning with Come Blow Your Horn (1961), which took him three years to complete and ran for 678 performances on Broadway. It was followed by two more successful plays, Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), for which he won a Tony Award. It made him a national celebrity and "the hottest new playwright on Broadway." During the 1960s to 1980s, he wrote both original screenplays and stage plays, with some films actually based on his plays. His style ranged from romantic comedy to farce to more serious dramatic comedy. Overall, he has 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.
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 older brother by eight years, television writer and comedy teacher Danny Simon. He grew up in Washington Heights, Manhattan during the period of the Great Depression, graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School when he was sixteen, where he was nicknamed "Doc" and described as extremely shy in the school yearbook.:39
Simon's childhood was difficult and mostly unhappy due to his parents' "tempestuous marriage" and financial hardship caused by the Depression.:1 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.:2
During an interview with writer Lawrence Grobel, Simon stated: "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.":378 Simon states that among the reasons he 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.:378
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 recalls: "I was constantly being dragged out of movies for laughing too loud."
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.:2
Simon attributes these childhood movies for inspiring him to some day write comedy: "I wanted to make a whole audience fall onto the floor, writhing and laughing so hard that some of them pass out.":1 He 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.":379 He began creating comedy for which he got paid 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. And to help 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.:218
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, 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.:2
Two years later, he quit his job as a mailroom clerk in the Warner Brothers offices in Manhattan to write radio and television scripts with his brother Danny Simon, including tutelage by radio humourist Goodman Ace when Ace ran a short-lived writing workshop for CBS. They 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, for which he earned two Emmy Award nominations. He later wrote scripts for The Phil Silvers Show; the episodes were broadcast during 1958 and 1959.
Simon credits these two latter writing jobs for their importance to his career, stating that "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.":381 He adds, "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 describes 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.:382
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 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 at the same time. He rewrote the play at least twenty times from beginning to end::384 "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.":384 That play, besides being a "monumental effort" for Simon, was a turning point in his career: "The theater and I discovered each other.":3
After Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), for which he won a Tony Award, he became a national celebrity and was considered "the hottest new playwright on Broadway", writes Susan Koprince in her book on Simon.:3 Those successful productions were followed by others, including 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. His subjects ranged from serious to romantic comedy to more serious drama and less humor. Overall, he has garnered seventeen Tony nominations and won three.
During 1966, Simon had four shows playing at Broadway theaters at the same time: 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 during 1972 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.
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 has occasionally been 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. And while he was by then recognized as one of the country's leading playwrights, 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.:47
Simon has also drawn "extensively on his own life and experience" for his stories, with settings typically in working-class New York 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 has also written screenplays for more than twenty films, and he has received four Academy Award nominations for his screenplays. 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. But although most of his films have been successful, movies were always secondary in importance to his plays::372
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.:375
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", he explains. "I was mainly interested in continuing writing for the theater ... The plays never became cinematic".:153 The Odd Couple (1968), however, was a highly successful early adaptation, both faithful to the stage play but also opened out, having more scenic variety.
Theater critic John Lahr describes Simon's primary theme as being about "the silent majority", many of whom are "frustrated, edgy, and insecure". Simon's characters are also 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".:5 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", writes biographer Edythe McGovern, while still making people laugh.:11
She adds that one of Simon's hallmarks is his "great compassion for his fellow human beings,":188 an opinion similar to that of author Alan Cooper, who states that Simon's plays "are essentially about friendships, even when they are about marriage or siblings or crazy aunts ...":46
Many of Simon's plays are set in New York City, which gives them an urban flavor. Within that setting, Simon's themes, besides marital conflict, sometimes include infidelity, sibling rivalry, adolescences, bereavement, and fear of aging. And despite the serious nature of the themes, Simon has continually managed to tell the stories with humor, developing the theme to include both realism and comedy.:11 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.":232
"When I was writing plays," he says, "I was almost always (with some exceptions) writing a drama that was funny ... I wanted to tell a story about real people.":219 Simon explains how he manages 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?":14
In marriage relationships, his comedies often portray these struggles with plots of marital difficulties or fading love, sometimes leading to separation, divorce and child custody battles. Their endings would typically conclude, after many twists in the plot, to renewal of the relationships.:7
Politics seldom have 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.":9 Drama critic Richard Eder notes that Simon's 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.:14
Simon's plays are generally semi-autobiographical, often portraying aspects of his troubled childhood and first marriages. According to Koprince, Simon's plays also "invariably depict the plight of white middle-class Americans, most of whom are New Yorkers and many of whom are Jewish, like himself.":5 He states, "I suppose you could practically trace my life through my plays.":10 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".:13
One of the key influences on Simon is his Jewish heritage, says Koprince, although he is unaware of it when writing. For example, in the Brighton Beach trilogy, she explains, the lead character is a "master of self-deprecating humor, cleverly poking fun at himself and at his Jewish culture as a whole.":9 Simon himself has said that his characters are people who "often self-deprecating and [who] usually see life from the grimmest point of view,":9 explaining, "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, notes Koprince, "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.":9
Simon's characters are typically portrayed as "imperfect, unheroic figures who are at heart decent human beings", according to Koprince, and she traces Simon's style of comedy to that of Menander, a playwright of ancient Greece. Menander, like Simon, also used average people in domestic life settings, the stories also blending humor and tragedy into his themes.:6 Many of Simon's most memorable plays are built around two-character scenes, as in segments of California Suite and Plaza Suite.
Before writing, Simon tries to create an image of his characters. He says 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.":4 Simon considers "character building" as an obligation, stating that the "trick is to do it skillfully".:4 While other writers have created vivid characters, they have not created nearly as many as Simon: "Simon has no peers among contemporary comedy playwrights," states biographer Robert Johnson.:141
Simon's characters often amuse the audience with sparkling "zingers," believable due to Simon's skill with writing dialogue. He reproduces speech so "adroitly" that his characters are usually plausible and easy for audiences to identify with and laugh at.:190 His characters may also express "serious and continuing concerns of mankind ... rather than purely topical material".:10 McGovern notes that his characters are always impatient "with phoniness, with shallowness, with amorality", adding that they sometimes express "implicit and explicit criticism of modern urban life with its stress, its vacuity, and its materialism.":11 However, Simon's characters will never be seen thumbing his or her nose at society.":141
The key aspect most consistent in Simon's writing style is comedy, situational and verbal, and presents serious subjects in a way that makes audiences "laugh to avoid weeping.":192 He achieves this with rapid-fire jokes and wisecracks,:150 in a wide variety of urban settings and stories.:139 This creates a "sophisticated, urban humor", says editor Kimball King, and results in plays that represent "middle America.":1 Simon creates everyday, apparently simple conflicts with his stories, which become comical premises for problems which need be solved.:2–3
Another feature of his writing is his adherence to traditional values regarding marriage and family.:150 McGovern states that this thread of the monogamous family runs though most of Simon's work, and is one he feels is necessary to give stability to society.:189 Some critics have therefore described his stories as somewhat old fashioned, although Johnson points out that most members of his audiences "are delighted to find Simon upholding their own beliefs.":142 And where infidelity is the theme in a Simon play, rarely, if ever, do those characters gain happiness: "In Simon's eyes, adds Johnson, "divorce is never a victory.":142
Another aspect of Simon's style is his ability to combine both comedy and drama. Barefoot in the Park, for example, was a light romantic comedy, while portions of Plaza Suite were written as "farce", and portions of California Suite are "high comedy".:149
Simon was willing to experiment and take risks, often moving his plays in new and unexpected directions. In The Gingerbread Lady, he combines comedy with tragedy; Rumors (1988) was a full-length farce; in Jake's Women and Brighton Beach Memoirs he uses 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.:150 Although some of these efforts failed to win approval by many critics, Koprince claims that they nonetheless demonstrate Simon's "seriousness as a playwright and his interest in breaking new ground.":150
For most of his career Simon's work has received mixed reviews, with many critics admiring his comedy skills, much of it a blend of "humor and pathos".:4 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, notes Kopince, "literary scholars had generally ignored Simon's early work, regarding him as a commercially successful playwright rather than a serious dramatist.":4 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".:foreword
This attitude changed after 1991, when he won a Pulitzer Prize for drama with Lost in Yonkers. McGovern writes that "seldom has even the most astute critic recognized what depths really exist in the plays of Neil Simon.":foreword Although, when Lost in Yonkers was considered by the Pulitzer Advisory Board, 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.":1
McGovern compares 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.":foreword 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.:192
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.":preface Lawrence Grobel, in fact, calls him "the Shakespeare of his time", and possibly the "most successful playwright in history.":371 He states:
Broadway critic Walter Kerr tries to rationalize why Simon's work has been underrated:
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.:144
Simon has been married five times, to dancer Joan Baim (1953–1973), actress Marsha Mason (1973–1983), twice to actress Diane Lander (1987–1988 and 1990–1998), and currently actress Elaine Joyce. He is the father of Nancy and Ellen, from his first marriage, and Bryn, Lander's daughter from a previous relationship whom he adopted. His nephew is U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon and niece-in-law is U.S. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici.
In 2004, Simon received a kidney transplant from his long-time friend and publicist Bill Evans.
Simon has been conferred with three honoris causa degrees; a Doctor of Humane Letters from Hofstra University, a Doctor of Letters from Marquette University and a Doctor of Laws from Williams College. In 1983 Simon became the only living playwright to have a New York theatre named after him. The legitimate Broadway theater the Neil Simon Theatre, formerly the Alvin Theatre, was named in his honor, and he is 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.
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. 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).
The Neil Simon Festival is a professional summer repertory theatre devoted to preserving the works of Simon and his contemporaries. The Neil Simon Festival was founded by Richard Dean Bugg in 2003 and performs at the Heritage Center Theater in Cedar City, Utah.
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