“If you can go through life without experiencing pain you probably haven’t been born yet,” the playwright and screenwriter once quipped. For Neil Simon, the aches and pains pretty much started when he was born to squabbling parents, barely getting by amidst the Great Depression, in New York City on July 4, 1927. But a way with words and an uncanny knack for turning foibles, irritations, and disappointments into comic gold ensured he had the last laugh on life, as he amassed more Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer, with four Emmy nominations and a Pulitzer Prize added for good measure.
In 1983, 35 years after he and his older brother, Danny, began writing TV and radio scripts together, Simon received an extraordinary honor — Broadway’s Alvin Theatre, which also dated to 1927, was renamed for him, making him the only living playwright with a New York theater to his name. Its debut show as the Neil Simon was his own Brighton Beach Memoirs, a semi-autobiographical play that captures some of the turbulence of his upbringing, as its protagonist, Eugene Jerome, escapes to the movies as much as possible and feels stirred to write. “I learned to fend for myself very early…blocking out some of the really ugly, painful things in my childhood and covering it up with a humorous attitude,” he recalled.
The Simon brothers’ gift for gab attracted Sid Caesar, whose sketch comedy hit Your Show of Shows was an incubator for talent—the show’s contributors included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen. Two Emmy nominations followed. A show of skits he and Danny co-wrote, 1955’s Catch a Star!, marked his Broadway debut. In between TV scripting for Caesar and Phil Silvers, he wrote his first solo Broadway show, Come Blow Your Horn (1961). The comedy about a playboy who receives his comeuppance when he falls in love, much to the chagrin of his adoring younger brother, was a hit, but for Simon, not an overnight success — it took him three years of rewrites to ready it for production. Of the effort he put into his work, he said, “If no one ever took risks, Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine Floor.”
A prolific talent, he did, however, make it seem effortless. Barefoot in the Park (1963) and his enduring classic, The Odd Couple (1965), sealed his reputation as Broadway’s leading funnyman. He received the first of his 17 Tony nominations, and won the first of his three Tony Awards, for the latter, the tale of mismatched roommates suggested by the aftermath of divorces he had observed. In adapting the play for the film version, something he did frequently to protect the integrity of his work, he received the first of his four Oscar nominations, in 1969 — but later said the one regret of his life was selling the TV rights for a song, thinking it would have no future as a sitcom. (With Tony Randall as fussy Felix and Jack Klugman as slovenly Oscar, The Odd Couple ran from 1970-1975 and is still in syndication.)
With those two shows still running, Simon added The Star-Spangled Girl (his first flop) and the book for the successful Bob Fosse musical Sweet Charity in 1966, giving him an unprecedented quartet of shows on Broadway that year. The hits kept coming, some, like Plaza Suite (1968), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), The Sunshine Boys (1972), and California Suite (1976), familiar from the successful movies later adapted from them. Directly for the silver screen, Simon wrote The Out-of-Towners (1970), about an Ohio couple’s disastrous foray into New York, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), a scathing comedy about the discontents of marriage, the all-star mystery spoof Murder by Death (1976), and the star-crossed romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl (1977), for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Also receiving a nomination for that film was his second wife and then-muse, actress Marsha Mason. Mason, who helped Simon pick up the pieces of his life after the death of his first wife, inspired his 1977 play Chapter Two, starred as a version of herself in its 1979 film version, and appeared in several of his plays and movies during the 10-year span of their marriage, which ended in 1983. During this period (which saw him win a special Tony Award in 1975), Simon started delving deeper into the anxieties that drove him, and those closest to him. Composer Marvin Hamlisch said that when he and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, his girlfriend, set to work on a musical adaptation with Simon, little happened—until the playwright told them he was fascinated by their relationship and wanted to write about that instead, resulting in the hit They’re Playing Our Song (1979).
The “Eugene trilogy” that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs yielded Biloxi Blues (1985), for which Simon won his second competitive Tony, and Broadway Bound (1986), which spotlights the dynamic between surrogates for Danny and Neil Simon. While the laughs were still there, critics appreciated Simon’s keener eye toward the fragility of families and aspects of his own life, like his Jewish heritage, that had gone largely unexplored. This strain of his writing yielded one of his finest plays, 1991’s sharply observed Lost in Yonkers, for which he received his third Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Simon’s last Broadway show, his 33rd play, was a minor comedy, 2001’s 45 Seconds from Broadway. But the best of his plays continue to wring laughter and heartache from audiences, and The Sunshine Boys, about two estranged vaudevillians united in disagreement, is due to be revived. The drive to create, instilled in childhood, never left him. “Did I relax and watch my boyhood ambitions being fulfilled before my eyes?” he said. “Not if you were born in the Bronx, in the Depression and Jewish, you don’t.”
Simon passed away on August 26, 2018, at a Manhattan hospital due to complications from pneumonia. He’s survived by his wife, actress Elaine Joyce Simon, three daughters, three grandchildren, and one great-grandson.