Neil Simon Biography
For Neil Simon, art truly does imitate life. Arguably one of the most commercially successful playwrights of the twentieth century, Simon forged a career out of turning his life into serio-comic theater. When Simon lost his beloved first wife, Joan, to cancer in the early 1970s, it inspired Chapter Two, a play about a widower trying to start his life over. Critical acclaim came Simon’s way with his highly autobiographical trilogy of plays: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound. Written in the 1980s, they follow Simon’s alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome, as he grows up during the Depression, serves in the Army during World War II, and tries to break into writing for TV shows. Following the trilogy, Simon’s heartfelt Lost in Yonkers won the Pulitzer. That and many other honors helped cement Simon’s reputation as one of America’s favorite playwrights.
Facts and Trivia
- At one point in the late 1960s, Simon had four successful plays running on Broadway at the same time: Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity, and The Star Spangled Girl.
- Simon never profited from the popular TV series The Odd Couple, which was based on his hit play. In an ill-advised business scheme, he sold all rights to the play and thus never saw any proceeds from the TV show.
- Simon helped adapt his highly acclaimed screenplay for the film The Goodbye Girl as a stage musical in the early 1990s. The show, which featured Martin Short and Bernadette Peters, was savaged by critics and closed quickly.
- Simon has a Broadway theater named after him, The Neil Simon Theatre.
- Simon’s daughter, Ellen, is also a writer. Her play Moonlight and Valentino was adapted into a 1995 film.
Born in the Bronx, New York, on July 4, 1927, Marvin Neil Simon was the second of two sons in a middle-class Jewish family. His father, Irving, was a garment salesman who abandoned the family several times before the Simons’ marriage ended in divorce. Because of his parents’ domestic difficulties, Simon’s childhood was not particularly happy, but he nevertheless developed his affinity for comedy at an early age. As a schoolboy, he earned his nickname “Doc” for his ability to imitate the family doctor, and he reported in a Life magazine interview:
When I was a kid, I climbed up on a stone ledge to watch an outdoor movie of Charlie Chaplin. I laughed so hard I fell off, cut my head open and was taken to the doctor, bleeding and laughing. I was constantly being dragged out of movies for laughing too loud. Now my idea of the ultimate achievement in a comedy is to make a whole audience fall onto the floor, writhing and laughing so hard that some of them pass out.
Simon’s plays are often quite nearly that amusing, but his gift for provoking riotous laughter has ultimately been a burden, because it has prevented most critics from taking him seriously as a comic dramatist.
Simon demonstrated his ability to make people laugh even as a teenager, when he teamed with his older brother Danny to write material for stand-up comics and radio shows. After briefly attending New York University (he never graduated from college) and serving in the Army at the end of World War II, Neil teamed with Danny again as they began, in 1946, to create material for one of the radio era’s most successful comedy writers, Goodman Ace.
The Simon brothers prospered as radio comedy writers but shifted in the early 1950’s to television as the new medium developed. Writing for such television notables as Phil Silvers and Tallulah Bankhead, they were each earning huge weekly salaries of sixteen hundred dollars by the mid-1950’s. During his television writing in the 1950’s, Simon worked alongside many young writers who would later make successful careers of their own, most notably Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Danny left the writing team in 1956 to pursue a career as a television director, but Neil continued writing for such stars as Sid Caesar, Garry Moore, Jackie Gleason, and Red Buttons, earning two Emmy Awards (in 1957 and 1959) for his comedy writing.
Simon believed that writing for television did not allow him enough independence, so while writing for The Garry Moore Show, he teamed with Danny to develop his first play, Come Blow Your Horn (1960), which eventually ran eighty-four weeks on Broadway. The success of this play encouraged Simon to leave television for good. Working solo this time, Simon first wrote the book for a musical comedy, Little Me (1962), and then wrote his second Broadway comedy, Barefoot in the Park (1963). The latter, starring a young actor named Robert Redford, was an enormous success, running for four years and 1,532 performances. As the first of many television and film offers followed, Simon soon became rich and famous. While Barefoot in the Park was still running on Broadway, Paramount bought the film rights to Simon’s next play, The Odd Couple (1965), on the basis of a forty-word synopsis, and he soon sold the television rights to the American Broadcasting Company, although for only a small percentage of the millions of dollars the television series eventually earned.
By the mid-1960’s, then, Neil Simon was already a household name, his popularity and wealth virtually assured. Although he...
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experienced some setbacks (The Star-Spangled Girl in 1966 was not a Broadway hit), he recovered almost immediately with the successes of Promises, Promises (1968), Plaza Suite (1968), and Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969). Simon has suffered occasional disappointments—for example, with The Gingerbread Lady (1970), The Good Doctor (1973), God’s Favorite (1974), and Fools (1981)—but overall, his comedies have been very successful at the box office, his name on the marquee assuring a receptive audience.
In 1973, Simon’s personal life was dealt a severe blow when his wife of twenty years, dancer Joan Bairn, died of cancer. He eventually recorded his grief in Chapter Two (1977), the story of a man who loses his wife and then immediately remarries, fending off the subsequent feelings of guilt. Chapter Two was hailed by some critics as a new kind of triumph for Simon, a comedy that could be taken seriously, that was more than a series of one-liners. Then, in 1983, the first of a trilogy of semiautobiographical plays confirmed this assessment in the eyes of even more critics. Brighton Beach Memoirs (1982), Biloxi Blues (1984), and Broadway Bound (1986) did not assure everyone that he was a serious playwright, but they convinced enough people for those plays to be considered a turning point in Simon’s career. Respect for Simon’s work reached its peak with the reception of Lost in Yonkers (1991), which garnered almost universal praise, winning the Tony Award for Best Play and earning Simon a Pulitzer Prize in drama, an award that he had predicted would never be given to a writer of comedies.
New plays by Simon continued to appear in the 1990’s and into the twenty-first century. Some were farces, such as Jake’s Women (1990). Others combined comedy with more serious themes; for example, The Dinner Party (2000) found laughs in marital disasters.
In addition to his comedies, Simon has written four musicals—Little Me (1962; revised, 1982), Sweet Charity (1966), Promises, Promises (1968), and They’re Playing Our Song (1978). He has also written extensively, although not as successfully, for the screen. Starting with After the Fox in 1966, Simon’s original film scripts include The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Murder by Death (1976), and The Goodbye Girl(1977). He has also adapted most of his own plays for the screen. Simon’s habit is to write daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in either his Manhattan apartment or his Bel-Air, California, home. He usually starts ten or more plays for every one that he finishes. If he passes page thirty-five of a play, Simon usually completes it, although he reports that the revision process always lasts much longer than the original composition.