Neil Simon 1927-
(Full name Marvin Neil Simon) American comedy writer, playwright, and screenwriter
Neil Simon's career as a writer of comedy has been marked by a series of successes which have turned his name into a recognizable theatrical commodity. Simon began his early work during the golden age of television in the 1950s for weekly programs featuring Sid Cesar, Jackie Gleason, Red Buttons, and Phil Silvers. Simon continued his long career as a Broadway playwright with a string of hits season after season, to work in Hollywood writing original screenplays and adapting his stage plays for film. The hallmark of his comedy from the simpler, lighthearted early plays to the later darker ones has been the comic presentation of perplexing and even painful experience.
Neil Simon was born in New York City, in the Bronx, into what would now be called a dysfunctional family. His father, Irving Simon, was a garment salesman who regularly abandoned the family for long stretches. His woe-beset mother, Mamie Simon, worked at Gimbel's department store in order to support the family. Simon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School at sixteen, entered New York University in the U.S. Army Air Force reserve program, and was sent by the Army to Colorado where he attended the University of Denver. After he returned from the army in 1946, Simon got a job at the New York offices of Warner Brothers, where his older brother Danny worked. When they heard that Goodman Ace, the comedy writer and radio personality was looking for material, the brothers submitted some of their work and were hired to write for him. For the next fifteen years Simon wrote for the foremost radio and television comedians and contributed sketches for Broadway reviews like New Faces. In 1961, with the success of Come Blow Your Horn, Simon began a career as the most commercially successful playwright in Broadway history. Simon also regularly adapts his plays for film and has written a number of original screenplays.
Had he never written anything after 1961, Simon would still be remembered as a major contributor to enormously successful television programs which were watched weekly by millions, and for which he won several Emmy Awards. In 1961, however, his play Come Blow Your Horn inaugurated a second immensely successful career as a Broadway writer who has enjoyed a record number of hits. Among them are The Odd Couple (1965) about two divorced men who share an apartment and recapitulate with each other the problems that destroyed their marriages, and The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971) which is about the terrors of living in New York City. Additionally, Simon penned the smashes The Sunshine Boys (1972) about aging vaudevillians and The Brighton Beach Trilogy—Brighton Beach Memoirs (1982), Biloxi Blues (1984), Broadway Bound (1986)—which are all drawn from his family life and passage from home. With Lost in Yonkers (1991), Simon won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Drama Desk Award. Simon also won a Tony for Biloxi Blues in 1985.
Although Simon's work at first was neglected by serious critics, and he was often considered a gag writer or a writer of situation comedy for Broadway, most of Simon's plays have been box office smashes. Much of Simon's work earns favorable reviews from daily newspaper reviewers and often draws audiences in record numbers. After his initial success with lighter comedies, Simon began to write plays with a darker edge. Critics and audiences deemed some of these like The Gingerbread Lady (1970), God's Favorite (1974), and especially Fools (1981) as weaker than Simon's regular contribution. Simon himself closed Jake's Women (1992) the first time around before it got to Broadway. But he came back even stronger, writing plays which more deeply explored pain and conflict, finding laughter inside adversity, with the autobiographical Brighton Beach Trilogy, and the award winning Lost in Yonkers.