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...
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