Photograph from 1966
|Born||Marvin Neil Simon
July 4, 1927
The Bronx, New York, U.S.
|Occupation||Playwright, screenwriter, author|
|Alma mater||New York University
University of Denver
|Child(ren)||Ellen, Nancy, Bryn (adopted)|
|Notable work(s)||Brighton Beach Memoirs
|Magnum opus||Lost in Yonkers
The Odd Couple
|Awards||Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1991)|
Neil Simon (born July 4, 1927) is an American playwright and screenwriter. He has written over thirty plays and nearly the same number of movie screenplays, most adapted from his plays. He has received more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer.
He grew up in New York during the Great Depression, with his parents' financial hardships affecting their marriage, and 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, which inspired him to become a comedy writer. After a few years in the Army Air Force Reserve after graduating high school, he began writing comedy scripts for radio and some popular early television shows. Among them were The Phil Silvers Show and Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in 1950, where he worked alongside other young writers including Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Selma Diamond.
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, making him a national celebrity and “the hottest new playwright on Broadway.” His style ranged from romantic comedy to farce to more serious dramatic comedy. Overall, he has garnered seventeen Tony nominations and won three. During one season, he had four successful plays showing 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. During the time between the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, he wrote both original screenplays and stage plays, with some films actually based on his plays.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers, critics began to take notice of the depths, complexity and issues of universal interest in his stories, which expressed serious concerns of most average people. His comedies were based around subjects such as marital conflict, infidelity, sibling rivalry, adolescence, and fear of aging. Most of his plays were also partly autobiographical, portraying his troubled childhood and different stages of his life, creating characters who were typically New Yorkers and often Jewish, like himself. Simon's facility with dialogue gives his stories a rare blend of realism, humor and seriousness which audiences find easy to identify with.
- 1 Early years
- 2 Writing career
- 3 Themes and genres
- 4 Characters
- 5 Style and subject matter
- 6 Critical response
- 7 Personal life
- 8 Honors and recognition
- 9 Awards
- 10 Work
- 11 Further reading
- 12 Notes
- 13 References
- 14 External links
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 Simon, was mostly a homemaker. Simon had one older brother by eight years, 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 ongoing financial hardship caused by the Depression.:1 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 relatives, or else their parents took in boarders for some income. Simon recalls this period:
The horror of those years was that I didn’t come from one broken home but five. It got so bad at one point that we took in a couple of butchers who paid their rent in lamb chops.: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 points out that one of the reasons he became a writer was his need to be independent of such family concerns when growing up:
It’s partly why I became a writer, because I learned to fend for myself very early. . . . I began to think early on, at the age of seven or eight, that I’d better start taking care of myself somehow, emotionally.... It made me strong as an independent person.:378
In order 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 In referring to Chaplin’s influence, Simon noted that it was his "appreciation of Chaplin's ability to make people laugh that was the only thing that I saw in the future for myself as a connection with people. I was never going to be an athlete or a doctor.":379
At the age of fifteen, Simon and his brother created a series of comedy sketches for employees at an annual department store event. During these high-school years, he also enjoyed reading humor by Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman and S. J. Perelman. Simon recalls: "I read humorists... I read all the adventure stories... I was at the library three days a week as a kid. I read everything, I think, except the classics—which I’m going to get to one day.":218
Soon after graduating high school he signed up with the Army Air Force Reserve at New York University, eventually being 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, including The Phil Silvers Show. Sid Caesar hired the duo for his popular television comedy series Your Show of Shows, for which he earned two Emmy Award nominations. Simon credits these two latter writing jobs for their importance to his career. "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 Simon describes a typical writing routine with Caesar:
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
"I knew,” said Simon, "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 incorporated some of their experiences into his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993). His work won him two Emmy Award nominations and the appreciation of Phil Silvers, who hired him to write scripts for Sergeant Bilko, of The Phil Silvers Show, in 1959. 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, “And I mean from beginning to end,” Simon notes.:384 He explains why he did the many rewrites: "It was the lack of belief in myself. I said, ‘This isn’t good enough. It’s not right.’ That doesn't mean I could make it better, but I felt I had to try.... 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:
Today, it seems like the crude markings in a cave by the first prehistoric chronicler. Still, it was an important step for me. 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 on 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 Promises, Promises (1968) from a film by Billy Wilder, The Apartment. 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. Although 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 he grew up in. 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. These include adaptations of his own plays along with some original work, including The Out-of-Towners, Murder by Death and The Goodbye Girl. He has received four Academy Award nominations for his screenplays. Although most of his films were successful, movies were always secondary in importance to his plays.:372 Simon explains:
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 his first film adaptation, Come Blow Your Horn, 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, however, was a highly successful early adaptation, both faithful to the stage play but also more like a traditional film, having more scenic variety.
Themes and genres
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 McGovern notes that in his plays there is always “an implied seeking for solutions to human problems through relationships with other people,” adding that Simon “is able to deal with serious topics of universal and enduring concern,” while at the same time make people laugh.:11
One of Simon’s “hallmarks” is his “great compassion for his fellow human beings,” according to McGovern::188
He shows a preference for conventional moral behavior; however, he has great tolerance for moral fallibility. He suggests mutual concession in personal relationships; however, he never “punishes” those who persist in extreme modes of behavior.:192
Author Alan Cooper, states that Simon’s plays “are essentially about friendships, even when they are about marriage or siblings or crazy aunts...":46
All of Simon’s plays except for two are set in New York, giving 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 During an interview with drama author Jackson R. Bryer in 1994 about how to write comedy, Simon said he would tell aspiring playwrights “not to try to make it funny. Tell them to 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 explains:
Simon’s popularity rests upon his fine control of a very particular kind of painful comedy. It consists of his characters saying and doing funny things in ludicrous 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
Koprince points out that “One of the most important influences on Simon is his Jewish heritage,” although he is unaware of that quality while writing. 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 described his characters as “often self-deprecating and [who] usually see life from the grimmest point of view.”:9 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, notes Konas, “have been 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 Partly because of that skill, Johnson states that “other writers have created vivid characters—but not in the sheer abundance Simon has,” adding that “Simon has no peers among contemporary comedy playwrights.”:141 Of his characters, McGovern notes that although they are at times exaggerated for the stage, “they are usually amusing the audience with sparkling ‘zingers,” which are also “very believable” due to Simon’s “facility with dialogue. She states that “he reproduces speech so adroitly,” his characters are usually plausible and easy for audiences to identify with and laugh at.:190
Simon’s characters also express many “serious and continuing concerns of mankind...rather than purely topical material,” which are more transitory.:10 McGovern goes on to observe 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, observes Johnson, “no Simon hero or heroine makes the ultimate Romantic gesture of thumbing his or her nose at society.”:141
Style and subject matter
The key aspect most consistent in Simon’s writing style is comedy, effectively using both situational and verbal humor. Koprince writes, “his plays are often brilliantly funny,” adding that his “flair for rapid-fire jokes and wisecracks is unparalleled.”:150 McGovern adds that Simon’s comic form “provides a means to present serious subjects so that audiences may laugh to avoid weeping.”:192
Johnson notes that “variety” is one of the main characteristics of Simon’s plays, despite the fact that they are all set in urban environments.:139 He accomplishes this by using “sophisticated, urban humor,” says editor Kimball King, resulting in plays that are “documents of Middle American experience.”:1 Simon uses everyday “conflicts,” most of them “deceptively simple,” in his stories, writes Konas, adding, “behind the comic premise lurks a real problem that needs to be solved.:2–3
Another feature of his writing, appreciated by audiences more during “periods of cultural change,” is his “adherence to traditional values, specifically those relating to marriage and the family unit.”:150 McGovern, likewise states that this same “thread runs though that Simon’s work,” which he feels is necessary to give stability to society: Simon “implies that the monogamous family unit is of paramount importance and should be preserved if at all possible.”:189 Some critics have seen his stories as somewhat “old fashioned,” writing about them in a negative light, although Johnson points out that “most members of the audience, however, are delighted to find Simon upholding their own beliefs.”:142 Johnson notes that where infidelity is the theme in a Simon play, “rarely, if ever, do those who pursue sexual infidelity gain happiness,” observing that “in Simon’s eyes, divorce is never a victory,” and does not bring the characters happiness.:142
Most of Simon’s plays demonstrate his ability to combine both comedy and drama, demonstrating a versatile style of writing. In Barefoot in the Park, for example, he was able to “master light romantic comedy.” Portions of Plaza Suite were written as “farce”, for example, and portions of California Suite are described as “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 has, in fact, created a rich variety of entertaining, memorable characters who tell us much about the human experience. Simon’s work also explores a larger number of serious themes and points of view than he is credited with presenting," using "quite varied stylistic formats." As a result, he writes, "Simon’s characters are not only lifelike, but more complicated and more interesting than most characters populating successful stage and screen comedies," and "Simon has not received as much critical attention as he deserves.":preface
Other writers are more assertive in their appreciation of Simon’s work, including Lawrence Grobel, who calls him "the Shakespeare of his time," and possibly the "most successful playwright in history.":371 He states:
[Simon] towers like a Colossus over the American Theater. When Neil Simon’s time comes to be judged among successful playwrights of the twentieth century, he will definitely be first among equals. No other playwright in history has had the run he has: fifteen "Best Plays" of their season ...:371
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 (1973–1981), twice to 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.
Honors and recognition
Simon has been conferred with two honoris causa degrees; a Doctor of Humane Letters from Hofstra 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.
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 the 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).
- Simon, Neil (1996). Neil Simon Rewrites: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-82672-0.
- Simon, Neil (1999). Neil Simon The Play Goes On: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-84691-8.
- Konas, Gary (1997). Neil Simon: A Casebook. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. ISBN 978-0815321323.
- "On this day: Neil Simon is born" The Jewish Chronicle Online, accessed October 25, 2011.
- "About Neil Simon", "American Masters", PBS, Nov. 3, 2000.
- Koprince, Susan (2002) Fehrenbacher, Understanding Neil Simon, University of South Carolina ISBN 1570034265.
- Konas, Gary (editor) (1997). Neil Simon: A Casebook, Garland Publishing
- Grobel, Lawrence, Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives, Da Capo Press (2001).
- Johnson, Robert K., Neil Simon, Twayne Publishers, Boston (1983).
- The Concise Oxford Companion to Theatre. Eds. Phyllis Hartnoll and Peter Found. Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online (1996), New York University. 18 October 2011."Simon, (Marvin) Neil"
- Ayling, Ronald (2003). Twentieth-Century American Dramatists: Fourth Series. Detroit, Michigan: Gale. ISBN 978-0-7876-6010-9.
- McGovern, Edythe M. Neil Simon: A Critical Study, Ungar Publishing (1979)
- Riedel, Michael (April 9, 2010) Simon keeps 'Promises'. New York Post.
- A Chorus Line: The Story Behind the Show. BerkshireTheatreGroup.org (July 5, 2012).
- "Neil Simon Takes His Honorary LL.D with a Grain of Salt". The New York Times. Associated Press. 4 June 1984. Retrieved 2008-06-14.
- Simon, Neil (2003) The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance. Ed. Dennis Kennedy. Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. Web. York University. 18 Oct. 2011.
- The Concise Oxford Companion to Theatre. Eds. Phyllis Hartnoll and Peter Found. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Web. York University. 18 Oct. 2011. "Simon, (Marvin) Neil".
- Koprince, Susan. Understanding Neil Simon. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. 53–60. ISBN 1570034265.
- The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance. Ed. Dennis Kennedy. Oxford University Press, 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Web. York University. 18 Oct. 2011.
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