The Sunshine Boys

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The Sunshine Boys
The Sunshine Boys film poster.jpeg
Window card poster, original Broadway production The Sunshine Boys starring Jack Albertson and Sam Levene
Written byNeil Simon
Date premieredDecember 20, 1972
Original languageEnglish

The Sunshine Boys is an original two act play written by Neil Simon that premiered December 20, 1972 on Broadway starring Jack Albertson as Willie Clark and Sam Levene as Al Lewis and later adapted for film and television.


The play's protagonists are Al Lewis and Willie Clark. Lewis and Clark were once a successful vaudevillian comedy duo known as the Sunshine Boys. During the later years of their 43-year run, animosity between the partners grew to the point where they ceased to speak with each other. Eleven years prior to the events of the play, Al retired from show business, leaving Willie struggling to keep his career afloat.

Willie, now an old man struggling with memory loss, reluctantly accepts an offer from his nephew Ben, a talent agent, to reunite with Al for a CBS special on the history of comedy. Willie and Al meet in Willie's apartment to rehearse their classic doctor and tax collector sketch. The reunion gets off to a bad start, with the two getting into heated arguments over various aspects of the performance. However, thanks to the urging of Al's daughter, the two decide to go through with the performance.

Willie and Al's dress rehearsal at CBS' studio is derailed by Lewis's aggressive habit of poking Clarke's chest with his index finger and spitting at him every time he says a word that has a "T" in it. One of the running gags[1] in “The Sunshine Boys” involves Albertson's resentment over having been constantly poked in the chest by his partner's all‐too‐emphatic forefinger in the course of their countless routines on stage. Albertson's Willie Clark cries, “I had a black and blue hole in my chest. He gave me the finger for 43 years!” As Al Lewis walks off the stage in regret, Willie has a heart attack as a result of his agitated state.

Two weeks later, Willie is recovering under the care of a nurse. Upon Ben's recommendation, he decides to move into an actors' retirement home in New Jersey. Al, concerned about Willie's well-being, makes a visit. When the two talk, it is revealed that Al will be moving into the same home as Willie.

Neil Simon was inspired by two venerable vaudeville teams. The longevity of "Lewis and Clark" was inspired by Smith and Dale who, unlike their theatrical counterparts, were inseparable lifelong friends. The undercurrent of backstage hostility between "Lewis and Clark" was inspired by the team of Gallagher and Shean, who were successful professionally but argumentative personally.[2] Other sources say this is based on Weber and Fields.[3]

Theatre productions[edit]

A 2006 production of the play at The Doon School, India.

The Sunshine Boys premiered on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on December 20, 1972, and transferred to the Shubert Theatre and then the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, closing on April 21, 1974, after 538 performances. Before opening on Broadway, The Sunshine Boys had a two venue pre-Broadway tryout in New Haven and Washington D.C. headlined by Jack Albertson as Willie Clarke and Sam Levene as Al Lewis.

Produced by Emanuel Azenberg and directed by Alan Arkin, the original 1972 Broadway cast starred Sam Levene as Al Lewis and Jack Albertson as Willie Clark, the vaudevillian comedy duo known as the Sunshine Boys; the play co-starred Lewis J. Stadlen as Ben, Willie Clark's nephew.[4] Jack Albertson performed the role of Willie Clark until October 28, 1974 and Sam Levene performed the role of Al Lewis in the original Broadway production until February 10, 1974.

When Sam Levene and Jack Albertson left the Broadway production to star in the first U.S. National company, they were replaced by Lou Jacobi as Al Lewis on February 12, 1974 and Jack Gilford as Willie Clark on October 30, 1973. Gilford performed the role as Willie Clark opposite original Broadway star Sam Levene as Al Lewis from October 30, 1973 until February 10, 1974 before Jacobi joined the cast, performing the role of Al Lewis for 72 performances. Sam Levene, the original star, is credited with performing the role of Al Lewis 466 times in the original Broadway production before headlining a one year U.S. National tour.[5]

Tony Award nominations went to Simon (Best Play), Albertson (Best Actor in a Play) and Arkin (Best Direction of a Play),[6] and Albertson won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance (and was nominated for a Tony as well).[7] Al Hirschfeld, memorialized[8] the legendary starring performances of Jack Albertson as Willie Clarke and Sam Levene as Al Lewis, the original Broadway stars of The Sunshine Boys by creating an iconic caricature for The New York Times on December 13, 1972. Titled "Don't Poke With The Finger"[9] the caricature references the finger poke running gag and Willie Clarke's resentment over having been constantly and aggressively poked during the show and for 43 years by Al Lewis played by Sam Levene.

The 1972 production of The Sunshine Boys marked the beginning of Neil Simon’s long association with producer Emanuel Azenberg,[10] who produced all of Simon’s original Broadway plays and musicals that followed.

Clive Barnes, The New York Times chief theatre critic, reviewed the original Broadway production on December 21, 1972, stating: The Sunshine Boys is probably Mr. Simon's best play yet. It deals with a subject very dear to the playwright's heart—vaudeville. Willie Clark is an almost retired vaudeville comedian. His heart is willing, but his lines are failing. His agent is his nephew—long‐suffering and much‐loving. But even a potato‐chip commercial has not gone well, and any actor who cannot crunch potato chips has got to be on his way out.

Regarding the original Broadway stars, Barnes stated "Jack Albertson as the heart stricken comic never puts a line wrong. He is always pathetic but never enough to make you cry. Lovely. His acerbic partner, Sam Levene, is as tough as vintage chewing gum, and yet with a sort of credible lovability."[11]

Jack Albertson and Sam Levene won unanimous rave notices for their legendary starring performances in the original Broadway production of The Sunshine Boys even though before The Sunshine Boys went into rehearsal Albertson and Levene were strangers. Director Alan Arkin recalled[12] in an interview with The New York Times, "Now they work as collaboratively as did Smith and Dale, the legendary team on which “The Sunshine Boys” is partly based." Arkin said "Jack (Albertson) and Sam (Levene) would have these terrific yelling matches". "It used to scare hell out of everybody until we realized that it meant nothing. They were mock battles, completely without anger. They're consummate professionals.” Albertson interjected: "There is a “chemical” between the two". “He knows what I think; and I know what he thinks,” Albertson told The New York Times. “Sam and I have the same thing in the play. If one of us blows a line, the other covers. Frankly, I blow more lines than Sam does.” The two pros were able to cover lines as they each knew the play, not just their roles. New York Post Theatre Critic Richard Watts Jr. observed[13] "Jack Albertson and Sam Levene offer the best team acting since Gielgud and Richardson in Home".

In at least one instance, the actors have had to overcome their amiability. In the play Willie played by Albertson is outraged by the fact that Al played by Levene habitually pokes him in the chest with his index finger. Levene was afraid he would hurt his partner. At Albertson's urging Levene poked, so hard that Albertson's chest became black and blue. Arkin said "Now Mr. Albertson wears padding."

The play was revived on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, opening on December 8, 1997 and closing on June 28, 1998 after 230 performances. Directed by John Tillinger, the cast starred Jack Klugman as Willie Clark and Tony Randall as Al Lewis.[4][14]

A West End production of the play, starring Danny DeVito (in his West End debut)[15]) and Richard Griffiths, opened on May 17, 2012 and played a limited 12-week season until July 28.[16][17]

The blog A Cultured Lad gave it a full five-star rating, adding, "Productions like this don’t come often. This show glitters, like fireworks on the fourth of July. Absolutely wonderful." Theatre critic Charles Spencer also gave the show a positive review, with a four star rating and said that "Thea Sharrock directs a pitch-perfect production that beautifully captures fleeting moments of tenderness in the comedy without ever turning mushy." The production was scheduled for a run in Los Angeles, but Griffiths' untimely passing delayed it. DeVito's former Taxi co-star Judd Hirsch stepped into the role of Lewis, and the show opened September 24, 2013 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

In a 2013 review of the Hirsch/Devito cast at the Ahmanson Theatre, Myron Meisel observed: "It’s been more than 40 years since The Sunshine Boys first graced Broadway (with the still unimprovable Jack Albertson and Sam Levene), nearly as long in the tooth as the "Smith and Dale" sketch “Dr. Kronkheit and His Only Living Patient” was when this show was new. Simon fashioned a new, improved update on the routine for his fictional team of Lewis & Clark (Hirsch & DeVito), and his knowledgeable ear for what was then vintage and is now antique humor allows him to bring these anachronistic stylings into a then-contemporary comic setting without compromising the integrity of their original zingy ballsiness".[18]

West End cast[edit]

  • Danny DeVito – Willie Clark
  • Richard Griffiths – Al Lewis
  • Adam Levy – Ben Silverman
  • William Maxwell – Patient & Understudy Willie
  • Peter Cadden – Voice of TV Director & Understudy Al and Patient
  • Nick Blakeley – Eddie & Understudy Ben
  • Rebbeca Blackstone – Miss MacKintosh
  • Johnnie Fiori – Registered Nurse
  • Oliver Stoney – Understudy Eddie & TV Director
  • Clementine Marlowe-Hunt – Miss MacKintosh & Registered Nurse[19][20]


American versions[edit]

The 1975 feature film
Stars George Burns as Lewis and Walter Matthau as Clark. Burns won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.
1977 TV pilot
Stars Lionel Stander as Lewis and Red Buttons as Clark. The pilot was not picked up for a series, but was broadcast by NBC on June 9, 1977.[21]
The 1996 TV movie
Stars Woody Allen as Lewis and Peter Falk as Clark. Neil Simon adapted his play for Hallmark Entertainment. Directed by John Erman, it was not broadcast until December 28, 1997. Other performers include Michael McKean, Liev Schreiber, Edie Falco, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Whoopi Goldberg in supporting roles.[22] Simon's teleplay updated the setting and made the two comedians the product of the early days of television, the medium in which the playwright got his start.[22] Unlike the film adaptation, although they are portrayed as cantankerous, their animosity was not as severe as Matthau's and Burns' characters' bad relationship.

German versions[edit]

There have been three German television versions of The Sunshine Boys, all entitled Sonny Boys.

The 1982 adaptation
features Carl-Heinz Schroth and Johannes Heesters
The 1995 version
features Harald Juhnke and Wolfgang Spier [de]
The 2001 version
features Werner Schneyder and Dieter Hildebrandt

Dutch version[edit]

A Dutch stage adaptation ran in 2015–2016, starring Kees Hulst and comedian Andre van Duin.


  1. ^ Berkvist, Robert (January 7, 1973). "Jack Spreads A Little Sunshine". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 12, 2020.
  2. ^ Stewart, Donald Travis (November 16, 2005). No Applause – Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. Faber & Faber. p. 235. ISBN 978-0-86547-958-6.
  3. ^ Nolan, Frederick (October 27, 1994). Lorenz Hart: A Poet on Broadway. Oxford University Press. p. 26. ISBN 978-0-19-506837-5.
  4. ^ a b "The Sunshine Boys". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved April 11, 2012.
  5. ^ "The Sunshine Boys". IDBD.
  6. ^ Calta, Lewis (March 13, 1973). "British and 2 American Plays Will Vie for Tonys". The New York Times. p. 30.
  7. ^ "Jack Albertson". Retrieved January 3, 2018.
  8. ^ "SUNSHINE BOYS |". Retrieved January 12, 2020.
  9. ^ "#AlHirschfeld caricature of #SamLevene & #JackAlbertson titled "Don't Poke With The Finger" from #NeilSimon original Broadway… | Caricature, Jack albertson, Dramatic arts". Pinterest. Retrieved January 12, 2020.
  10. ^ Haring, Bruce; Haring, Bruce (August 26, 2018). "Neil Simon Dies: Popular Playwright Of Numerous Broadway Hits Was 91". Deadline. Retrieved September 28, 2019.
  11. ^ Barnes, Clive (December 21, 1972). "Theater: Neil Simon's'Sunshine Boys'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved September 28, 2019.
  12. ^ Gussow, Mel (December 28, 1972). "Stars Share Esprit of 'Sunshine Boys'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved January 12, 2020.
  13. ^ Watts, Richard (December 26, 1972). "Random Notes". New York Post: 60.
  14. ^ Viagas, Robert; Lefkowitz, David (May 5, 1998). "B'way Sunshine Boys To Shine On Through June 28".
  15. ^ Kemp, Stuart (January 31, 2012). "Danny DeVito to Make West End Debut in 'The Sunshine Boys'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 3, 2018.
  16. ^ Girvan, Andrew (January 30, 2012). "Danny DeVito makes West End debut with Richard Griffiths in 'Sunshine Boys'". Archived from the original on July 24, 2012.
  17. ^ Shenton, Mark (January 30, 2012). "West End The Sunshine Boys, Starring Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths, Sets Dates and Theatre". Retrieved January 3, 2018.
  18. ^ Meisel, Myron (October 3, 2013). "The Sunshine Boys: Theater Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 29, 2019.
  19. ^ "The Sunshine Boys". Savoy Theatre program. April 2012.
  20. ^ "The Sunshine Boys". Sonia Friedman Productions website.
  21. ^ "Tonight's Previews". Evening Independent. St. Petersburg, Fla. June 9, 1977. p. 12-B. Retrieved June 13, 2018.
  22. ^ a b Stewart, Bhob. "'The Sunshine Boys' (1997)". The New York Times. Retrieved April 11, 2012.

External links[edit]