The first time I met and interviewed Neil Simon he was not in any mood to be funny.
It was January 1991, in Washington, D.C., where he was for the out-of-town premiere of Lost in Yonkers, a dark comedy about two brothers forced to live with their crotchety grandmother while their salesman father went on the road to make a living.
The play went on to great acclaim on Broadway, winning a best play Tony Award and earning Simon a Pulitzer Prize for drama. But that morning when we met for coffee at the Willard Hotel, mere days before the show’s opening, the nation was on the brink of war – the Persian Gulf conflict.
“It’s got to be not only in my mind – least of all in my mind – it’s got to be on the minds of the cast, and certainly of the audience,” he told me glumly. Sure enough, war was declared that opening night, shortly before the curtain rose. And with many congressmen and senators in the audience, throughout the first act their aides could be seen finding them in the dark, whispering in their ears and leading them out of the theater.
It was an inauspicious start, to say the least, for one of the biggest triumphs of the most commercially successful playwright in the American theater.
Bronx-born Neil Simon died late last month at the age of 91, amid a cluster of show business deaths that included the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor and Tony Award-winning actress Barbara Harris.
But it will be Simon whose work will be most enduring. He leaves behind more than 30 plays (including The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, The Sunshine Boys and the Brighton Beach trilogy), a handful of musical books (Sweet Charity, Little Me, They’re Playing Our Song) and dozens of films – both adaptations of his plays and original screenplays (The Goodbye Girl, Murder by Death, The Out-of-Towners).
Simon dominated the comedy landscape throughout the second half of the 20th century. He learned his craft on television, writing for such top bananas as Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar, then turning to the Broadway stage, often using his own life and that of his family members for his comic inspiration. Over the course of his career, his work racked up over 15,000 performances on Broadway, earning him millions of dollars. In his heyday of 1966-67, Simon had four shows running concurrently in New York – Sweet Charity, The Star-Spangled Girl, The Odd Couple, and Barefoot in the Park.
Even when his output waned in the past two decades – 2001’s short-lived 45 Seconds From Broadway was his last new play – Simon’s work continued to be produced in regional theaters, dinner theaters and community theaters. This season in South Florida, the edgy Primal Forces company will be reviving his dark comedy The Gingerbread Lady, as artistic director Keith Garsson sheepishly announces in his pre-show introductions. Surely other plays from the Simon library will soon be dusted off and mounted here and around the nation.
Simon was never one to outline a play before writing it, preferring to let his characters lead him wherever they wanted to go. “When I try a blueprint, it loses all its freedom,” he once told me. “It takes all the fun out of writing. And secondly, you lose the surprises.”
His writing process has always been a leap of faith. “I’ve always likened it to getting up in the morning and getting on a high diving board and jumping, and then hoping there’s water in the pool.”
Simon prided himself on having a new play on Broadway each season, whether he had a good idea for one or not. One of my less than sterling stage appearances was in a community theater production of The Star-Spangled Girl, about a couple of counter-culture guys who publish an underground newspaper – a rare example of Simon writing about what he did not know. But the so-so comedy still gets produced with regularity. Told that his new Boca Raton audience wanted fluffy entertainment, Michael Hall chose The Star-Spangled Girl to open the Caldwell Theatre in 1975. Fortunately, he quickly learned that area theatergoers wanted more substantial fare.
A decade later, Simon came to realize that his plays could be more effective by plumbing their inherently dramatic depths, by taking out some of the more blatant jokes in the rewrite process and making his characters more dimensional. Commercial success came much more quickly to Simon than critical acclaim, but beginning in 1983, he gained that too with three plays centered on a fictional version of himself, Eugene Morris Jerome, and his family – Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.
In my opinion, if he only wrote one play – The Odd Couple – a classic comic clash between a fussbudget and a slob set against the misery of divorce, Simon would belong to the ages. Of course, it spawned a hit film, an even more successful TV series and – bad idea, Neil – a gender-bent female version. Still, the original stage play, and superb Broadway production directed by Mike Nichols, is arguably the best comedy of the past 60 years.
The last time I spent with Simon was 1996, for a public interview at West Palm Beach’s Kaplan Jewish Community Center, a stop on a book tour promoting the first volume of his memoirs, Rewrites.
As he said at the time, “I’ve changed a lot and so have my plays. I don’t feel as ambitious as I used to, because there’s no need to anymore. I think I’ve achieved as much as I need to in my life, If I left no other plays but the ones that are around now, that would be sufficient.”