Neil Simon — A Writing Legend
On Facebook, it seemed most of my friends posted write-ups on the death of John McCain. I immediately thought I should do a write-up. Not on McCain, but someone I’m a much bigger fan of that died the next day — playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon.
It’s much the same way that Farrah Fawcett’s death, on the same day as Michael Jackson, caused her to not only be overshadowed on the news, but omitted from the Oscar’s list of deceased. Michael Jackson only did one movie, The Wiz…compared with the 12 films she was in. Yet he made their list, and she didn’t.
I’m a big fan of people that can write great screenplays, and he did two things brilliantly. One was comedy. Everyone in entertainment says that’s the hardest thing to do. Second, he could make plays work on the big screen. For example, I’m a big fan of David Mamet, but so often watching his movies feels like you’re just watching a stage play on screen.
Simon’s gotten more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer. There was a time when he had four plays on Broadway at the same time.
Born on the 4th of July, in 1927, and growing up in New York during the depression, he spent a lot of time in movie theatres, avoiding his parents constant bickering. Watching all those films (and listening to a bad marriage) probably helped him become a great writer. In his early 20s, he landed a gig writing for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and after five years, he was also working on “The Phil Silvers Show”.
In 1961, he wrote his first play, Come Blow Your Horn. It was a lot more successful than most people’s first play — it had 678 performances on Broadway. That was followed by Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. That lead to one of the best movie comedies ever made, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (and that lead to a TV show). I can’t think of another play that became a movie and a TV show. The writing was so funny, that when an AM station was playing news of his death, I almost crashed my car laughing so hard. One clip had Lemmon saying to Matthau “In other words, you’re kicking me out.” Matthau screams, “No, not other words. Those are the perfect words!” Later they played a clip of Matthau telling Lemmon to put down the spoon before they continue their fight. Lemmon laughed and exasperated, tells him “You ignoramus! This is a ladle!”
His style of comedy is so much funnier than predictable punchlines. And he could do serious stories as well as comedy. Some of his successful productions included: God’s Favorite, The Good Doctor, They’re Playing Our Song, Broadway Bound, I Ought to Be in Pictures, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and The Goodbye Girl. The 1977 film version of that was great, and the leading lady, Marsha Mason, would become his 3rd wife (of four).
Even the stuff considered his lesser works, or the films that didn’t do as well, I loved (I’m thinking about Last of the Red Hot Lovers, with Alan Arkin).
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Brighton Beach Memoirs, but loved the follow up — Biloxi Blues. It was semi-autobiographical, based on Simon’s time in the military. Matthew Broderick played the role on Broadway, and in the movie (evil drill Sgt. Toomey was played by Christopher Walken). I still remember seeing it on opening weekend at the Grossmont Plaza, and two guys got in a fist fight in the back. It had nothing to do with the movie, just one of those random memories I have.
So many of the movie versions of his play were great. Barefoot in the Park might not hold up as well today, but The Sunshine Boys and The Goodbye Girl (despite how annoying Richard Dreyfuss is)…just terrific stuff.
He won the Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers, and it’s not just the big awards he was known for. He sometimes doctored scripts for plays and movies without being credited. One of those being A Chorus Line.
When someone this famous dies, I think about all the work they did that I enjoyed. I also start thinking about the people they worked with, wondering what they’ll say. For example, one of his first writing gigs with Sid Caesar, had Simon writing alongside Carl Reiner and Woody Allen. I’m guessing Allen, whose career is probably over after the #metoo stuff, probably won’t say much. Bill Cosby was one of many big stars in his California Suite. But after he tried to tweet something about the death of Aretha Franklin (she sang the theme song to his spinoff show), he’ll probably refrain from commenting on Simon.
In the early days, Neil wrote with his older brother Danny, who would go on to write for a number of successful TV shows (The Carol Burnett Show, Diff’rent Strokes, The Facts of Life). He passed away in 2005, a year after Neil got a kidney transplant from his publicist (at least some publicists are good for something).
Neil Simon had been on life-support while hospitalized for renal failure. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, too.
So as I see the flags at half-staff in honor of an American hero…I’m also going to think of an American writing legend.