Neil Simon, 1927–2018

The same day I wrote about John McCain, another giant passed away, but a very different one. Neil Simon, truly an icon of the theater, is dead at the age of 91. In the clip above, a Johnny Carson interview from 1980, Simon (in a tuxedo) talks about how he writes his plays, the struggle behind it and what role his brother Danny, also a comedy writer, played.

Born in The Bronx, Neil Simon grew up watching classic comedies at the movies, but was also influenced by his parents’ troubled marriage. Simon started writing as a sports editor while serving in the Army Air Force Reserve in the mid-40s. In the 1950s, he and his brother were writing radio and TV scripts in Manhattan and Neil earned his first Emmy nominations writing for the TV classic Your Show of Shows. This is where he met and collaborated with people like Woody Allen, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Simon’s first Broadway play was “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1961, where his parents served as a huge inspiration. It was subsequently filmed in 1963, with Frank Sinatra in the lead (watch clip above, where Sinatra also sings the title tune).

The following two plays, “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple” made Simon a star in the 1960s; they also became successful film adaptations, in 1967 and 1968 (the clip above shows Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the movie). Simon kept delivering Broadway hits for many years; they often had sharp, hilarious dialogue, were set in New York City and borrowed heavily from people in his life. His characters were often neurotic messes, but there was a lot of humanism in his work. Three autobiographical plays in the 1980s, “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” won him praise; the 1991 play “Lost in Yonkers” even gave him a Pulitzer. All in all, Neil Simon won four Tonys, including a special award already in 1975 for his contributions to the American theater.

He also wrote many screenplays, some of them adaptations of his plays, others original works. Personally, I loved his scripts for the mystery comedy Murder by Death (1976), which spoofed most of the great literary detectives, and the excellent romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl (1977), which earned Richard Dreyfuss an Oscar and Simon himself a Golden Globe for his script. He was also Oscar-nominated four times in his career, but never won one. The clip above shows a hilarious Alec Guinness in Murder by Death.

Hollywood is now mourning this comedy giant. One sign of what a legend he became is that his work, his plays, keep getting produced or adapted in various ways over and over. Here’s what Mark Hamill wrote on Twitter:

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