I’m not going to be talking about the politician who passed this weekend. Plenty of people are whitewashing that sepulchre already. When I do write about that guy (and I will, later this week) I will try to be civil, but I will only write the truth. No, today I am mourning a great writer: Neil Simon (1927-2018): The King of Stage Comedy – The playwright, whose ‘Lost in Yonkers’ won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991, died on Saturday at age 91.
Neil Simon is probably most famous for writing The Odd Couple in 1965. The original production won 5 Tony awards (including one for Simon). It was adapted into a very successful movie (Simon was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay), three different television series (one of which was nominated three times for an Emmy and won three Emmys and one Golden Globe for the leads), and a cartoon. Simon reworked the play twice over the next several decades: once with gender bent characters, and one just to update the dialogue and situations which had become a bit dated.
But he wrote a lot of other plays and movies. A few were autobigraphical (The trio of Bright Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound, for instance, which were all later turned into movies). Most of his plays and movies were comedies, yes, but many dealt with serious interpersonal issues, sometimes in heart-wrenching ways. On the other hand, he could write incredibly zany comedy. For example, the 1965 movie After the Fox was an over-the-top parody of every caper/heist film ever. While 1976’s Murder By Death is an equally mad parody of every murder mystery movie and novel ever.
As Playbill noted:
‘Simon also made his mark as a creator of original screenplays, writing the scripts for the 1972 critical hit The Heartbreak Kid, which was directed by Elaine May; The Out-of-Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as hapless visitors comically victimized by New York City; Murder By Death, a spoof of the detective genre; and the 1977 romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl, which starred his then-wife Marsha Mason and helped to make Richard Dreyfuss a star. He was nominated for an Oscar for the latter, as well as for the films of California Suite, The Sunshine Boys, and The Odd Couple. He won a Golden Globe for The Goodbye Girl, and was nominated for The Sunshine Boys and The Heartbreak Kid.’
I’ve only gotten to see stage versions of two of Simon’s plays (The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, both by community theatre companies), but because he wrote many original film screenplays and adapted a lot of his plays to movies, I’ve seen a lot of his work. And one thing that I have always envied about his writing is how much he could convey with just dialog. The dialog is always witty and sharp. When it’s funny, it is hilariously so. But he also had a knack for placing a dagger of human frailty into the dialog, so that you are laughing, and then brought up short as a character’s pain or fear is laid bare.
For a few decades, Simon really ruled the American theatre stage in comedy. Don’t believe me? The promotional campaigns of most movies focus on the lead actors or the director, right? When movies were made from Simon’s plays and screenplays, the promo’s led with the author. It was “Neil Simon’s California Suite” or “Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys” or “Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners” and so on.
His plays worked because the characters in them, no matter what circumstances we met them under, felt real. Their fears, their hopes, their drems, their foibles, and most importantly their relationships always rang true. He was a master at dialog, but his dialog worked because he made us believe in the characters speaking his lines.
It’s an accomplishment every writer longs to achieve. Simon honed his craft during years of writing for radio and television. It took him years of hard work, careful observation, and then fighting to make each line count. When he hit his stride, he made it look easy.
So join me in raising a glass to Neil Simon, the playwright who taught us that life is weird, and that’s why we love it.