By Rachelle Hughes
American playwright Neil Simon understands that humor and hardship are a winning combination in the entertainment world, and for the past five decades he has leveraged this winning literary combination into a successful career as one of America’s most prolific and successful stage and screenwriters.
The proof can be seen in his body of work as the author of over thirty plays and almost as many movies, most of which were adaptations of his plays. Neil Simon’s iconic work has been performed by some of the biggest names in the theatre and film world. His ability to write about life’s more difficult issues with wit and comedy has won him a Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers (1991) and three Tony Awards for The Odd Couple (1965), Biloxi Blues (1985), and Lost in Yonkers (1991), as well as a special Tony Award for his contributions to theatre (1975). His popular works like Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965) continue to be celebrated in the theatre world fifty years after they were written.
Born Marvin Neil Simon on July 4, 1927 to Jewish parents Irving and Mamie Levy Simon, his childhood was often plagued by many of the same conflicts that show up in some of his plays. Simon grew up in New York during the Great Depression with parents who fought frequently. His father often disappeared, leaving Simon’s mother to fend for herself and her two sons. In order to escape turmoil at home Simon often escaped to the movies to find laughter and sanctuary. His early inspiration included comedy greats like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel Hardy.
Simon began his writing career at the age of fifteen when he began writing comedy scripts with his brother Danny Simon. They sold their scripts to comedians and radio shows. After graduating from high school he enlisted in the Army Air Force Reserve. He continued to write during his military service, and on his release from the army he joined his brother again in writing for radio and television for shows over the next five years. In 1961 Simon’s first Broadway play Come Blow Your Horn was produced and ran for 678 performances. This was the beginning of a successful and long career as a playwright. Simon had discovered theatre, and the theatre world loved him. For the next twenty-five years Simon would have at least one of his plays running on Broadway every year. His subsequent successes of Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple cemented his place in the theatre world. The Odd Couple also opened the door for his success in film and television. In 1966 he dominated Broadway with four of his plays running simultaneously: Sweet Charity, Star-Spangled Girl, Barefoot in the Park, and The Odd Couple.
His unique writing brand of trouble meets comedy fueled his career as he continued to draw from his own and other friends’ real life battles. According to Simon, The Odd Couple’s story of two men who have unhappy marriages and decide to live together only to find themselves experiencing many of the same challenges as roommates was based on two people he knew (Encyclopedia of World Biography, http://www.notablebiographies.com/Sc-St/Simon-Neil.html). Stories like Barefoot in the Park, Chapter Two, and Jake’s Women explore the various aspects of marriage from newlyweds to divorce and remarriage and widowhood. Simon had ample experience in the marriage department with five marriages to four different women. His first wife Joan Baim died after twenty years. Chapter Two is a reflection of what it meant to remarry after the death of his wife. Simon married his second wife, actor Marsha Mason, after a whirlwind romance following his first wife’s death. When Simon’s third marriage to Diane Lander ended in divorce he wrote Jake’s Women, the story of how the good and bad experiences in two marriages affected the third marriage. Simon is currently married to performer Elaine Joyce. Simon has three children, Nancy, Bryn, and Ellen.
In a 2009 interview with Michael McGregror for the online version of “The Oregonian–Oregon Live,” Simon answered questions about his inspiration for material for his work when McGregor asked “Many of your characters tend to be somewhat stubborn, self-absorbed people forced in some way to recognize themselves; would that be a fair assessment?” Simon’s Answer? “Sort of. I'd say all of the people I write about—and this goes for playwriting altogether—had better be in trouble. Otherwise, what's the play about?”
He continued to speak to the power of humor despite pain when he said, “There's a great deal of pain in humor. I think people want to hear it. Just laughing makes them feel better” (http://ww.oregonlive.com/performance/index.ssf/2009/05/playwright_neil_simon_explains_1.html).
Simon entered his third decade of writing with his most celebrated work to that point with Lost in Yonkers (1991) the story of an abusive mother’s effect on her grown children. The play won Simon a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer Prize may be his most prestigious award, but he has enough awards to fill a room. His works have been nominated fifteen times for Tony Awards. Almost every one of his thirty-plus plays has been adapted into a motion picture and he has won more Oscars and Tony awards than any writer in history. Appearing in Simon’s films helped make the careers of many well-known actors, including Robert Redford, Walther Matthau, and Marsha Mason. In 2006 Simon was awarded the Mark Twain Award. His plays continue to find captive audiences around the world, five decades after he made his Broadway debut. Simon has easily earned his title as America’s playwright.