Born: July 4, 1927
New York, New York
American playwright and writer
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon is one of America's most productive and popular dramatists. His plays expose human weaknesses and make people laugh at themselves.
Marvin Neil Simon was born in the Bronx, in New York, on the Fourth of July in 1927. His father Irving, a garment salesman, disappeared from time to time, leaving his wife, Mamie, to support their two sons by working at a department store and by relying on family and friends. After his parents divorced, Simon lived with relatives in Forest Hills, New York. Simon received the nickname "Doc" as a child because he was always pretending to be a doctor, listening to people's heartbeats with a toy stethoscope (an instrument used to listen to sounds inside the body). He also loved comedy films and was often thrown out of movie theaters for laughing too loudly.
Simon and his older brother Danny were very close. During their teens, they wrote and sold material to standup comedians and radio shows. It was his brother who encouraged him to pursue writing while in the United States Army Air Force Reserve program. Simon also attended college at this time. His childhood love of comedy stuck, and his writing was inspired by the work of his favorite comics—Robert Benchley (1889–1945) and Ring Lardner (1885–1933).
Writing for a living
After being discharged (let out) from the army, Simon got a job in Warner Brothers' mailroom—thanks to his brother, who worked in the publicity department. They began working together again, and from 1947 to 1956 they wrote comedy for television shows starring Jackie Gleason (1916–1987) and Phil Silvers (1911–1985). Simon continued writing comedy after his brother quit to become a television director, and his work appeared on some of television's top shows. The pleasure was fading, however, so he began writing plays in 1960.
Simon's first play, Come Blow Your Horn, was a modest hit. It was followed shortly thereafter with Barefoot in the Park, which ran on Broadway for four years. His third play, The Odd Couple, introduced two famous characters, Felix and Oscar, two men with failing marriages who move in together to save money and find that they have the same problems living with each other as they did with their wives. Simon's storylines usually presented conflicts between two people and were filled with funny one-liners.
Simon admitted that he often used personal experiences or those of his friends for material. Come Blow Your Horn was about two brothers who moved away from home and shared an apartment (just as Simon and his brother had); Barefoot in the Park was the story of newlyweds adjusting to married life (similar to his own marriage); and of The Odd Couple Simon once commented, "[The story] happened to two guys I know—I couldn't write a play about Welsh miners." The Odd Couple had a two-year run on Broadway, won Simon his first Tony Award (an award given every year for achievement in the theater), and was adapted to television and film several times.
New approach to drama
In the 1970s Simon made an effort to add depth to his work by treating serious issues with comic touches. He presented works such as The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, the story of a married man in a mid-life crisis who has a series of affairs; The Gingerbread Lady, in which a one-time singer, who is now an alcoholic, struggles to make a comeback; and The Prisoner of Second Avenue, which witnesses the nervous breakdown of a recently fired business executive.
Simon continued to create characters who struggled to handle their feelings in difficult situations and who released tension with humor. He began to share more of himself and his life, including boyhood dreams of escaping from his family problems and the difficulty of coping with his wife's terminal illness. During this period he wrote The Sunshine Boys, The Good Doctor, California Suite, and Chapter Two, whose main character, a widower, feels guilty over falling in love and remarrying, much as Simon had. He also wrote several screenplays, including The Goodbye Girl, which was nominated (put forward for consideration) for an Academy Award in 1977.
Even more personal works
Simon took his mixing of honesty and humor to new levels in the 1980s. Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first in a trilogy (series of three works) of semiautobiographical (some-what based on his own life) plays, tells the story of a middle-class Jewish American teenager growing up in a troubled family. Biloxi Blues deals with the boy's coming of age and facing of anti-Semitism (hatred of Jewish people) while in the army. Finally, Broadway Bound takes audiences into the boy's young adulthood, as he struggles to establish his career and sees the problems in his parents' relationship more clearly. Simon claimed that writing the play helped him address the problems he had with his own mother.
When Simon's third marriage broke up, he wrote Jake's Women, in which he introduces "ghosts"—good and bad experiences of two marriages and their effect on the third. He began the 1990s with Lost in Yonkers, a painfully funny story about the effect an abusive mother has on her grown children. The play was a success, and in 1991 it earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Simon's next work, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, is a behind-the-scenes look at writing comedy by committee, as a group of men shout one-liners, each trying to top the other. Critics found it funny but talked about the lack of plot and depth of the characters. Simon received Kennedy Center honors in 1995 from President Bill Clinton (1946–) for his contribution to the arts and to popular culture in the twentieth century. In 1996 Simon wrote a book entitled Rewrites, a look back at his early career. The book received mixed reviews; PeopleWeekly commented that it "doesn't live up to the creativity it documents."
In 1997 Simon introduced his first major black character in Proposals. In an interview with David Stearns for USA Today he said, "It is one of the most loving plays I've ever written. There's also a lot of anger. Because love is the main theme in the play, I was trying to cover all the aspects [elements] of it—those who get it and those who don't." In 1999 Simon was honored by ringing the bell to open trading at the New York Stock Exchange as part of the Exchange's Bridging the Millennium program, which honored leaders of the twentieth century whose achievements continue to enrich humanity.
In 2001, just about the same time his new play 45 Seconds from Broadway was opening, Simon was presented with the first Sarah Applebaum Nederlander Award for Excellence in Theatre at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. As President Clinton remarked of Simon when presenting him with the Kennedy Center honors, "He challenges us and himself never to take ourselves too seriously. Thank you for the wit and the wisdom."