If you’re unfamiliar with the name Neil Simon, it seems clear you’ve regularly attended neither theater nor film, have an aversion to natural human comedy, or are very young. The author has written over 30 plays, almost an equal number of screenplays, and a handful of librettos. Simon received more combined Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer. His melding of comedy with compassionate drama and situation with characters we feel we know – often heroes in their own small worlds – allows us to laugh even when highly affected.
This is a big book. It combines Simon’s 1996 Rewrites and his 1999 The Play Goes On with an introduction by Nathan Lane and an afterward by wife, Elaine Joyce. Don’t let the bulk throw you. It’s easy, enjoyable reading. For those of us long aware of the artist, references to most work embroiders memories and illuminates well known collaborators. The volume is not a resume. Simon is candid about fallibility and fear, personal life inspiring his oeuvre and vice versa. That he states he kept neither journals nor diaries makes detail impressive.
“If character is fate, as the Greeks tell us, then it was my fate to become a playwright. Destiny seems preordained by the gods. Fate comes to those who continue on the path they started on when all other possible roads were closed to them.”
Marvin Neil Simon (1927-) grew up during the Great Depression regularly abandoned by his father, raised by an overwrought mother who inadvertently taught him to refuse assistance, advice, and comforting. “I have driven myself to the hospital rather than put someone out…” He admits this cut him off from many organic feelings. I would amend the statement by suggesting the difficulty may have applied to his private life, not the author’s prose.
Directly after High School and The Army Air Force Reserve, Simon and his older brother Danny got jobs writing comedy for radio and television. (See: Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, and later, Lost in Yonkers for which he won The Pulitzer Prize.) The two eventually joined a brilliant staff concocting Sid Caesar’s iconic Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner, Howie Morris and Woody Allen, who stated that Danny Simon taught him everything he knows about comedy, were peers. (See Laughter on the 23rd Floor)
Simon’s first plays were Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park – the last directed by Mike Nichols about whom he writes with keen-eyed ardor, and the Tony Award-winning The Odd Couple which turned out to be an annuity encompassing film and television. The studio wanted Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to play his characters on film. Instead, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau inhabited the roles. The memoirist writes about both actors with wit and esteem. We hear about producers, directors, actors, agents… There’s neither difficulty nor dirt here. Curiously Simon elaborates on trials in personal rather than professional relationships, the opposite of most autobiographies.
Plays and screenplays (including some adaptations) flowed out of him. The author often juggled two or three projects simultaneously. “Neil the writer had time for only one thing: he wrote…more and more he would take over Neil the person’s time…” Despite incredible success and remarkable early facility “I could almost always tell what wouldn’t work in front of an audience. This is not to say I could tell what would work…,” he remained insecure and strangely guilty. Guilt, a state that contributed to breakdowns and drove him to intermittent analysis, comes up again and again.
Does self reproach stem from a childhood about which he was impotent? Did Simon feel ideas came too easily; that he was unworthy of accolades? Were serial consequences of not paying attention to personal relationships the root of his remorse? Armchair conjecturing.
Neil Simon was married five times. Joan Baim created a stable home life for which he was grateful and about which he was surprised, bore two daughters, and tragically died of cancer. Actress Marsha Mason brought light back into his life, understood and participated in common craft, and is deemed incredibly patient. (See: Chapter II.) Actress Diane Lander, whom he wed twice, eventually adopting her daughter, was fired from a Neiman Marcus job for talking to him. “I have to make it up to you,” Simon entreated. “Dinner isn’t enough. I have to buy you a small restaurant…” (There are endless wonderful quips.) Simon is descriptive, yet discreet. He takes the blame for every nuptial failure.
Falling in love with and wedding actress Elaine Joyce, after both felt finished with marriage, offers a happy ending. “For me, I hope there will be additional satisfactions besides my work…I feel now that while I have fewer years to live, I have more time in which to live them.”
BTW, according to Neil Simon, it was his brother Danny who nicknamed him “Doc” during playtime with a doctor’s kit. Neil was three years-old.
“I had a gift, albeit a simple one-but then fortunately I was not the one who God chose to lead His people out of Egypt.”
Neil Simon’s Memoirs: Rewrites and The Play Goes On
Simon and Schuster