Neil Simon, 1927–2018
The playwright who became Broadway’s king of comedy
Even with four Broadway shows running simultaneously and a rumored weekly income of $60,000, Neil Simon was still devastated by a piece of fan mail he received in 1967. The “horrible letter,” as he put it, said simply, “You don’t know how nice it is to go to the theater and be able to laugh without thinking.” It was the ultimate backhanded compliment for Simon, whose gift for caricaturizing everyday struggles brought unmatched popularity but fueled criticism that his humor was middlebrow and formulaic. He wrote nearly 30 shows from the 1960s through the 2000s—including Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, which both became hit movies—and more than two dozen screenplays. “Success has demeaned me in a way,” he said in 1991. Critics seem to believe that “if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good.”
Simon was born in the Bronx to a doting mother and a womanizing, garment salesman father “who abandoned the family eight times,” said The Washington Post. Simon began writing comedy at age 7 to block out “really ugly, painful things in my childhood.” After college, he took a clerking job at Warner Bros. in New York, where his older brother, Danny, worked in publicity. The pair began writing TV and radio scripts for performers such as Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, and Sid Caesar. On the side, Simon wrote 20 drafts of a comedy based on his adolescence, Come Blow Your Horn. The play was a modest success on Broadway in 1961 and later became a film starring Frank Sinatra.
But it was with 1963’s Barefoot in the Park—“a comedy inspired by his and his young wife’s experiences living in a fifth-floor walk-up in Greenwich Village”—that Simon became a star, said The New York Times. More works about seemingly mismatched people stuck in confined spaces, both physically and emotionally, followed. In 1965’s The Odd Couple, “a slob and a neatnik form an irascible all-male marriage,” and in 1972’s The Sunshine Boys, former vaudeville partners who can’t stand each other are forced into a televised reunion. But the more successful Simon became, “the more he resented being seen as a one-man gag factory,” said The Times (U.K.). Some vindication came in 1991, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for a more serious play, Lost in Yonkers. For all the frustration it caused him, Simon had no regrets about becoming a playwright. Spending 10 hours a day writing “is sheer heaven,” he said. “And if not heaven, it’s at least an escape from hell.”