Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Late Great Neil Simon

Neil Simon, the playwright and screenwriter who wrote such classics as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Plaza Suite, as well as writing for such classic TV shows as Your Show of Shows and The Phil Silvers Show, died today at the age of 91. The cause was renal failure. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Neil Simon was born on July 4 1927 in The Bronx, New York City.  He had one older brother, television writer Danny Simon. He was raised in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. With a difficult home life, young Neil Simon found escape in the movies. He particularly enjoyed the silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel & Hardy. He began writing comedy while still in high school. When he was 15 he and his brother Danny Simon wrote comedy sketches for department store employees at their annual event.

After his graduation from high school Neil Simon enlisted in the Army Air Force Reserve at New York University. He was eventually stationed at Lowry Field in Colorado with the rank of corporal. He later attended the University of Denver from 1945 to 1946. For a time he worked as a mailroom clerk at Warner Bros.' office in Manhattan. He eventually quit this job to write radio and television scripts with his brother Danny Simon. Among the radio shows for which the Simon brothers was The Robert Q. Lewis Show.

Neil Simon's earliest work in television was an episode of The Arrow Show in 1948 that he wrote with his brother. In the late Forties he went onto write for Cavalcade of Stars (which starred Jackie Gleason), The Garry Moore Show, and Your Show of Shows. Along with his brother Danny, Mr. Simon was one of several legendary writers to emerge from Your Show of Shows, along with Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond, and Mel Tonkin. He continued to work on Your Show of Shows into the Fifties. Afterwards he worked on several of Max Liebman's spectaculars (including Dearest Enemy, Heidi, Paris in Springtime, and Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl), as well as such classic TV shows as Caesar's Hour The Phil Silvers Show, and The Garry Moore Show. He wrote several television specials in the Fifties, including Babes in Toyland, A Connecticut Yankee, The Chocolate Soldier, and The Adventures of Marco Polo. His plays would late provide the basis for several TV shows and TV movies, most notably the 1970 TV shows The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park.

While Neil Simon began in radio and television, arguably his greatest success would come on Broadway. His first work on Broadway were sketches for the revue Catch a Star! in 1955. He also contributed sketches to New Faces of 1956. His first play on Broadway was Come Blow Your Horn, which premiered in 1961 and ran for 678 performances. His play Little Me premiered in 1962. He met with major success with his next two plays, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. He met with continued success on Broadway in the Sixties with such plays as Sweet Charity, The Star-Spangled Girl, There's a Girl in My Soup, Plaza Suite, Promises Promises, and Last of the Red Hot Lovers.

In the Seventies he saw continued success with such plays as The Sunshine Boys, The Good Doctor, California Suite, Chapter Two, and I Ought to Be in Pictures. In the Eighties he wrote such plays as Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, and Rumours. In the Nineties he wrote Lost in Yonkers, Jake's Women, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, London Suite, Proposals, and The Dinner Party. In the Naughts he wrote 45 Seconds from Broadway and Rose's Dilemma. Over the years several of his plays were adapted as films, including Come Blow Your Horn, Sweet Charity, Star-Spangled Girl, and many others.

Of course, Neil Simon would adapt his own plays for the screen, as well as write original screenplays for films. In the Sixties he adapted his plays Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple for the big screen. His first original screenplay was The Out-of-Towners, released in 1970. The Seventies he would write such screenplays (both adaptations of his plays and originals) as Plaza Suite (1971), Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), The Sunshine Boys (1975), Murder by Death (1976), The Goodbye Girl (1977), The Cheap Detective (1978), California Suite (1978), Chapter Two (1979), and Seems Like Old Times (1980).

In the Eighties Mr. Simon wrote the screenplays for such films as Only When I Laugh (1981), I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982), Max Dugan Returns (1983), The Slugger's Wife (1985), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), and Biloxi Blues (1988). During the Nineties he wrote the screenplays for such films as The Marrying Man (1991), Lost in Yonkers (1993), and The Odd Couple II (1998).

Neil Simon won more Academy Awards and Tony Awards combined than any other writer. There should be little wonder why. Mr. Simon had a gift for knowing what was funny. What is more, no one was perhaps more adept than drawing upon his own life for humour than Neil Simon was. While they were often very funny and sometimes the situations were somewhat exaggerated, his plays seemed very true to life. Quite simply, many of us know someone like Felix Unger or Oscar Madison. It was among Neil Simon's gifts that he had a knack for creating true-to-life characters in true-to-life situations.

With regards to his comedy style, Neil Simon was very versatile. Much of his comedy was verbal and much of it relied on humorous situations, but at the same time he was capable of writing fine physical humour. One does not have to look very closely to see the influence of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton upon Neil Simon. In the end it can perhaps be said simply that Neil Simon had a gift for making people laugh.

1 comment:

Evil Woman Blues said...

An American original. His life reminds me of that of Billy Wilder. They each had a keen insight into the American soul. RIP to a really great one.