Neil Simon, 1927–2018
The playwright who became Broadway’s king of comedy
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.” ■