"If Broadway ever erects a monument to the patron saint of laughter, Neil Simon would have to be it," wrote Time magazine. The movies and television might consider America's most prolific and popular playwright a patron saint as well. He has written 28 plays and holds the record for the greatest number of hits in the American theater. He has had more plays adapted to film than any other playwright, and additionally has written nearly a dozen original film comedies. He helped define television comedy during the medium's legendary early days. In the theater, at the movies, and at home he has kept America laughing for more than 40 years and has been rewarded with four Tony Awards, two Emmys, a Screen Writers Guild Award, and a Pulitzer Prize.
What's his secret? The Concise Oxford Companion to American Theatre explains: "He is a shrewd observer of human foibles and a master of the one-line gag." Emanuel Azenberg, his long-time producer, simply suggests, "He genuinely loves the act of writing."
Marvin Neil Simon grew up in Washington Heights, a product of a marriage that saw its share of turbulence. After graduating from public school, he enlisted in the Army and began his career writing for an Army camp newspaper. A week later, armistice was declared. After discharge, he returned to New York and became a mailroom clerk for Warner Brothers' East Coast office. Soon he was writing comedy revues with his brother Danny in the Poconos, then for radio, providing material for the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, and finally, for television, where he helped make Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, Red Buttons, Garry Moore, Sid Caesar, and Imogene Coca funny.
Caesar and Coca, of course, were the stars of "Your Show of Shows," the nation's weekly variety show addiction from 1950-54, where Simon and his brother toiled alongside fellow budding talents Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Larry Gelbart. But the theater was his destiny and it was there that he and his brother continued their partnership, contributing sketches to a couple of Broadway musicals in the mid-fifties. Eventually he broke out on his own and, after countless drafts, completed a comedy about two brothers who don't want to take over their father's fruit business. Come Blow Your Horn (1961) racked up 677 performances on Broadway and hinted at a promising career. Two years later, Barefoot in the Park fulfilled the promise and launched a legend.
Throughout the '60s and '70s, Simon would turn out hit after hit for the stage and screen, most of them depicting life in and about New York City -- Manhattan, Brighton Beach, Yonkers, Riverside Drive, Second Avenue, Central Park West. Think of the Simon canon -- The Odd Couple (1965), Sweet Charity (1966), Plaza Suite (1968), The Out of Towners (1970), Promises, Promises (1968), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), The Goodbye Girl (1993), Chapter Two (1977) -- and you get a clear, sharp, and very funny picture of the people crazy and lucky enough to call New York home.
In the '80s Simon produced his landmark autobiographical trilogy -- Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985), and Broadway Bound (1986), which chronicled his stormy childhood, Army days, and entry into show business. Now Simon was not only getting the laughs, he was also getting the awards. He crowned this streak with Lost in Yonkers, which won the Pulitzer Price in 1991. Perhaps the secret to Simon's success is his ability, brilliantly displayed in those four plays but evident from the very beginning, to show us -- between, in, and around the funny lines -- the pain, aspiration, and sheer panic behind all those unforgettable characters.
Currently his newest play, London Suite, is a hit -- naturally -- in New York. And the city which has figured so prominently in his life and work has honored him by making him the only living playwright for whom a Broadway theater is named.