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Remembering Neil Simon

  • Photo of Neil Simon
  • Photo of Neil Simon and Nathan Lane
  • Photo of Neil Simon
  • Photo of Neil Simon and Elaine Joyce
  • Photo of Neil Simon and Elaine Joyce
Neil Simon at the DG Awards Night, Hudson Theatre, May 19, 2003. Photos by Douglas Gorenstein.

Remembering Neil Simon

The Dramatists Guild mourns the passing of our friend and colleague Neil Simon, a devoted member for nearly sixty years and one of the most successful playwrights in history. Author of thirty two plays and musicals, Mr. Simon is the only writer ever to have four shows run concurrently on Broadway. His iconic works include Tony winners The Odd CoupleBiloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers, for which he also won the Pulitzer Prize. When presenting him with the Guild’s 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award, playwright Marsha Norman said, “Mr. Simon has probably made more people laugh than anybody in the history of the world.  It’s Neil Simon I want on my deserted island; not Sophocles.” 

Following is the citation, delivered by Marsha Norman and John Weidman, honoring Mr. Simon with the Dramatists Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hudson Theater, May 19, 2003.

A tribute to Neil Simon always begins the same way. Neil Simon is America’s most successful playwright. He has had 27 plays produced and 24 feature films. He has written five TV movies, five TV specials, seven TV series, and two radio series. He has more Oscar and Tony nominations than any other writer, and is the only playwright ever to have four Broadway productions running at once. He has had more plays adapted to film than any other American playwright. He has won, among others, the Writers Guild Award, the Evening Standard Award, the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Shubert Award, two Regular Tony Awards for The Odd Couple and Broadway Bound, one Special Tony Award for over-all contributions to the theatre, and the Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers. Put simply, he has probably made more people laugh than anybody in the history of the world.

And yet for all his phenomenal success, I venture to say, that not one of the other playwrights in this room would change places with Neil Simon for even a minute. For while we all confront blank pages every day, not one of us would want to have to face a blank page that had to be written by Neil Simon. Not one of us could manage being as funny as he is after forty years of being as funny as he is.

Year after year, he has found humor in the ordinary catastrophe of life as we live it, in our neighborhoods, our courtships, our marriages, our families, our friendships, in our attempts to be decent, and our failures to come even close. We leave a Neil Simon play with a real sense of recognition, my family is like that, my mother, my aunt, my lover, my child, my divorce, my army, just like that. Not as funny of course, but just like that.

I would list his most famous works, but this is an audience that knows every one of Neil Simon’s plays. In the process of writing this citation, I called around to other Council members hoping to get a list of favorite Neil Simon lines, only now I have a list that would take me the rest of the night to read. In the course of gathering that list, I have come into another list – the not-so-funny moments in plays and movies and memoirs that his fellow playwrights have found liberating and challenging. What I also have heard is our collective awe at the fact that he continues to spend six hours a day at his desk perfecting his craft, when he could have stopped twenty years ago and still been the most successful American playwright ever.

Neil Simon is, or seems, fearless in the face of a task universally accepted as the hardest one there is – and that is writing comedy – being funny at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason, in spite of what you know, in the face of whatever is coming. He makes us do more than laugh, of course, but it is the laughter that frees us from our separateness, the laughter that heals us, the laughter that gets us through.

It is laughter that allows us to forgive and learn from our mistakes. It is laughter that allows us to treasure the people we hate most, and run screaming from the ones we love. It is comedy, not tragedy we miss when we don’t have any. It’s Neil Simon I want on my deserted island, not Sophocles.

The Dramatists Guild Council recognizes Neil Simon’s dedication, his perseverance in the face of staggering success as courage of the highest sort. We salute him for spending a lifetime at his desk, in a fierce determination to get it right, make it better, all the while, revealing more of what he has learned. For forty years, Neil Simon has remained on the front lines, fighting to secure the triumph of love and laughter over time and distraction. In gratitude and deep respect for his life’s work, the Dramatists Guild Council presents Neil Simon, its 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award.