Thirteen Ways of Looking at Neil Simon: A Subjective Tribute

Neil Simon (1927-2018) was the prolific writer of approximately 50 Broadway shows, Simon won Tony Awards for The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues, and Lost In Yonkers, which also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. He joined the Guild in 1975 and received its Career Achievement Award in 2003.

Illustration of Neil Simon
Illustration of Neil Simon by Joey Stocks for The Dramatist


Twenty-six Broadway plays have run for more than 1,000 performances. Three were written by Neil Simon. The only other playwright who wrote more than one of them was Peter Shaffer, whose identical twin brother Anthony also wrote another one. So it literally took two British people to do what Neil Simon did all by himself. There are also more laughs in Barefoot in the Park, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Plaza Suite than in Anthony’s Sleuth and Peter’s Equus and Amadeus. Plus, the Shaffer twins never had any musicals on Broadway, whereas Neil Simon wrote the books for five, two of which – Promises, Promises and They’re Playing Our Song – also ran for more than a thousand performances. Now I’m just rubbing it in.


I was a kid when I first fell in love with Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, the two famously mismatched roommates in The Odd Couple. I almost certainly saw their TV incarnations before seeing them on either film or stage, a fact which would probably have annoyed Mr. Simon, since he sold the movie and TV rights for a large but flat fee, losing millions of dollars as a result. He apparently couldn’t watch the series for years because that one business deal made him too upset.


Neil Simon died on August 26, 2018. He was 91 years old. His death felt like an enormous door had closed, firmly ending an era. He impacted so many lives with those words he typed out onto the pages he fed into his typewriter. I was once told by a drama teacher to never forget that Shakespeare wasn’t some niche artist during his lifetime. Shakespeare was a theater owner, his plays were big crowd pleasers and did well at the box office, and he was even able to retire. “Shakespeare was the Neil Simon of his day,” said my teacher. That comment reframed, ever so slightly, how I thought about both Shakespeare and Neil Simon.


In 1980, I saw my first Neil Simon play on Broadway, when my father took me to a Saturday matinee of I Ought to Be In Pictures, starring Ron Leibman, Dinah Manoff, and Joyce Van Patten, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. I vividly remember two things about the experience: standing outside the stage door after the show to get my Playbill signed by the actors (I’ve never thrown it away), and the sound made by over a thousand people laughing in unison that often. Thanks, Dad, once again, for indulging your stage-struck younger son. I can never repay the debt.


I missed The Good Doctor, Simon’s ode to Chekhov, in its original Broadway run, which is probably understandable, seeing as I was five years old at the time. Simon’s fascination and feeling of kinship with “the good doctor” from Russia is understandable. They both showed uncommon insight into the lives of so-called ordinary people, and they both could see the underlying humor in life’s most tragic moments, and the corresponding sadness in life’s funnier, happier times. Neil Simon’s ability to write funnier lines than most humans has been clear for decades. No subject was too dark, serious, or personal to avoid the evocation of laughter, and if something can be laughed at, it seems to make life a bit better during the dark patches.


The first time I truly met Neil Simon came courtesy of Jay Binder, who brought me in to audition for the role of Jay in Lost in Yonkers. The character is fifteen, and I was already in my early 20s, but a chance to read his words in front of the man himself was not to be passed up. I was already thinking of myself more as a playwright than an actor by that point in my life, and it was one of the last handful of auditions I was brave enough to go on. I remember Mr. Simon being kind, not saying much, and smiling. I also remember that the script was one of those great old-fashioned Studio Duplicating Services copies, bound in a black vinyl cover. That play would go on to win him the Pulitzer Prize. I remember it was reported that he was vacationing in Hawaii when he got the news, and thinking that, if such things could be scientifically recorded, that very moment might mark the historical height of envy throughout the rest of the Dramatists Guild.


It was 1984, and I was a skinny teenager on the stage of Livingston High School in New Jersey, waiting for the curtain to go up so I could start the play off by criticizing Murray’s slow deal, since I was cast in the role of Speed, one of the poker players, in my high school’s revival of The Odd Couple. When I say it was my high school’s revival, I mean it literally: the same director had done the play at our school years before, and he talked incessantly about the wonderful young actor who had played Oscar Madison in that earlier production, some kid named Jay Greenspan. When he joined Equity, Jay Greenspan became Jason Alexander. Before Seinfeld brought him international fame, he would originate the role of Stanley in Broadway Bound, the third play in Simon’s extraordinary “Eugene trilogy” of plays. His role was based on Neil’s older brother (and first writing partner), Danny Simon, and the late-night writing scenes between Eugene and Stanley in the first act contain more sound playwriting advice than most books on the subject. They also contain these three lines:

STAN: I love being a writer.

EUGENE: Me, too.

STAN: It’s just the writing that’s hard … You know what I mean?


I know of few rooms I’d rather visit in a time machine than one of Sid Caesar’s fabled writers’ rooms: the comic minds that gathered there have rightfully become the stuff of legend, and Neil Simon not only worked there in his 20s, but he wrote his fictionalized version of the experience in Laughter on the 23rd Floor. He’s also supposed to be the inspiration for the character of Herb in the sublime movie My Favorite Year – the writer who would whisper his jokes and ideas into somebody else’s ear, so they could then loudly share them with the rest of the room. Mel Brooks and Danny Simon apparently amplified Neil’s material more than once in that notoriously loud, smoke-filled, and competitive environment.


When the phrase “most successful playwright” (in quotes) is Googled, the result you receive is not a surprise: Neil Simon. I’d be happily surprised if anybody ever breaks his record of having fourteen (out of 25) of his Broadway plays run for over a year in their original productions. Then add in his five Broadway musicals; two Off-Broadway plays; all of the TV shows; at least ten produced screenplays not based on his plays—including The Goodbye Girl, Seems Like Old Times, The Out of Towners, and The Heartbreak Kid (I must also mention The Marrying Man for a single line of dialogue, a perfect insult: “That suit … it looks like the lining to a better suit.”). The majority of his plays were also adapted for film, TV, or—in many cases—both; plus, two gorgeous volumes of memoirs. It’s quite a daunting corpus. One of the most memorably stinging opening lines of a theater review in history came from Walter Kerr, about Simon’s 1966 play The Star-Spangled Girl: “Neil Simon, your friendly neighborhood gagman, hasn’t had an idea for a play this season, but he’s gone ahead and written one anyway.” It turns out Neil Simon agreed with Mr. Kerr: “That wasn’t smart ass. It was the truth.” Simon also wrote this about Kerr: “I loved Walter Kerr because I batted about .485 with him.”


At about the halfway mark of his writing career, Simon finally decided to write about his childhood. It doesn’t seem accidental to me that so many writers wait to write about their families and their childhoods until many decades have passed. Eugene O’Neill took his time getting to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Neil Simon took about as long before he wrote Brighton Beach Memoirs. They were both in their 50s, looking back on the dysfunctional families which formed them. Brighton Beach Memoirs opened on Broadway in 1983, when I was “almost fifteen years old,” exactly the age of Eugene Morris Jerome, Simon’s autobiographical stand-in, played so expertly by Matthew Broderick in that original production (& just as expertly by Noah Robbins in David Cromer’s beautiful, short-lived Broadway revival). In 1983, to have that play open up and be embraced both critically and commercially made a lot of skinny Jewish wisenheimers like myself feel like the world got bigger in an instant. My summer camp pal, Jon Cryer, took over the role of Eugene in 1984, which made a life in the professional theatre seem tangibly within reach to so many of his Stagedoor Manor friends.


Neil Simon was heartbroken after the death of his first wife, Joan, and he wrote quite a bit about both their great love and that devastating loss. A wonderful section of his first book of memoirs Rewrites captures their love hysterically. He has foolishly decided he had to leave their marriage. He agonized about telling her over lunch, and when he finally made it clear that he needed to separate, she responded to him exquisitely, and casually. He lasted at the restaurant table less than ten minutes before saying, “Never mind”—“The thought of leaving was out of my mind forever. I asked for my freedom, she gave it to me, and that was all the time experiencing freedom I needed.” (The book is an invaluable treat, as is its sequel, The Play Goes On.)


The second time I truly met Neil Simon came courtesy of the Dramatists Guild. It was April 18, 2005, at a dinner for the Guild. My wife Alexandra and I were cutting it close that night. We rushed in at the very last minute, and when we sat down at our table, I saw that sitting on our right were Neil Simon and his wife, Elaine Joyce. I immediately began talking to the person on my left, thinking I was playing it cool as I allowed my heartbeat to slow down, and I thought Alexandra was having a nice chat with Mr. Simon, when suddenly, I felt a sharp kick under the table. I looked over, and got an amused glare in return. When we later had a moment to ourselves, Alexandra explained that she hadn’t recognized the sweet gentleman she was sitting next to, and he tried to help her out and give her some hints. He said he was a playwright. He said that a musical he wrote the book for was currently being revived on Broadway. It turned out to be Sweet Charity, but she couldn’t remember who wrote the book for Sweet Charity. When he finally got around to mentioning another revival he had coming up, and she casually asked what that one was called, and he replied, “The Odd Couple,” I got kicked under the table. “How could you not tell me I was about to sit down next to Neil Simon?!?” I was asked, to which I responded, “How do you not know what Neil Simon looks like?!?” When it was pointed out that perhaps skinny Jewish boys who want to write plays probably paid more attention to Neil Simon’s face growing up than the rest of the population, I knew she was right. I would happily have tacked up a poster of Neil Simon on my bedroom wall as a kid, if only they sold one at the local mall. (He was photographed by Annie Leibovitz in 1989 for an American Express ad, but that somehow seemed a bit too commercial for my wall décor.)


“It was evening all afternoon. / It was snowing / And it was going to snow.” Those lines alone from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird are enough to make me certain that
Wallace Stevens was a bona fide poet. Now, I ask you to consider this exchange, between Oscar and Murray, from the opening scene of The Odd Couple:

OSCAR: (Looks under bread) I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches.

… Well, what do you say?

MURRAY: What’s the green?

OSCAR: It’s either very new cheese or very old meat.

MURRAY: I’ll take the brown.

I still marvel at the perfection and poetry of that dialogue. The first time I encountered it, it made me laugh. It still makes me smile, every time. Those lines alone are enough to make me certain that Neil Simon was also a bona fide poet, in addition to being one of the greatest playwrights this world has known. Rest easy, Doc, and thanks for everything. I’ll take the brown.

Photo of Jonathan Marc Sherman
Jonathan Marc Sherman

was born and raised in New Jersey, graduated from Bennington College, and lives in New York City. Plays include: Knickerbocker; Things We Want; Sophistry; and Women & Wallace. He co-founded Malaparte and is a member of LAByrinth. His hobby is writing about himself in the third person.