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Seth Wenig/AP

Happy Birthday, Neil Simon, Award-Winning Playwright

July 04, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Crowned by Time magazine “the patron saint of laughter,” the creator of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, along with a host of other memorable characters, has amassed almost every important award and accolade possible during his 60-year career.

Neil Simon’s Early Days

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Marvin Neil Simon was born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, New York. After attending DeWitt Clinton High School, he briefly attended New York University and the University of Denver before joining the U.S. Army in 1946. His illustrious writing career had its humble beginnings in the army camp newspaper.

When he returned to New York he began working in the Warner Brothers mailroom, but soon abandoned this to write comedy sketches with his brother Danny. In the company of Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks, the brothers wrote for established comedians like Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers in radio and television shows of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

Simon’s Plays, Films and Books

Success came quickly for Simon; Emmy award nominations for his television writing propelled him to write for the theater. His earliest hit, “Come Blow Your Horn,” in 1961, launched a long string of Broadway smashes, like “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Sweet Charity.” Many of his plays were recreated as films, but Simon also wrote original screenplays such as “The Out-of-Towners” and “The Goodbye Girl.”

“There have been comic playwrights who were more daring … more witty … more rebarbative … and more up-to-the-minute … but no playwright in Broadway’s long and raucous history has so dominated the boulevard as the softly astringent Simon,” writes John Lahr in The New Yorker. “For almost half a century, his comedies have offered light at the end of whatever dark tunnel America has found itself in.”

Much of Simon’s work has been drawn from his own life experiences or his family’s. “I don’t write social and political plays,” he told the Paris Review in 1992, “because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world.”

“The Odd Couple” was based on the experience of his brother Danny, who moved in with a divorced man after his own divorce. Danny actually conceived of writing a play about it, but passed the idea off on Neil. It went on to become one of his greatest hits, becoming a film and sitcom after success on Broadway.

With 1983’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” the first of a trilogy of semi-autobiographical plays, Simon began to change the critical perception of his career and talent from that of a writer of gags to a poignant and perceptive observer of life. Simon won the Pulitzer Prize for “Lost in Yonkers” in 1991.

The Rest of the Story

Neil Simon is the most prolific writer in Broadway history and he’s amassed more Academy and Tony nominations than any other playwright. It’s safe to say that somewhere in American there is a Neil Simon play or movie being shown nearly all the time.

Simon continued to write well into his 70s, though his later work failed to find the success he was used to. Explaining his motivation to continue working, he told The Washington Post in 1997, “There are no awards they can give me that I haven't won. I have no reason to write another play except that I am alive and I like to do it.”

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Simon suffered with a kidney ailment and received regular dialysis treatments; “I didn't want to live my life anymore,” Simon told The New York Times. That changed in 2004 when Bill Evans, his longtime publicist and friend, stepped in and donated a kidney to help restore his friend’s health.
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