In 1991, on his tenth try, and after a theater career that had spanned 30 years and almost as many Broadway productions, Neil Simon finally won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He was rewarded for, at long last, not writing a Neil Simon play. Lost in Yonkers was, in many ways, a memory piece that was his attempt at a Jewish Glass Menagerie — the story of an angry, quarrelsome, not all that loving family thrown together in close quarters during World War II, with a hard, cold matriarch at its center. This is what we do so often to popular artists — we take the talent for granted but we withhold the reward until the pivot, the proof that Jack Palance can make us laugh or Mo’Nique can terrify us or, in this case, that a funny man can get serious. Finally, here was evidence that Simon, who died on Sunday at 91, wasn’t just funny; he could be important. By then, he had climbed every other mountain available to him: Ten Tony nominations for his plays, four Oscar nominations for his screenplays, a career that began during TV’s first golden age of sketch comedy with him in the writer’s room for Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour he’s immortalized in My Favorite Year as the funny writer who was so nervous he could only whisper his jokes), and an epic run as the most commercially successful Broadway playwright in the history of the form.
And then it stopped. After Lost in Yonkers, Simon had a few more new plays produced — none of them hits on the level of Barefoot In the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Sunshine Boys or the other work that had made him famous. For most of his career, it had been enough just to be funny, but suddenly, his rat-a-tat style, his almost compulsive belief that there was no moment that could not be undercut or leavened with a perfectly crafted one-liner, was out of step with the times. Audiences did not want an audience-pleaser. He was dismissed as a laugh machine, synthetic, a gagmeister. When directors attempted to rethink his plays — a 2006 revival of Barefoot that worked hard to avoid laugh lines, a 2009 stab at Brighton Beach Memoirs that attempted to reapproach his dialogue with naturalism — they were brought down by the relentless gunfire rhythms of Simon’s speech, a mode he invented, and one that became, for a stretch in the 1960s and 1970s, the default language of American comedy. Was it that time had passed him by, or that his audience had just become impatient with a man who could do one particular thing better than almost anyone else and wanted to keep doing it?
Simon’s comedy was fledged in television, then honed on Broadway in the 1960s with the invaluable collaboration of his early director Mike Nichols, who insisted that “funny things come out of real behaviors” and undergirded Simon’s dialogue by seeking psychologically and physically grounded ways for his actors to play it; he pushed “Doc,” as he was known, for fixes and rewrites right up until the opening-night curtain rose. Simon was staggeringly prolific and successful. During the first half of 1967, he had three plays and a musical running on Broadway simultaneously, and for many years he owned a Broadway theater, the Eugene O’Neill (he sold his interest about a decade before a different Broadway house, the Alvin, was named after him).
Many of the biggest laughs he got stemmed from exasperation. The moment in The Odd Couple when Oscar Madison explodes at his roommate, “You leave me little notes! ‘We are out of corn flakes. F.U.’ It took me 15 minutes to figure out ‘F.U.’ stood for Felix Unger!” was a last-minute rewrite that so completely upended the first audience that heard it that Walter Matthau, who played Oscar, had to pick up a prop newspaper and read it onstage until the roars died down. The echt Simon character is male, urban, neurotic, Jewish (or Jewish-ish), and at the very end of his rope, shouting as if it’s the only way to keep from losing his grip. He’s the middle-aged shlub of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, or Richard Dreyfuss in The Goodbye Girl snatching Marsha Mason’s underwear off a shower bar (“I don’t! Like! The Panties! Hanging! On! The Rod!”); his most memorable women are caustic and/or alcoholic (The Gingerbread Lady, Only When I Laugh, California Suite) or goodhearted criers trying to keep the world from dragging them down any further. Simon could turn uncontainable urban frustration into comically woebegone arias — few playwrights better knew the sound of a pot finally boiling over — but he was best with duets, high-volume battles where both participants gave as good as they got. He never met a silence he liked. (Also, he came from an era before hashtags, and for him, the word “problematic” meant “isn’t getting a laugh,” so nobody who revisits his plays or movies should be surprised to find his generally goodhearted work marred by the occasional drive-by stereotype.)
His roles were catnip for performers. “Up until opening the author and director control a play,” he said in 1963. “Then it’s the actors.” Fifty times, they received Tony nominations or awards for saying his words. Robert Redford, Elizabeth Ashley, Art Carney, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, Linda Lavin, Maureen Stapleton, Mercedes Ruehl, Kevin Spacey, Christine Baranski, Alan Alda, and Matthew Broderick (as Simon’s alter ego Eugene in the first two installments of the autobiographical Brighton Beach trilogy) are among those who distinguished themselves by originating roles in his plays; George Burns, Maggie Smith, and Dreyfuss won Oscars for their work in his movies; Simon’s second wife Marsha Mason was nominated for three Academy Awards for Simon movies, once for playing a version of herself in Chapter Two, which was loosely based on his marriage to her after the early death from cancer of his first wife Joan Baim. He had a great one-off success writing The Heartbreak Kid for Nichols’s partner Elaine May (who directed) and her daughter Jeannie Berlin (who starred), and he sidelighted in musicals with Promises, Promises and Little Me. He was also a shrewd businessman, who, after being locked out of profits from the TV series The Odd Couple, made sure to protect himself from getting similarly screwed ever again. Every playwright today who is able to drive a hard bargain owes him a debt.
A 2004 kidney transplant — the donor was Simon’s longtime friend and press agent Bill Evans — extended his life considerably, but he reportedly suffered from dementia and he was unable to write for the last decade, a period during which Broadway seemed to forget him. Simon himself had always been aware of the fluctuations in his reputation and seemed alternatingly frustrated by and resigned to it. “People are always coming up to me and saying, ‘Thanks for the good times,’” he said in 1991. It felt then like both a validation and a diminishment. Today, it feels like an epitaph — and not a bad one for any writer to be able to claim as one’s own.