Written by: Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
This is one of my first movie memories:
I was five years old. My mother took me to see a movie where people did a lot of talking.
Did I mention they talked?
I didn’t understand a lot of what they said. But there was a girl in the movie, with brown hair in pigtails. She was smart and funny and I liked her a lot. But her mom bickered all the time with a man wearing glasses. She was upset he was leaving, that he had a job. I wondered why that was bad. I thought having a job was good.
But the mom was mopey about the whole thing and the man with the glasses called her and said just because he was leaving, that it wasn’t forever. There was even proof: he left behind his beloved guitar. She ran out in the rain, and standing on the fire escape, held the guitar to her heart. And David Gates sang in the background that goodbye doesn’t mean forever.
This moment made me a romantic.
And a Neil Simon fan.
I had no idea then that the New York born Neil Simon was a Tony Award-winning playwright. And I had no idea he had been nominated for more Oscars and Tonys than any other writer. All I knew was I loved that moment between the mom and the guy with glasses.
But what I did have an idea about at the tender age of five was that Neil Simon’s characters talked.
They fought, they bickered, they made up, and they continued to talk.
Simon grew up in the Bronx, where his parents fought constantly. Their fighting and his early life would inspire the Eugene series, or in Simon’s own words to Newsweek, the “quasi-autobiographical trilogy” which was Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound. He sought sanctuary in movies, particularly comedies. After his stint in the Army, he wrote for early television, which influenced one of his latter plays, Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
His life was his material.
So much so that while divorcing his third wife, he had to sign a paper saying he wouldn’t write about their lives together.
For years, there seemed to always be a new play or screenplay by Neil Simon. In 1973, there was a new leading lady as well. His beloved wife Joan had died of bone cancer and he had become attracted to an actress named Marsha Mason. They married months after Joan died. Of course, there was gossip: Too soon! Too much! And yes, this inspired a play and movie, Chapter Two. Mason starred in the movie version. Mason became close to Simon’s daughters, then starred in a movie he wrote for her, The Goodbye Girl. She was the mom I saw when I was five. Quinn Cummings was the daughter I loved, and Richard Dreyfuss was the man with the glasses. The tagline for the film was a quote by critic Rex Reed: ”Thank you, Neil Simon, for making us laugh about falling in love… again.”
Both he, Mason and Cummings were nominated for Oscars the following year.
Dreyfuss deservedly took home the statue.
Simn always took chances by writing books for musicals. One called They’re Playing Our Song brought together Lucie Arnaz and her husband Lawrence Luckinbill.
They named their first son Simon.
No doubt who he was named for.
He also did something different by writing stories set in hotels: Plaza Suite, California Suite, and London Suite. All of the stories had the characters somehow be in the same hotel in different cities.
Simon went through a difficult time when he and Mason broke up in 1983. But he kept writing. In 1991, he won the Pulitzer for his play Lost in Yonkers, the story about two grandsons staying with their difficult grandmother and mentally delayed aunt Bella. In 1999, he married actress Elaine Joyce. He kept writing, but around the mid-2000s suddenly there were no new plays by Neil Simon. Oh sure, there was a revival of Promises Promises with Kristen Chenoweth and Sean Hayes, and The Odd Couple was brought back starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon, but there was no new material to speak of.
And now there will never be anything new from Simon, who died of renal failure this week at age ninety-one.
No doubt tonight or sometime this week, Broadway will follow tradition when one of its own dies: they’ll dim the lights.
Dim as they will be, we’ll never forget how he made the world brighter with his words.