Though primarily known for his theatre plays Neil Simon often adapted them for film most notably with ‘The Odd Couple’ starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau but his work output before he came to cinema’s attention was prodigious.
Born on 4th July 1927 in New York’s Bronx he was the son of a clothes salesman and wife who had a stormy relationship and he would go to the local cinemas to escape his warring parents where he became a huge fan of Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin as well as the films of Frank Capra.
He began writing his own little stories at only seven years old and after leaving school he joined the military before returning to school where he went to University of Denver and along with his brother Danny started writing scripts for radio and TV before he landed a job as a writer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. At the time it was a hugely successful show and he was to work alongside Mel Brooks & Woody Allen who also wrote for the show.
Whilst Neil Simon worked on this TV show he also wrote his first theatre play ‘Come Blow Your Horn’ which was a modest hit in 1961 but it established him on Broadway and it was his next play 1963’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ that became a huge hit with a film following in 1967.
1968 saw his play The Odd Couple come to the screen about ill matched friends dealing with their divorce and acting like a married couple themselves. It was a theme he would return to in 1975 with The Sunshine Boys this time casting Matthau with George Burns as a vaudeville act teamed up for a TV special only to find they still loathed each other. The seventies saw a run of hit films for Neil Simon with ‘Murder By Death’ a pastiche of famous detectives from novels. It was followed by ‘The Goodbye Girl’ & ‘California Suite’ both of which, along with ‘The Sunshine Boys’, earned Neil Simon Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay.
Most of Simon’s work had autobiographical elements to them and the eighties saw his Brighton Beach trilogy come to the screen which covered the teenage years of a Jewish student eventually going into the military. 1986 saw ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ followed by 1988’s ‘Biloxi Blues’ and 1992’s ‘Broadway Bound’.
Neil Simon would have 20 years of hit plays but he was devastated by the death of his wife in 1973 from cancer. Her diagnosis actually put Simon in hospital with an anxiety attack and his first wife’s death would be the inspiration for his 1977 play Chapter Two by which time he had married Marsha Mason though that marriage would end in divorce in 1983. He married his third wife Diane Lander twice (87-88 & 90 -98)with a tacit agreement that he would not write her into any play or film, though he did write a 1991 film called ‘The Marrying Man’ about a man who married the same woman repeatedly. The film was not a happy experience for Neil Simon when its star, Kim Basinger, berated him for knowing little about comedy. In fairness he could have told the ex – model that she knew little about acting. Neil Simon was the first to admit that many of his plays even if they were not a success were cathartic for him.
It was the end of his relationship with Hollywood with his plays not as successful as his earlier works and by the late 1990’s he was suffering from clinical depression and his marriage to Lander ended with him then marrying actress Elaine Joyce.
He revisited some of his earlier film successes with Hollywood’s demand for sequels which meant that The Odd Couple II appeared in 1998 and his last work was a TV series of the play cum film.
Neil Simon was 91 when he died.