CONVERSATION WITH NEIL SIMON: USING LIFE IN HIS WRITING — AND NOT
(This interview with playwright, screenwriter and author Neil Simon, who died in 2018 at the age of 91, was conducted in August 1984. Simon was the most commercially successful playwright in American history, his works including “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “Biloxi Blues,” “Plaza Suite” and “Lost in Yonkers.” By the time of his passing, he had written 28 Broadway plays, 11 original screenplays and 14 adaptations of his own work. But it didn’t come easy. His first Broadway play, “Come Blow Your Horn,” which opened in 1961 and ran for 600 performances, took more than three years and two dozen complete rewrites. His laurels included the Pulitzer Prize, four Writers Guild of America Awards, four Tony Awards, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a Kennedy Center honor, the New York Drama Critics Award, and four Academy Award nominations. In 1983, Broadway’s venerable Alvin Theatre was renamed The Neil Simon Theatre. In 2022, his papers — letters, photographs, programs, newspaper clippings, and notebooks filled with his drawings, cartoons, and artwork — were donated to the Library of Congress. In this “conversation,” Simon discusses his writing process and overall philosophy, and how his works are often mistakenly taken for pure autobiography.)
By Greg Joseph
In the 23 years since Neil Simon’s first Broadway hit, “Come Blow Your Horn,” audiences and critics have taken it for granted that most of his 16 plays have mirrored passages of his life.
“Horn” was the funny story of a freewheeler showing the ropes to his sheltered brother — characters who were obviously Simon and his comedy-writer brother, Danny. “Chapter Two” was about the romance of a playwright and an actress after the death of his first wife — in real life, everybody knew Simon married actress Marsha Mason after his first wife, Joan, died of cancer in 1973 (Simon and Mason divorced last year).
Now comes Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a comedy about two families sharing cramped quarters in a beach area of Brooklyn in 1937. It focuses — again — on two wise-cracking brothers.
The much-heralded play — being presented with a national touring company — covers a period nearly concurrent with the time the Bronx-born playwright grew up in New York.
But don’t be too quick to call it or any of the playwright’s works strictly autobiographical.
Simon says … it just isn’t so.
“The exact times when ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ happened are different than in real life — and the situations are different,” he explained.
“For example, my family did not take in my aunt and the two nieces, as the play has it. My parents split up and I was taken in with my mother by an aunt of mine, and my brother went to live with another aunt. So the reverse really happened.
“But to tell the story the way I wanted to tell the story, of what it was like for me to grow up with my family, plus the conflicts of living with people who were going through what I went through — in other words, being taken in as a boarder and sort of losing your rights as human beings is what you feel — I tried to get both those elements in. So it becomes a rather abstract painting, in a way.
“This is the closest in spirit, autobiographically, to anything I’ve done. But in the fact, it’s not. Sometimes it amazes me how some reviewers — well, one in particular — have become such purists … when (critic) John Simon read in an interview I had in which I stated that I went to live with my aunt, he said, well, this play is a lie, because that’s not the way it happened.
“I said, wait a minute, if this had been an autobiographical play, the name of the boy in ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ would have been Neil Simon and not Eugene Morris Jerome. So, you use your background as inspiration for what you do.”
Simon confided that he actually did keep a memoir similar to the one written and read aloud by Eugene in the play — his mother, who died four years ago, once had it, but lost it. He said it was a kind of simple character analysis, not a diary, maintained to give him his own territory and a means to escape from his surroundings.
“It would say simply, ‘Freddy is my best friend,’ then it would add, ‘However, he is not the sort of guy you could trust in a tough situation.’”
Although Simon is a balding, bespectacled man with a reputation for being gentle and withdrawn, he is also tough and uncompromising regarding his craft. He said a playwright has to be “ruthless” in depicting characters, regardless of whether they are based on family or friends.
“What happens to most writers who write from the basis of truth is that there’s a sense of betrayal,” he said, “because you’re putting down something on paper that you might not ordinarily say to the person themselves. You’re talking about their weaknesses …
“You’ve got to be ruthless about depicting people. It applies to artists as well. People are very often upset when they see the portrait that an artist has painted of them. The artist will say, ‘This is the way I see you — to me, it’s flattering.’ You have your own perception of yourself.
“I’ve never really gotten into trouble with anybody I’ve written about … The only one, I think, who wasn’t crazy about herself in a play that I wrote was Joan in ‘Barefoot in the Park.’ I thought it was a most affectionate portrait — I mean I loved her as I was writing the play and I loved the girl up on the stage. If I had seen that girl up on the stage and didn’t know Joan, I would have fallen in love with that girl. But she chose not to see herself that way …
“When I wrote about my father (who died 15 years ago) in ‘Come Blow Your Horn,’ he watched the play and said, ‘I know so many men like that.’ He didn’t see himself at all, although I will say that my father had none of the darker sides of that character … “
Simon, who turned 57 on July 4, began his professional writing career when radio producer Goodman Ace hired him and brother Danny after seeing their sketch about a Brooklyn usherette describing a Joan Crawford movie. The brothers went on to write together until 1956, when Danny became a TV director. Neil continued as a TV writer for the likes of Red Buttons, Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers (the latter as “Sgt. Bilko”).
Then came “Come Blow Your Horn” and a slew of stage hits, including, in 1966, four shows on Broadway at the same time — “The Star-Spangled Girl,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Sweet Charity.”
Simon said “Biloxi Blues,” a sequel to “Brighton Beach Memoirs” that follows a grown-up Eugene into the Army, will open in Los Angeles in December and go on to Broadway in the spring.
The two plays comprise what may be the first two-thirds of a trilogy by Simon — the third perhaps being “Broadway Bound,” which, speaking of biographical connections, would be about a playwright in the throes of writing his first Broadway play.
At one point, when discussion of “The Odd Couple” came up, Simon noted parenthetically, “I don’t get one red cent” for the wildly popular television sitcom based on his play. That’s because in 1965, he sold the stage rights to “Barefoot in the Park” and the ancillary rights to “The Odd Couple” to Paramount Pictures for $125,000. Simon, who grew up dirt poor, never forgave himself (or his business manager) for the decision.
“But that’s okay,” he added quietly, “I’m the one with the ideas.”