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Neil Simon: The loss of a comedic master

The playwright’s best stuff came out of his characters and the situations he put them in.

Playwright Neil Simon in his office in 1999.

Playwright Neil Simon in his office in 1999. Photo Credit: Contour by Getty Images / Jonathan Exley

I was a theater critic for 13 years and saw some of Neil Simon’s Broadway hits in their first iterations. So it surprises me that when he died Sunday at 91, it was an original film script that I thought of as my favorite Simon experience.

I’ve seen “The Goodbye Girl” at least a dozen times, and it never fails to make me laugh out loud and come to tears. Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for his performance as a struggling and irritating actor who is forced to share an apartment with an unemployed, romantically dumped dancer and her daughter. It’s a comedy-drama and, finally, a love story.

Simon was known as a joke machine, and many of his amusing lines were, in fact, one-liners. But his best stuff came out of his characters and the situations he put them in.

He wrote hugely successful plays and musicals from 1965 to 1980, with few flops. Many of his plays are still produced around the country. For instance:

  • “Barefoot In the Park” (1967) made Robert Redford a star.
  • “The Odd Couple” (1965), with Walter Matthau and Art Carney on Broadway, went on to even bigger acclaim in Hollywood and on television, and influenced every sitcom that came after.
  • “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1983) featured a young Matthew Broderick.

Many of the Bronx-born, Depression-era-raised playwright’s works mined his private life, including one of his best, “Chapter Two” (1977). The romantic comedy-with-pain was a tribute to his second wife, Marsha Mason, who starred in the film version.

Many critics underrated Simon, but he found vindication when he won the Pulitzer Prize for “Lost In Yonkers” (1991). In my review for 1010 WINS-AM, I said it was Simon’s finest, filled with laughs, but also probing. The play is set in the 1940s and is about survival and the cost of survival.

Simon also had top people around him — not just the actors, but directors Mike Nichols and Gene Saks, and legendary producer Manny Azenberg.

My favorite memory of Simon came during a leisurely interview when I asked how he felt about reviews of his plays. Turns out he used them as learning experiences. He said that if most of the critics didn’t like something of his, he wouldn’t hone in on the one who did. Instead, he took the majority view as a lesson, and realized that the play hadn’t done what he meant it to do.

Leida Snow is a former theater critic.


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