Neil Simon: Comedy giant who straddled the worlds of theater, movies, TV

Posted August 27, 2018 12:04 a.m. EDT
Updated August 27, 2018 10:31 a.m. EDT

— Neil Simon operated in a space few writers could, successfully navigating the formidable gaps that separate the worlds of theater, movies and TV in a manner that established him as one of the most influential comedy writers of the 20th century.

Although the stage was his preferred medium, almost everything Simon wrote -- from "The Odd Couple" to the semi-autobiographical "Brighton Beach Memoirs" trilogy, from "Barefoot in the Park" to "The Sunshine Boys" -- found its way to the screen. And his gift with words, his rat-a-tat patter and comic rhythms, also left an indelible mark on television, the venue in which he cut his professional teeth alongside a host of other creative titans, writing for Sid Caesar in the 1950s.

Tributes poured out from those in the comedy field in response to the news of Simon's death at the age of 91. Bill Prady, co-creator of the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," wrote on Twitter, "There is no American comedy writer whose work isn't influenced by the rhythm and music of Neil Simon's words." Quinn Cummings, the child star of "The Goodbye Girl" and now a writer herself, said simply, "No one ever looks funnier than when Neil Simon's words are coming out of their mouths."

Simon straddled those not-always-compatible disciplines with an ease that eluded many other playwrights. At one point in the mid-1960s, he had four plays running simultaneously in New York -- an unheard-of feat that prompted the New York Times' Charles Isherwood to observe, "Mr. Simon ruled Broadway when Broadway was still worth ruling."

The unique knack that Simon possessed was an ability to write lines, characters and situations that transcended the intimate setting of theater -- that still delivered comedically when blown up to meet the demands of movies and television.

Notably, the process didn't always take, and Simon expressed his own frustrations with it. His original screenplays included the memorable romantic comedies "The Heartbreak Kid" and "The Goodbye Girl" -- for which Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar -- but also the detective spoof "Murder By Death" and "The Marrying Man," the latter a conspicuous flop that paired Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.

Although he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for "Lost in Yonkers" -- one of innumerable accolades amassed over his career -- the box-office hits, by then, were few and far between.

It nevertheless serves as a testament to the durability of Simon's work that his writing has not only survived across decades but allowed for multiple versions and new takes. "The Odd Couple," for example, spawned the hit movie starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau and later the long-running 1970s sitcom, with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Simon later rewrote a female version of the play, which also inspired a more recent sitcom revival, albeit a pallid one, on CBS.

As noted, Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" produced an inordinately successful roster of alumni, including Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen.

None, however, cast a bigger or wider cultural shadow -- over theater, movies and TV -- than Simon, a sunshine boy who left behind a body of work whose light will continue to shine for ages.