Proclaimed by TIME magazine as ‘the patron saint of laughter,’ writing colossus Neil Simon passed away in late August 2018, aged 91. Considered the most popular playwright since Shakespeare, I drew this sketch of Neil and sent it to him a year earlier, hoping to have it signed, but it was returned with a letter form his office saying that Mr Simon was no longer able to fulfill requests for autographs, but did appreciate my letter and drawing.
Neil dominated Broadway like no other playwright over the past half-century. In the New York Times obituary, Charles Isherwood wrote “Mr Simon ruled Broadway when Broadway was still worth ruling.” Hardly a year passed from 1961 to 1993 without a new Simon production. His unparalleled career spanned four decades, with over 30 plays and musicals, starting with COME BLOW YOUR HORN in 1961 until 45 SECONDS FROM BROADWAY in 2001. He also wrote as many screenplays, mostly adaptations of his theatre scripts.
His breakthrough play was BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1963), followed by a string of smash hits, THE ODD COUPLE (1965), PLAZA SUITE (1968), THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE (1971) and THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1974). His final play was ROSE’S DILEMMA in 2003, produced off-Broadway and in Los Angeles. From 1965-1980 Neil’s plays and musicals racked up more than 9,000 performances, a record not even remotely touched by any other writer of the era. In 1966 he had four Broadway shows running simultaneously.
His arsenal of sarcastic wit with an emphasis on the frictions of urban living involving typically imperfect characters, unheroic figures who are at heart, decent human beings were the hallmarks of his work. He has more combined Oscar (4) and Tony Award (17) nominations than any other writer, winning three Tony’s for THE ODD COUPLE, BILOXI BLUES (1985) and a Special Award in 1975 for his overall contribution to American Theatre. His Academy Award noms were for THE ODD COUPLE (1969), THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1976), THE GOODBYE GIRL (1978), which did win a Golden Globe and CALIFORNIA SUITE (1979). He also won four Writers Guild Awards and received four Emmy nominations among his many accolades that included the Pulitzer Prize for Drama LOST IN YONKERS in 1991. He was the only living playwright to have a New York theatre named after him in 1983.
I was very fortunate to collect Neil’s signature a few years ago, when he signed and dedicated a poster from his 1988 farce Rumors for me.