Marvin Neil Simon, a Jewish American playwright, screenwriter and author, passed away on Sunday at age 91, after being on life-support while hospitalized for renal failure. He also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Simon, author of immortal comedies such as Barefoot in the Park, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Out-of-Towners, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Biloxi Blues, was born on July 4, 1927, in The Bronx, to Irving—a garment salesman—and Mamie (Levy) Simon.
Simon told his biographer Gary Konas: “Did I relax and watch my boyhood ambitions being fulfilled before my eyes? Not if you were born in the Bronx, in the Depression and Jewish, you don’t.”
He grew up in Washington Heights during the Great Depression, graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School at age sixteen, and began writing comedy scripts for radio and then television, getting his first big break in 1950, as a writer on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows – working alongside Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Selma Diamond. He then wrote for The Phil Silvers Show, from 1955 to 1959.
In 1961, Simon’s first Broadway play, Come Blow Your Horn, ran for 678 performances at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. He then became a national theatrical celebrity with Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965)—which earned him a Tony Award.
Simon did not write about Jewish subjects, but much of his work was rooted in New York Jewish life. In 1983, Simon began writing the first of three autobiographical plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985) and Broadway Bound (1986), for which he received great critical acclaim. His fourth autobiographical play, Lost in Yonkers (1991), earned Simon a Pulitzer Prize.
According to Susan Koprince (Understanding Neil Simon, 2002), Simon’s Jewish heritage is a key influence on his work, although he may not have been aware of it during the writing process. She cites the lead character in the Brighton Beach trilogy, who is a “master of self-deprecating humor, cleverly poking fun at himself and at his Jewish culture as a whole.”
Simon’s plays “invariably depict the plight of white middle-class Americans, most of whom are New Yorkers and many of whom are Jewish, like himself,” according to Koprince. Simon himself said: “I suppose you could practically trace my life through my plays,” noting that his characters are people who are “often self-deprecating and usually see life from the grimmest point of view,” explaining, “I see humor in even the grimmest of situations. And I think it’s possible to write a play so moving it can tear you apart and still have humor in it.”
Simon’s writing, according to Koprince, “belongs to a tradition of Jewish humor … a tradition which values laughter as a defense mechanism and which sees humor as a healing, life-giving force.”