Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Playwright Neil Simon Explains Why He 'Just Always Wanted To Write'


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon. He died Sunday at the age of 91. His New York Times obituary said his name was synonymous with Broadway comedy, and he helped redefine popular American humor, with an emphasis on the frictions of urban living and the agonizing conflicts of family intimacy.

Simon adapted several of his Broadway shows into films. His best-known titles include "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot In The Park," "Come Blow Your Horn," "Plaza Suite," "The Sunshine Boys," "The Goodbye Girl," "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Laughter On The 23rd Floor." He wrote the books for the musicals "Sweet Charity" and "Promises, Promises." He started his career in the early days of TV - writing for "Sid Caesar Show" and Phil Silvers' "Sgt. Bilko." The TV series "The Odd Couple" was adapted from his hit play. He wrote the 1968 film adaptation.

Let's start with a clip from the film. It starred Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as two divorced men sharing an apartment, having the same kinds of problems with each other they used to have with their wives.


JACK LEMMON: (As Felix Ungar) Oscar, what is it? Is it the cooking, the cleaning, the crying?

WALTER MATTHAU: (As Oscar Madison) I'm going to you exactly what it is. It's the cooking, the cleaning, the crying. It's the talking in your sleep. It's those moose calls that open your ears at 2 o'clock in the morning. (Imitating moose). I can't take it anymore, Felix. I'm cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you're not here, the things I know you're going to do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. I've told you 158 times. I cannot stand little notes on my pillow. We are all out of cornflakes, F.U. It took me three hours to figure out that F.U. was Felix Ungar.

GROSS: I spoke with Neil Simon after the publication of his 1996 memoir "Rewrites." I asked how he developed his ear for dialogue.


NEIL SIMON: I never thought about it much. But the only thing that came to me is that when I was a young boy - 5 and 6 and 7 years old - my parents would take me to visit their relatives. And for some reason, I think they thought that I was invisible because they never talked to me.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, right. Or they talk about you even though you could hear.

SIMON: I could hear, but they were talking family matters - or gossip or whatever. And I just sat there. And once in a while, they'd give me a cookie or something. And I just listened. It stuck in my head. And what I managed to learn was the way they talked, the choice of words they made, what it was that they were interested in. And years later, without knowing it, when I started to write about these people, I was able to draw on my own memory from what happened in those days.

GROSS: Early on in your career, your brother Danny was your writing partner. He's - what? - about 8 years older than you?

SIMON: Eight and a half years older, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And you write in your book that he was somewhere between your brother and your father. He was your mentor as well as your brother. And your father actually was in and out of the family. He left the family and came back, I think, about eight times?

SIMON: Exactly, yes.

GROSS: Was it strange to have him coming and going like that - not knowing exactly what his relationship to you was?

SIMON: It was awful because I felt my life was sort of on a yo-yo, to give my kind of example. My mother never knew when he was coming back. And the whole world lit up when he came back because it meant not only that we'd not have to fear for the rent because he didn't leave any money for us. We didn't have to worry about food. But I felt the solidity there with the family, and I felt happy for my mother. When he was gone, it was the most awful time. And I thought he was never coming back. And I'm sure a lot of my personality has been formed by that relationship. And it makes me somewhat insecure at times. And it's why I think I fell back on writing possibly as a way of being able to support and survive for myself.

GROSS: I imagine your mother, when your father was gone, ended up very busy with earning money to take care of the family.

SIMON: Well, yes, she was uneducated. She did not have a job. And she would do whatever she could to provide for us. She borrowed from her family. But what she eventually did, which was the hardest thing for us, was she took in two men to live in our house - two boarders who took her bedroom. And she slept on the sofa in the living room. My brother and I had our own bedroom. And they were butchers, and they paid us mostly in meat and lamb chops. And it was no fun sitting at the room in the kitchen eating with them.

GROSS: Why not?

SIMON: They were like strangers. They didn't talk to us. They were foreign and spoke some English. But it was difficult. And it was not my father. And I felt I was living in not my house but their house.

GROSS: You know, the stereotype of the Jewish mother, of your mother's generation, was the overly possessive, overly neurotic Jewish mother, right? I imagine your mother was much too busy...

SIMON: She was.

GROSS: ...To fit that stereotype at all.

SIMON: No, I don't think she did fit that stereotype. She was very different. She was very loving and very encouraging in terms of my brother and I doing the writing. My brother - foolishly I think - would read the monologues that we would write at first to my mother. And she would just laugh all the way through. And my brother said, do you understand what they mean? And she said, no, I don't. And he said, well, why are you laughing? She says, well, it pleases me to please you. I mean, it was such a wonderful thing for her to do. It didn't encourage us as writers, but it encouraged us that we had a terrific mother.

GROSS: You write that your brother got you a whore shortly after your 21st birthday. And that was your sexual initiation.

SIMON: Yes, it was.

GROSS: Looking back, was that a good way to become initiated?

SIMON: I don't know if it was a good way. It was the only way. I mean, if he left it to me, I'd be 54 before it happened.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIMON: I'm sure glad it did happen. But it did change me. I mean, you have to get through that moment because it was the most fearful moment of my life. And I don't know why it is looking back. I mean, you don't expect this woman to think that you should be expert at what you're doing or that this is going to be a very personal affair and that we should like each other. It's really a cash-and-carry business, and you just do it. But I felt so much better having done it and that I would never have to do it that way again, which I never did.

GROSS: There's a similar but different scene in "Biloxi Blues" where the character there also has his first experience with a prostitute. But that's on an army base, so it's...

SIMON: Yeah, but that - the origin of that scene in that film was exactly what happened to me. I mean, it was with a prostitute. It was his fellow friends bringing him there. There was a line in it that summed it up because I felt the same way when it happened to me. He said, I'm not expecting this to be a pleasurable experience. I just want to get through it.

GROSS: Let me ask you about creating two of your most famous characters - Felix and Oscar, "The Odd Couple."


GROSS: How did you come up with those characters?

SIMON: Well, I just watched it in real life. It was my brother Danny and a friend of his named Roy Gerber, both of whom moved into together in the same apartment because they recently were divorced. And they wanted to cut down on their expenses, so they could help pay their alimony. And in their social life, rather than going out on a double date somewhere and spending a lot of money on the dinner, my brother Danny decided to cook. And Roy was kind of a - you know, things came and go very easily for him, so he would just say to the girls, come home for dinner; come, you know, 6:30, 7, 7:30, whenever you're ready. Well, to Danny, that was anathema. I mean, he was - he cooked the pot roast that night. He wanted them there at 7:30.

And I watched this one night. I came up to Danny's apartment and Roy's apartment. I saw this taking place as they were getting prepared for this dinner. I was going to leave before the dinner happened. And it was hilarious to me. And I said, Danny, this is a great movie, a great play, something; you must write it - because Danny was a writer, too. But he never wrote by himself.

And he started to write the play, but he took three months or so to write 10 pages and finally called me, and he said, I can't do it. He says, I'm not a writer, and I'm certainly not a playwright. He is a writer, of course, but he was not a playwright. And he didn't know how to construct it. And he said, you take the play and you do it. And so I made a financial arrangement with him because it was his basic - it wasn't his idea to do it as a play, but it was his life, so I was taking a part of it.

When I wrote the play, in the beginning, I thought I was writing a very dark comedy. I didn't think it was going to be as funny as it was dark because here was a man who was broken up with his wife that he loved dearly, and he had to leave his two children at home, and he was almost suicidal, whereas Roy was another kind of character who was - I mean, the character that Roy was based on, the Oscar character, was a man who couldn't really keep his life going together, didn't know how to take care of his children's goldfish when they left.

And so I thought I was writing, as I said, this grim comedy, until I gave it to Bob Fosse, a good friend of mine who lived in the same building, to read. And he says, this is the funniest play I've ever read. And I said, you don't find it dark? And he said, no, not at all. So the author is not always sure about what impression he's going to leave when he writes this thing.

GROSS: Now, how'd you feel about "The Odd Couple" when it became a TV series, where instead of, like, a constructed play every week, there was another little adventure or mishap to write around?

SIMON: Well, I have to preface that by telling you the story, which you may have read in the book, that I had a business agent who thought he was doing me a favor by getting a deal made with Paramount Pictures whereby they would buy this little company from me for $125,000, which seemed like an enormous amount of money, in which they got the - all of the TV and television rights to "The Odd Couple." So I never saw a penny of any of "The Odd Couple" television series, so I could not watch that. I didn't watch that for two years because when I saw that it was a hit, I saw, that's my money going down their drain.

GROSS: Right.

SIMON: And I also lost all of the stage rights of "Barefoot In The Park," never made a money - penny on that play from the day it opened.

GROSS: Oh, boy. What heartburn it must cause to feel that. You almost don't want to see the success of your own work because you're not getting anything out of it.

SIMON: I know. It was hard, but maybe just pushed me on to do other things. And I said, I've got to get on with this. I'm not going to sit and just gripe about it for the rest of my life. And I just went on to write other plays.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1996 interview with Neil Simon. He died Sunday at the age of 91. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1996 interview with comic playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon. He died Sunday at the age of 91. We spoke after the publication of his memoir "Rewrites."


GROSS: You write a little bit in your book about being in analysis. And you say that your first year of analysis was, in a sense, an attempt to introduce you to yourself, the two sides of you, one the writer and the other - the person who doesn't write. Are these two sides of you at odds?

SIMON: Well, they have been for years. They weren't always at odds. They were just different people. They were not the person that I was with my family, with my friends. The writer is a very solitary person, who was, I guess, in the worst sense, willing to pick the bones of somebody else's character and put it up there on the stage, even though I don't think I've ever hurt anybody by doing it because no one ever came up to me and said, how dare you put this up there on the stage? As a matter of fact, when I put my father up on the stage in "Come Blow Your Horn," he came to see it, and I was very fearful of what he was going to say. And I said, what'd you think, Dad? And he says, oh, I know men just like that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIMON: He never saw himself in it at all, which is what most people do. Sometimes they - people come up to me and they say, that was me you were writing about, wasn't it? And it wasn't at all anything that I was writing about. So about the two Neil Simons, yes, the writer was persistent. He just always wanted to write. The other person wanted to have more fun, more leisure time, more time with his family. And so they were at odds.

But I find as time goes on, right about now, maybe as we're talking, that the two characters are becoming more wed to each other. I don't see the disparity in the two personalities anymore. It sounds like I'm a little psychotic, but I'm not, really.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, maybe that's because the two have lived together for so long, they've become more acclimated to each other.

SIMON: I know. I'm on my own "Odd Couple."

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, that's a nice way of looking at it.


GROSS: Did analysis help?

SIMON: Well, analysis, I think, helps in the long run. I never went for, like, long, long periods at a time. I would go from time to time when there was great trouble in my life - when my first wife died, when I had other personal problems. But after a while, I started to go because it was a way of learning about myself and about - learning about other people because the conversations were not only about this Neil Simon character. It was about how they are affected by other people in the world. And once you get into that subject, you start to talk about the other people in the world, and you realize that you do not live alone in this world. So it was very educational for me. I graduated, got a diploma. It was very nice.

GROSS: (Laughter) I thought a kind of funny part of your book was, I guess it's - the late '60s, early '70s, you were writing about the era of the so-called sexual revolution. And you were married, but you wanted in (laughter).

SIMON: Well, I didn't...

GROSS: You wanted to be a part of this.

SIMON: Yeah, it wasn't the sexual revolution so much. I'd been married for 14 years, and I thought I was looking at myself in a different way. And I said, you got married fairly young. I had very, very few experiences, except in the grim hotel. And I was not looking - I didn't want to go out cheating on my wife. I didn't want to have a very negative kind of a life. But I felt I was so shallow in my experiences, so needy to know what the underbelly of life was like. And so it was more of a mind experience of wanting to know other things without having the danger of going through them.

And so I did have a talk with my wife, almost asking to get out of the marriage for a while, and she took it so casually because she knew I wasn't going anyplace. She knew me better than I did. And I kept saying, well, I think I'm going to leave. And she said, oh, that's OK. When do you want to go? And I was shocked and amazed by her attitude. And I knew how much smarter she was than me and how much better she was than me. And when - I reached the point when I felt that I already had my freedom because she had given it to me, and I said, never mind. And I never went anyplace.

GROSS: You have a theory that you write about in the book that your mind doesn't know, when you're writing, that it's only fiction. Your mind thinks you're actually living through whatever you're putting on paper.


GROSS: What has led you to this conclusion?

SIMON: Because my body goes through the pain that I am going through in the writing. I feel the tenseness if I'm writing a scene between, let's say, a husband and wife who are having a fractious marriage. Things are going wrong. There's a big argument. There's a confrontation. I feel the intensity in my body, and I don't think I'm acting that out. I truly feel it. I'm exhausted when I go home, whereas if I write something that's a funnier scene, a lighter scene, a more loving, romantic scene, I don't feel that same tension. I feel a lightness about me. So I don't think that the mind differentiates about what's going on in real life or what's going on in the fiction you're writing.

GROSS: So fiction really does take its toll on you physically.

SIMON: It does, but it's been very rewarding for me. I don't think I would like to have been anything else in life but a writer, but I also don't think I could have been anything else.

GROSS: Have - did you ever try? (Laughter).

SIMON: Well, no, I was too busy writing.

GROSS: Right. Well, Neil Simon, thank you so much for talking with us.

SIMON: It was a pleasure.

GROSS: Neil Simon, recorded in 1996. He died Sunday at the age of 91. Tomorrow, we'll continue our series of interviews with Emmy nominees. We'll hear from Allison Janney, who's nominated for lead actress in a comedy for her performance in the series "Mom," and Scott Frank, writer and director of the Netflix western series "Godless." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. We'll end with Gwen Verdon singing one of the hits from the musical "Sweet Charity." Neil Simon wrote the book. The music is by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.


GWEN VERDON: (Singing) If they could see me now, that little gang of mine - I'm eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine. I'd like those stumble bums to see for a fact the kind of top-drawer, first-rate chums I attract. All I can say is, wowee, look at where I am. Tonight I landed, pow, right in a pot of jam. What a set-up, holy cow. They'd never believe it if my friends could see me now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.