This fine book is one of the most enjoyable autobiographies I’ve ever
read. It begins with the writing of Neil Simon’s first play, and ends with
the untimely death of his wife, Joan. In between is the roller coaster life
of a playwright/screenwriter, laced with honesty and humor. Rewrites
is Simon's first book.
Before Neil Simon wrote plays, he wrote comedy for television. He started writing
plays mainly to avoid living in California, where the TV work and most of his
fellow writers migrated in the late 1950s.
It took three years to write (and rewrite) that first play and the story of
how it got to Broadway is compelling. Twenty producers read the play, laughed
at the funny lines, and said “no.” Some offered advice. Simon kept
, and several rewrites later ended up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
If the show succeeded in the summer theater there, it was on to New York.
Opening night saw rave reviews for Come Blow Your Horn, but New York
was a toss of the dice. The theaters were never more than half full. Despite
the reviews, it looked like the show was going to close. They had even tried
giving away free tickets to fill the seats. The producer sadly noted he would
give the show a few more days before throwing in the towel. Simon quipped, “Why
don’t we give away free towels?” The play luckily got some timely
publicity and went on to become a modest success.
Simon is probably best known for his two smash hits: Barefoot in the Park
and The Odd Couple. Both plays are based on people in Simon’s life
(his wife and brother), and reading the accounts of their creation is delightful.
Of course, Simon did make mistakes, and these provide excellent (and funny)
stories as well. The play that followed The Odd Couple was the low-performing
Star Spangled Girl. Even as he was writing it, he knew he was breaking
the rules. When it opened the critics were surprisingly kind, although one of
them had this to say: “Neil Simon didn’t have an idea for a play this
year, but he wrote it anyway.”
In the latter part of the 1960s and early 70s, Simon was still riding high.
Sweet Charity, Plaza Suite and The Gingerbread Lady were
produced, and screenplays were written for The Heartbreak Kid and After
the Fox. The latter was a movie made in Italy and is now a cult favorite.
Simon writes, “You can even rent it some video stores, although you have
to show them a card saying you’re a member of a cult.”
Simon’s wife Joan stood by him for almost twenty years and bore him two
beautiful daughters. Sadly, breast cancer struck at the age of 40 and Simon
was left alone with his girls. The book ends here, but the second half of Simon’s
life is recounted in his follow up, The Play Goes On.