The whole marriage. We’re getting an annulment. Don’t you understand? I don’t want to live with you anymore.” The movie, of course, led to a popular 1970s TV series with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Simon had signed away the rights for the TV series to Paramount, a decision he came to regret. But by this time, he was already perhaps Broadway’s biggest and most bankable writer.
In 1966 alone, he had four shows running on Broadway at the same time, an unrivaled record. But just as Simon was topping the world of theater, he and Joan got devastating news.
“We got up early in the morning, went to the doctor’s office. He examined her. Then he came back in, and he says, ‘It’s bad.’
‘She’s got cancer.’
And then I start to feel myself rolling and rolling, and you’re reaching out to grab on to your life, to be able to help her, and you can’t. You’re just rolling and rolling.”
Joan died in 1973 at the age of 39. They had been married for 19 years. Her death sent Neil reeling and he immediately sought someone to fill the void, marrying four times, twice to the same woman.
“I mean, other wives are the mistake you made when you’re married to someone for 19 years that you hope you can be married to for 60 years. That whole period is so dark for me.” After a number of plays about his failed marriages, Simon returned to writing about his childhood struggles in Jewish working-class New York. “What did I tell you about banging the ball? Your Aunt Blanche has a headache.”
“I can’t stop now. It’s a crucial moment in World Series history.
The Yanks are playing the Giants.”
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” was the first of Simon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy about a wisecracking teenager named Eugene Jerome. “It was about growing up, idolizing
his older brother, who was going to go off to the war. And the kid didn’t want him to go off to the war.”
“You always told me never to run away.”
“I’m not running away. I’m leaving. Only kids run away.”
“Biloxi Blues,” part two of the trilogy, was based on Simon’s own stint in the Army, and won him his first Tony award for best play in 1985.
“That’s a mistake, Gene. Once you start compromising your thoughts, you’re a candidate for mediocrity.”
One of the most memorable scenes is based on the trip to a brothel Simon made as an eager, yet terrified, young virgin. “I was on that line waiting to get in — you know 15 guys waiting to get in to screw this one woman. And you say, ‘You sure you want to do this?’”
“O.K. honey. Do your stuff.”
“What stuff is that?”
“And you do it. And you come out — all you think of is, I’m a man. I’ve done it.”
In “Broadway Bound,” part three of the trilogy, the mother gives a fiery speech that channels the turmoil of Simon’s own mother.
“Is that how it works?
You have an affair, and I’m left with the choice of forgetting about it or living alone the rest of my life? Boy, it’s so simple for you, isn’t it?”
“Writing that was difficult and great, because I was making a character who never really spoke open, but she was not that articulate. I mean, my mother could never come out with a soliloquy like that and tear him apart.”
But it was his play “Lost in Yonkers” that ultimately took Simon from the realm of comedy into serious, critically acclaimed drama. The play and the feature film is the story of two young boys forced to live with their domineering grandmother and mentally challenged aunt, a scenario similar to what Simon faced during his own childhood exiles.
“You made it so clear. You just didn’t want to be touched with love.”
“You don’t just choose it and say, ‘I think I’ll do a serious play.’
You know, you say, ‘I want it to be bigger than what I’ve been writing.’ And I don’t need to have it being funny all the time. When you have the heartbeat of the play there, you can be funny over here and you can be funny over here as long as you don’t touch the heartbeat.”
“Lost in Yonkers” would be Simon’s last major Broadway hit. It earned him the Pulitzer Prize. “Maybe everybody else here, but not me. You understand?”
“I never think about getting better so that I will be a better playwright so that I will win a Pulitzer Prize, so that I will do this — never think about that. You just think, get the play there. Maybe it’ll have a life.
Maybe you’ve done something good for other people.
Hopefully you’ve done something for yourself, the actors, whatever. It’s just, you want to get the writing out. You want to get the things that you think about life onto the stage.”