No Time for Tears : With a new movie, a new play and the L.A. premiere of 'Rumors,' Neil Simon isn't grieving over his flop, 'Jake's Women'

Highly successful playwright of late middle age--two grown daughters, a grandson, three marriages behind him, and a distaste for the rituals of casual dating--marries for the fourth time.

Sounds like the making of another Neil Simon play--"Chapter Three" perhaps?

In February, 62-year-old Neil Simon and Diane Lander, 38, each wearing new wedding rings, remarried at his home in Bel-Air, then threw a big bash at the Bistro.

"I only count it as three, I don't count it as four," he says easily. "We had a vacation between. . . . Yeah, I'm married to my ex-wife Diane.

"I enjoy, if one is lucky enough to have it, a real good relationship. I found out in my life that they sometimes don't last, either through death (his first wife, Joan, died of cancer at age 39) or divorce (from actress Marsha Mason), and so you grow up to the realities of life. I mean I give enormous credit to Diane. I guess I have to give some to myself, too, to stick to this. Because it's a tough thing to go take the chance . . . it's nerve-racking. God, is it going to work again, will we make the same mistakes? But we don't seem to be doing that at all--not even close.

"It's like a rerun," Simon says. "You get a chance to do it again. You don't get criticized and have to close it."

Like that recent play of his, "Jake's Women."

Ironically, just after Simon's personal life had straightened out, "Jake's Women"--about a 48-year-old writer and his troubles with women, the character of Jake admittedly based on himself--opened at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. And closed. In April, after a month's run, Simon canceled the show, 3 1/2 weeks before it was to move to Broadway.

After 24 plays--25 if you count the female version of "The Odd Couple," and Simon does--it was the first time a Broadway-bound show of America's most successful and prolific playwright didn't make it. "Not funny," wrote The Times, calling the play "flat as the Mojave Desert and, surprising for Simon, devoid of even enough workable one-liners to keep the audience interest from flagging."

Coming not too long after "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound," Simon's series of semi-autobiographical plays deemed important enough to be spoken of as trilogy , the failure of "Jake's Women" was stunning. What went wrong? Had Simon, who once had four plays running simultaneously on Broadway and who usually knows how to keep people laughing as he mixes humor with pain, lost his touch?

Whatever he was feeling privately, Simon went on writing. In late May, Hollywood Pictures went into production with "The Marrying Man," his original screenplay starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. It's his 22nd movie. (About half of them, including "Barefoot in the Park," about his first marriage, and "Chapter Two" about the second, have been adaptations of plays.)

"Marrying Man," to be released either at Christmas or early next year, is about the courtship of a Hollywood playboy who's the heir to a toothpaste fortune and a Las Vegas lounge singer who over a seven-year period marry each other four times.

On a recent afternoon, Simon, now 63, is waiting at his office-apartment in Westwood. The interview has been set up to talk about "Rumors," which opens at the Doolittle Theatre Thursday (running through Sept. 23), but he knows he'll be asked about "Jake's Women."

" I'm not in a valley," Simon says when asked about career peaks and career trajectory. "I've got a new play coming out. You can judge then . I mean it's a very good play. If the critics and audiences feel the same thing, then I'm not in a valley. But I don't think of peaks and valleys anymore. I just do the best I can."

The play is "Lost in Yonkers," which he says is "pretty much getting back to the genre of the Brighton Beach trilogy," though not that autobiographical. "I don't want to go into details because it just came off the typewriter, but it takes place in 1942 in Yonkers and it has to do with a broken family there, but I think it's both a very funny play and a very painful play. Gene Saks (who directed the trilogy and "Rumors") is going to direct it, we're going to try it out back East, and we're going to open about the first of the year." In fact, while Saks is here for "Rumors," he and Simon will spend a lot of time on casting.

A farce without hint of autobiography, "Rumors," featuring Ron Leibman and Jessica Walter with most of the original Broadway cast, was reputed to be the play Simon wrote after he started and then had to put aside "Jake's Women." Reviews for "Rumors" were at best mixed, but it ran 14 months on Broadway.

Simon is taller than you picture, a shade under six feet, and trim. He's wearing chinos, a checkered shirt and sneakers that look fresh out of the box. His face is round but not pudgy. At first he is a bit testy. Workmen had been in, and while he was on the phone in another room, they had "pushed everything in different places" and he was "moving furniture all morning. So if this guy (the photographer) is going to ask me to move anything, I'm not going to do it."

The living-room is almost pristine--white couches, white walls, quiet rug, not a paper out of place. Straight as a ruler, a batch of pens lie in a row on an exercise machine for his back. Two typed scripts are nearby. On the wall there's a favorite color photo of himself, holding a puppy on a deck at Paradise Cove, taken by photographer Annie Leibovitz for an American Express ad.

"How did I come to write 'Rumors'? I'm not quite sure what you mean," he challenges, but goes on: "Well, the genre prompted it. I had never written a (complete) farce before," agreeing that parts of "Plaza Suite" and "California Suite" were farcical.

"This came right after the trilogy, and I wanted to get away from doing something like that right away again. I just wanted to do something funny. There's something about the form of the farce. It's one of the most complicated forms there are. It's relentless in its demands. . . . It's not a realistic play, so one sets up almost a farcical problem but the audience, having then heard the problem, has to go along with it, and then it has to keep taking twists and turns. It's like a ride in a fun house."

Simon apparently needed that change of pace. Also he doesn't like to be typecast. "I don't want to keep doing the same thing all the time." He pauses. "I don't anyway."

"All you could ever explain about a farce is what starts it, whereas you talk about 'The Odd Couple' you could say it's about two men living with each other and getting into the same fights as they did with their wives. 'Rumors' is trying to hide an attempted suicide--which they believe to be an attempted suicide by their best friend on his 10th wedding anniversary, who happens to be the deputy mayor of New York. . . ."

Writing it, says Simon, was "harder work than things like 'Broadway Bound.' Every time you write a section you have to say, 'Oh wait a minute, we have to take care of a couple in the other room. What are they doing? What are they saying?' . . . On top of all this, it's got to be funny almost every 15 seconds."

He'll mostly watch the play's previews because he's also executive producer of "Marrying Man," and on the set a lot. The movie is being shot in and around Los Angeles, including two weeks in Palmdale as stand-in for Las Vegas. "I'm there quite a bit to rewrite or converse with the director (Jerry Rees)," Simon notes, "the way I would with a play."

Will "Marrying Man" be as important as "The Goodbye Girl" in 1977? (The movie won Richard Dreyfuss an Oscar, altogether drawing five Oscar nominations.)

He laughs. "How would I know how important it's going to be? They're important when they're good; when they're not good, they're not important. I think it's the basis of a terrific love story. It's basically a comedy, but it's sometimes a dark comedy.

"Actually I never write anything when I hear a conversation, but someone mentioned some couple in California, that this man was married to this woman four times. I said, 'Don't tell me another word. That's a great idea for a love story.' Why they would get divorced, remarried, divorced, remarried, and so I just started out from scratch. I wrote it as a period piece (from about 1948 to 1955), I'm not sure why."

He started work on it about two years ago during the divorce. He insists his personal life had nothing to do with it.

Still, movies are "avocation." For Simon, it's the plays that count.

Like other plays, he had started "Lost in Yonkers" once before, dropped it and then picked it up again. "I really thought out this new play, and I worked at a feverish pace because I didn't want to lose it. I finished it a few weeks ago."

And after "Jake's Women," he was determined to bounce back. "I felt I've got to get on surer ground."

Because of what happened with "Jake's Women," says Simon, he's had it with Los Angeles--his generic for San Diego or Southern California.

"I got off to a bad start with 'Jake's Wom" says Simon, who lost $500,000 of his own money on it. " 'Jake's Women' still needs a lot of experimentation. I think I had the wrong slant on the play, the wrong slant in some of the direction, and in the casting, so it has to be done again.

"But one of the reasons I think I probably won't try plays in Los Angeles again," he goes on, "is that I don't want to be put under that kind of spotlight while I'm trying something. . . . (San Diego's) the same thing. If (the Times) come down there and writes a review and we get clobbered, it becomes nationwide news. That goes on 'Entertainment Tonight.' But when I did 'Broadway Bound' and we opened at Duke (University in Durham, N.C.), nobody even reviewed it."

Not counting "Jake's Women," Simon has opened seven of his plays in Los Angeles and San Diego including "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Biloxi Blues" at the Ahmanson Theatre, "I Ought to Be in Pictures" at the Mark Taper Forum and "Rumors" at the Old Globe. In fact, for "Lost in Yonkers," he notes, "we'll go to some universities. . . . There's always that possibility of going back to Duke."

Since 1986, the theater department at Duke has tried out such pre-Broadway products as "Metamorphosis" with Mikhail Baryshnikov, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" with Jack Lemmon and "A Walk in the Woods" with Sam Waterston.

"Jake's Women" must need rewriting, otherwise he'd take it to Duke?

"Oh sure," replies Simon, "everything needs rewriting but 'Jake's Women' is a mystery to me. What Sylvie Drake saw that first night is a lot different than what we closed with. We were 75% better when we closed that play. If I had opened with that play then I might have known how to fix it. But it took me six weeks to get to that point, and I still hadn't achieved what I wanted. And we were heading right into New York. And I felt there were too many things wrong with the production from the writing to the set to the actors to the director. . . . The idea always was when you go to a place like San Diego or any other regional theater, that's your option. We can stop it here and not go on. So I did it. But me being me, it gets nationwide attention."

Asked what was wrong with the writing, Simon answers: "I wasn't able, quite able to tell the story of Jake. It got to be so much the story of the women"--his first wife, his second wife, his daughter, his sister, his therapist--"and how they felt about him, but we didn't get to know Jake enough."

To the Times' Drake, "Jake is very neurotic and Jake is not a nice man."

'I think if you knew what his inner thoughts were you wouldn't think that way," says Simon. "But I'd have to find a way to do it.

Perhaps he needs to tell the story of Jake, he says, "through narration, of having Jake talk to the audience"--much the way it's done in the "Brighton Beach" trilogy. "Then you would get to know who he is and like him better. . . .

"If I had taken the route of just keeping going like August Wilson does from regional theater to regional theater, I would have done it," says Simon. "But we couldn't do that the way we were set up. We had to go into New York. The actors we signed would only play for six weeks and go to New York. August Wilson had these actors out for two years in 'Piano Lesson.'

"Don't forget," he continues, "I was working without a director for the first time in my life. The first director was fired just before we went into previews, and Jack O'Brien (the Old Globe's artistic director), as good as Jack is and he's very good, could only work on weekends. So I was staging things myself when I should have been in the motel rewriting."

As for the actors, he says he's "been on Broadway too many times to know this was not going to work. . . . I had some actors in there--Stockard Channing in particular, and Joyce Van Patten, who were just sensational."

And Peter Coyote, who was Jake? "Peter Coyote is a wonderful actor," he replies. "I'm not sure he's the right man for this play. That doesn't detract from his abilities."

He doesn't know when he will do "Jake's Women" again. If he knew how to fix the play, "I'd rewrite it now and do it. But it's not in my mind now. 'Jake' will just sit in there. You know how long 'Brighton Beach' sat in the drawer before I actually went and did it? From the time I wrote 35 pages till the time I finished and did it was nine years. . . . But I have no reason to do it right now because I'm more excited about the new play or the new movie I'm writing or the one that we're shooting.

"I've done 25 shows already, 24 shows, and the fact that I didn't bring one of them in, it's like it's some sort of major failure. I was unhappy it didn't work but I'd be unhappier if I thought it was great, and I brought it in and it got smashed by everybody."

Marvin Neil Simon, who grew up not in Brighton Beach but in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, never thought he'd write three plays about someone named Eugene Morris Jerome.

"You don't sit down to write three plays," he says. "I know August Wilson has sat down to say, 'I'm writing 10 plays based on the black experience.' I don't have that much confidence that the first one is going to be a hit, so I was encouraged by (a critic) to write a sequel to it, which I did--'Biloxi.' And that worked so I did the third one. . . . To write three plays with the same family and make them all successful for me was quite an achievement. . . . I'd say they are the best, thinking of them as one play."

Even during the lowest period of his life, "the playwriting always took up the Angst and absorbed it. When Joan was dying, I was able to write 'The Sunshine Boys.' . . . I've been in hospitals and just lay there as I was recuperating and write. . . . Writing a play or a movie is always starting something new and so that's reinventing life again."

A Time cover story 3 1/2 years ago estimated his worth at $30 million. "I'm not going to talk about money, so you can drop it," he say, but adds: "I'm not a big spendthrift nor am I cheap. I'm very grateful it brings me some of the pleasures that I'm having. Lives like the Donald Trumps and people like that escape me, Kirk Kerkorian (majority shareholder of MGM/UA) I don't know why if they've got $400-and-500 million," he pauses, "I guess it's like me. I mean I don't have to write more plays but I do because I enjoy it. . . ."

And he's enjoying his life again. His older daughter Ellen Simon, 32, writes plays. Nancy Simon, 27, is a director. "And Bryn," says her stepfather of Diane's 6-year-old daughter, "is incredible. She's as pretty as her mother, and she's just fun. She wears me out but makes me younger.

"Diane--the package is so great because Diane and Bryn . . . . My friends out here who met her said, 'Don't let her get away. She's too good.' "

But he did. "Not really, the marriage got away. . . . But you have to look at something in its entirety. It's like looking at a play and saying if a play opened up badly out of town, is it a failure if they went and fixed it finally and it opened up and was a hit in New York? So it was a failure in the beginning and you learn what to do. Unfortunately we had to go through a divorce to do it. It was scary. But maybe very beneficial because it cut us off from each other for a long period of time so we had to deal with ourselves."

They made changes in their lives. "Diane worked very hard on herself," he says, "probably more intensively than she ever did in her life, and so the woman I met after that year and a half was a very different person. I mean still with the same wonderful personality traits that she always did have, but there's a greater ease between the two of us now. She was an actress, she quit. She's involved in so many charitable (projects). She worked in an AIDS hospice for six months, that was during the period we were apart. She just started to give of herself."

And he "went into therapy . . . and examined myself and saw what it is I wanted."

Although Los Angeles is home, they commute between Bel-Air, his seven-room Manhattan duplex and their house at the beach "past Paradise Cove, I don't want to say where."

In Malibu, he allows, "but up , up aways."

On the water?

"Yeah."

Oh nice, says his listener.

"Right," Simon says.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°