Danny Simon, 86; Comedy Writer and Older Brother of Playwright

Times Staff Writer

Danny Simon, a veteran comedy writer who was a member of the fabled writing staff of Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" and the inspiration for many of the characters in his younger brother Neil's famous plays, has died. He was 86.

Simon died Tuesday of complications after a stroke at the Robison Jewish Health Center in Portland, Ore., his family said.

Teaming up with his brother in the 1940s, Simon wrote material for comics such as Buddy Hackett, Jan Murray and Phil Silvers. The Simons also wrote for various radio shows and for television shows such as "Broadway Open House" and the Red Buttons and Jackie Gleason shows, as well as "Your Show of Shows."

After the brothers split up as a writing team in 1954, Danny Simon became head writer on "The Colgate Comedy Hour" and later on Danny Thomas' "Make Room for Daddy."

He also wrote for shows such as "My Three Sons," "The Carol Burnett Show," "The Mac Davis Show," "The Kraft Music Hall," "The Facts of Life" and "Diff'rent Strokes" as well as jokes for Joan Rivers' guest-host appearances on "The Tonight Show."

As a director, his credits include many off-Broadway productions of his brother's plays.

"He was a very, very good man," Caesar told The Times on Wednesday. "He knew his business, he knew comedy, and he worked at it diligently. He really was such a dedicated man."

Writer-producer Larry Gelbart, who wrote a failed TV pilot with Neil and Danny Simon in the 1950s, said that, as a comedy writer, Danny Simon "was among the best."

"He thought about comedy a lot more than the average comedy writer thought about it," Gelbart told The Times. "He had definite ideas about what made a line funny, what made a play funny. A lot of people credit him with being terribly influential in their careers."

Woody Allen is one of them. Simon hired the young joke writer to write sketches on what was then called "The Colgate Variety Hour."

"I learned a few things on my own since, and modified some of the things he taught me, but everything, unequivocally, that I learned about comedy writing I learned from Danny Simon," Allen once said.

There's no question that Simon was a major influence on his brother Neil's career. They not only wrote together for about nine years, but Danny Simon-like characters showed up in successful Neil Simon plays such as "Come Blow Your Horn," "The Odd Couple," "Plaza Suite," "Chapter Two," "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Broadway Bound."

"There have been more plays written about me than about Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc and Julius Caesar all put together," Simon often joked.

"Danny made me laugh.... He made everyone laugh," Neil Simon said in a statement Tuesday. "He was a character -- in more ways than one -- in at least nine or 10 of my plays, and I'm sure will probably be there again in many plays to come."

Born in the Bronx on Dec. 18, 1918 -- about 8 1/2 years before his brother -- Simon grew up keeping his eye on Neil in his baby carriage while playing stickball.

Once asked by a reporter what it was about his family background that proved so fertile for comedy, Danny Simon had a ready answer:

"Pain," he said. "We had a very unhappy childhood. My parents were always splitting up. I used to console Neil that one day we'd grow out of it and have a better life."

Simon was in his early 20s and working in a New York department store when he asked his teenage brother, whom he called Doc, to help him write a sketch for an employee show.

"Doc was coming up with these great jokes, never having written in his life," Simon recalled in a 1986 interview with the Washington Post.

"I knew he had a personal sense of humor, but I never thought he could write the stuff on demand that way."

The brothers' first big professional break came after World War II, when Danny Simon learned that Goodman Ace was assembling a team of comedy writers at CBS Radio. After landing an interview, he was told to bring in a sketch the next day.

"Neil and I wrote all that night in this tiny little bedroom we shared," he recalled. "Mother kept calling up asking what we were doing. It's just the way Neil pictures it in 'Broadway Bound.' Then, the next morning, we went over to see Goodman Ace -- he had a cigar in his mouth and looked like George S. Kaufman -- and he read one joke and fell off his chair. The cigar flew out of his mouth, and he said, 'OK, when do you guys start working?' "

During their years as a writing team, Danny Simon told People magazine in 1983, "I was the leader. When we were writing, it was Danny and Doc, not Doc and Danny. He would have starved if it weren't for me."

In the early 1960s, after they had split and Neil launched his career as a playwright, Danny Simon gave his brother the idea for what became one of his biggest hit plays, "The Odd Couple."

It is loosely based on Danny Simon's experiences while going through a divorce from his wife, Arlene, and sharing a home with a Hollywood agent friend whose wife had left him. Danny was considered the neater one of the two.

Danny wrote 14 pages about two divorced guys who move in together and have the same problems they had when they were married. But then he stopped.

"Neil thought it was the greatest idea ever and kept calling me up every four weeks to see how the play was coming," he told the Post in 1986. "But I kept looking for excuses not to write it."

Finally, he told his brother, "Doc, I'll never get around to writing this play. You better take it."

Later, Simon was reportedly irritated that Neil did not credit the script as being "From an idea by Danny Simon." Neil Simon gave his brother one-sixth of the royalties for the idea.

"At the beginning, when Doc left me to go on his own, I really resented it," Simon told the Post. "Why didn't I go on and write more plays? Nobody stopped me. I realize now I can't blame him for that. For a writer, I really hate to write. Neil is crazy. He thinks he likes writing. That's why he's such a success."

In 1980, Simon accepted an offer to lecture on comedy writing at USC. Over the next 15 years, he conducted three-day comedy writing seminars in Los Angeles and at colleges and universities across the country and abroad.

"The best comedy comes not from jokes but from character," Simon once said. He urged his students to avoid obvious feed lines and "joke jokes."

"I cannot teach talent, but I can teach technique and structure," he told the Times of London, where he was teaching his course in 1994.

"I teach how to think funny and how to write funny," he said. "I try to teach my students so that for the rest of their lives, they can keep teaching themselves."

In addition to his brother, Simon is survived by a son, Michael, of Portland; a daughter, Valerie, of Sherman Oaks; and two grandchildren.

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