When I first met Neil Simon, one of us was a world-respected humorist with a slew of awards including two Emmys, four WGA Awards and a Tony, and the other was a 9-year-old girl. I had been acting for two years and had done some television, but getting the role of Lucy McFadden in “The Goodbye Girl” was, by any measure, my big break.
Please keep all this in mind when you read the following anecdote.
Marsha Mason and I were shooting a scene in the bedroom. I say something snappy, she responds with “Get me a Coke, sweetheart. Mommy doesn’t want to beat the crap out of you.” I exit. Wordlessly. Only, as we blocked the scene, I walked up to the director Herb Ross, who was sitting next to Neil, and said, “I feel as if I would say something.”
I then suggested a line.
Let’s just wallow in the hubris of that kid for a minute. Decades later, I still cringe at the memory. Besides the obvious arrogance of assuming someone who hadn’t yet lived into double digits had something to offer any script, this was a Neil Simon script. A Neil Simon script wasn’t just a blueprint, it was the whole ride. You sat down, you kept your arms inside the vehicle and you went where it took you.
It’s easy to take his work for granted, to forget that what seems effortless is usually the result of incredibly hard work. The rhythm of modern American humor starts with Neil Simon. It is the syncopation of those smart Jewish boys from the Bronx who made America laugh every week on “Your Show of Shows” and the crowded, emotionally fraught apartments in which they grew up.
To be meaningful, comedy needs to be about discomfort, about being the outsider, and a writer’s success can be the death of that. A decade before “Goodbye Girl” was made into a film, Neil Simon had four plays running simultaneously on Broadway; a feat no playwright had achieved in 40 years.
Yet he was still able to locate the insecurity of a newly married couple in their first cold-water flat, the professional resentment of a pair of aging vaudevillians, and the awkward ambush of an unemployed actor showing up soaking wet at your front door having sublet your apartment from your recently decamped ex-boyfriend.
Or a 9-year old girl having a fight with her mom.
As prolific as Neil Simon was in life, in person he was a remarkably quiet man. My memory of him was of an alert presence, a master craftsman listening to the engine he’d built from scratch, trying to hear if any of its gears were grinding.
They generally didn’t.
That day, however, some pipsqueak decided to put her hands on the wheel for just a second and give the master some notes.
To his infinite credit, Neil Simon looked at me for a moment and said, “You’re right.” Then he gave me something small to say on the way out. I don’t remember the line. I do remember walking on air for the rest of the day.
Comedy writers are often miserable people, capable of creating joy in others while hunkered down under their own personal thunderclouds. I like to think Neil was a happy man. You could tell he loved actors because of the chances he gave them to shine in each of his works. He gave one small girl an extra chance to feel great.
And I can still see him standing at the edge of the set, halfway in the shadows, a small smile playing on his lips as he watched his actors revel in the world he had created.