When I first heard the news about the death of Neil Simon, it felt strangely as if a beloved older relative had died. Although I had never met the writing legend, his name was one of the first I remember seeing on a television screen, “Based on the Play The Odd Couple By Neil Simon” from the opening credits of the hit TV show of the same name. The dialogue of its two main characters Felix and Oscar have been so infused in my mind, that there are times in certain conversations where I’m unable to respond (in my mind at least) with anything but what one of them had said in a similar situation.
Those two television characters were based on ones that Simon had created for a play, which was then turned into a hit film. And although he conquered Broadway with literally dozens of plays, this post will focus on the big-screen adaptations of his writing, a combination of play adaptations, original screenplays, as well as the occasional adaptation of another writer’s work. There is also one entry that was a television film, but is included as it completes a trilogy of two previous films (all three were adapted from Simon’s original plays).
Simon was a massive talent who started writing for television in the late 1940’s, and while his first play didn’t come out until 1961, they came fast and furious after that, with one every two years, until in 1966 he had four plays showing on Broadway at the same time – Sweet Charity, The Star-Spangled Girl, The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park.
After writing for television for nearly 15 years, his first Broadway play was also his first to be adapted for film as Come Blow Your Horn (1963) – however, the screenplay was written by future television legend Norman Lear, directed by his fellow future television associate Bud Yorkin. The film starred Frank Sinatra as a swinging bachelor considering changing his ways, and was the first of many Simon stories to take place in a Manhattan apartment. The film was well received, and became the 15th highest grossing film for 1963, earning $12.7 million dollars, topping even an action classic like The Great Escape!
After Come Blow Your Horn came After the Fox (1966), Simon’s first (of many) adaptations of one of his own plays. Directed by Vittorio De Sica and starring Peter Sellers, Victor Mature and Britt Ekland, the seemingly-uncharacteristic for Simon heist film took place in Italy and the plot centered around utilizing the filming of a fake movie-within-the-movie to cover the theft of millions in gold. At the time, Simon had three hit plays on Broadway (Little Me, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple), and in interviews had said that he wanted to write a spoof of arthouse films. The film received mixed-to-positive reviews, but Simon’s career as a screenwriter was now officially on a roll.
Next came Barefoot in the Park (1967), the first teaming of Simon with the director/actor Gene Saks, who went on to direct a total of four of Simon’s screenplays over almost 20 years. The film starred Robert Redford and Jane Fonda (in their second of four screen pairings) as a young married couple quickly realizing that their personality differences might be difficult to overcome after a steamy honeymoon phase. The film was generally well received, and earned $28 million – Simon’s theme of a couple having difficulties living under the same roof was soon to repeated (several times) with major success.
Then, in what was Simon’s biggest commercial success up until that point, The Odd Couple (1968) arrived on the big screen. A second teaming with director Gene Saks, the screenplay was again based on one of his hit plays, and its huge success led to the aforementioned television series of the same name, as well as dozens of revivals/adaptations over the following period of almost fifty years.
Like Fonda and Redford in Barefoot, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were also teamed for what was their second time together (after 1966’s The Fortune Cookie – the first of nine total for them). They play a pair of divorced men, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, living together after Felix’s wife throws him out.
It was the fourth biggest film of 1968 and earned $44 million – making it currently the 251st biggest box office hit of all time (adjusted for inflation it earned $315 million!).
There was a sequel exactly thirty years later (The Odd Couple II), also written by Simon, but it didn’t come close to matching the magic of the original (more to come below).
After 1968’s Odd Couple, Simon followed-up with Sweet Charity (1969), a musical-comedy directed by Bob Fosse and starring Shirley MacLaine and Ricardo Montalban. Simon again adaptated his own play, which was also directed by Bob Fosse, and was itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria (1957). MacLaine plays a taxi-dancer (paid dancing partner) who is looking for love, but has a string of bad luck. The film was relatively well-received, but was a box-office bomb, earning only $8 million on a budget of $20 million, which at the time was an astronomical loss for studio Universal Pictures. But Simon would have better luck with his next film.
Simon teamed again with Jack Lemmon for The Out of Towners (1970) with his first screenplay not adapted from one of his plays (although he originally imagined the story of the struggling visitors to be a segment of Plaza Suite). The Arthur Hiller-directed film tells of an Ohio salesman traveling to New York City for a job interview with his wife (Sandy Dennis) and encountering an ever-increasing number of difficulties related to the economically depressed and crime-ridden NYC of the 1970’s which foreshadows another great 1970’s NYC film by Simon, 1975’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue.
The film’s screenplay earned Simon the Writers Guild of America award for Best Comedy Written Directly for the Screen, and was remade in 1999 with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn as the unfortunate couple.
Then, re-teaming with Out of Towners director Hiller and Odd Couple star Matthau, Simon adapted another of his plays for 1971’s Plaza Suite, a series of comedic vignettes with an ensemble cast about the various occupants of the titular suite, room #719 of NYC’s famed Plaza Hotel. An interesting conceit was to have Walter Matthau play all three of the male roles, but Simon was unhappy with the results and said that, “..I think Walter Matthau was wrong to play all three parts. That’s a trick Peter Sellers can do.”
The second time a Simon play was adapted with a screenplay not written by him was 1971’s Star Spangled Girl, based on his The Star-Spangled Girl. The film from director Jerry Paris and screenwriters Arnold Margolin & Jim Parker is about two 1960’s San Francisco radicals (Tony Roberts & Todd Susman) who get distracted from publishing their underground newspaper by falling in love with the all-American girl next door, Sandy Duncan, an Olympic athlete who represents everything they are opposed to.
Simon returned to the typewriter to adapt his own play into a screenplay for Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), in his third collaboration with director Gene Saks. In it, married restaurant owner Alan Arkin has a mid-life crisis and tries to seduce three different women (Sally Kellerman, Paula Prentiss & Renee Taylor) in his mother’s apartment, which he knows will be empty one day a week when she’s out doing volunteer work. The film was critically panned, with noted film critic Leonard Maltin giving it a rating of “BOMB.” But Simon was to comeback big with his next film in the same year.
In 1972, Simon had turned out two screenplays, the second of which was his first adaptation of another writer’s story, Bruce Jay Friedman’s “A Change of Plan.” The result was The Heartbreak Kid (1972), directed by legendary comedienne Elaine May. In the film, Jewish New York salesman Charles Grodin realizes on his honeymoon that he’s made a mistake in marrying Jeannie Berlin (May’s real-life daughter) when he meets blonde bombshell Cybill Shepherd. It’s ranked #91 on the American Film Institute list of the 100 funniest American movies ever made, AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs, and was remade in 2007 starring Ben Stiller and Malin Åkerman, with Simon getting credit for his 1972 screenplay.
After three years, Simon got back to NYC and one of his own plays for another adaptation, writing the screenplay for The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975). He reunited with Jack Lemmon for the third time, and again with director Gene Saks, but this time as actor, playing Lemmon’s concerned older brother. Directed by Melvin Frank, the film also stars Anne Bancroft as Lemmon’s wife who is very concerned for his mental health when he appears to suffer a breakdown after being fired. Adding to his duress are the daily indignities of 1970’s New York City, including a run-in with a young Sylvester Stallone as a suspected mugger.
Next, working with actor Walter Matthau for a third time, Simon again adapted one of his successful plays for The Sunshine Boys (1975). The Herbert Ross-directed film teamed the then-fifty-five year old Matthau with the 79 year-old George Burns as a pair of aging Vaudeville veterans in their 80’s who are re-teamed for a television reunion despite not having spoken in 11 years. The film features Richard Benjamin as Matthau’s talent-agent nephew trying to get his uncle one more gig, and was very highly regarded, earning several Oscar nominations and a win for Burns as Best Supporting Actor.
It was remade in 1996 as a television film with Simon’s former television writing colleague Woody Allen playing the George Burns role – Allen had been approached to direct the 1975 film, but wanted to play the part of Al Lewis, getting his wish 20 years later.
In his first approach to spoofing a specific genre film type, Simon next took on the classic “country house” mystery in Murder by Death (1976) in which an all-star cast spoofed some of the most famous fictional detectives in history. The Robert Moore directed film starred Peter Sellers as Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), David Niven and Maggie Smith portray Dick and Dora Charleston (Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man film series), James Coco as Milo Perrier (Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot), Peter Falk as Sam Diamond (another Dashiell Hammett character, The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade) and Elsa Lanchester as Jessica Marbles (Christie’s Miss Marple). The hysterical comedy earned $32 million in 1976, outperforming Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Carrie, Logan’s Run and Network to be the 13th highest earner of that year (Rocky was number one, with $117 million).
Coming back to the theme of two people struggling to live together peacefully under the same roof of a New York City apartment, Simon wrote an original screenplay for The Goodbye Girl (1977). Working with director Herbert Ross for the second time, the film stars Marsha Mason as a single mother struggling to pay the rent, so she takes in aspiring actor Richard Dreyfuss and the tension rapidly mounts. The film earned Mason (Simon’s wife at the time) her second Best Actress Oscar nomination, and it is the only Neil Simon film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. Ironically, it was defeated by a film from another NYC Jewish comedian with a take on urban living, Woody Allen – Simon’s junior from their days of writing television comedy. Allen’s Annie Hall also came out on top for Best Screenplay, but The Goodbye Girl was a much bigger commercial success, taking in $83.7 million, to be the number five movie of the year – but still light-years behind the number one film, Star Wars, which earned $461 million.
In his second try at a genre-film spoof, Simon took on the hardboiled detective and film noir genres with The Cheap Detective (1978). Peter Falk returns for his second Simon film, and practically reprises his role from Murder By Death, but this time as the lead character, San Francisco detective Lou Peckinpaugh (again a nod to The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade, as well as Casablanca’s Rick Blaine). Robert Moore also returns to direct his second original screenplay from Simon with Marsha Mason making a second appearance in a Simon film. The film came in a respectable 18th place in box office for 1978, but Simon outdid himself by having a SECOND film for the year come out above it at number ten, his next screenplay, California Suite (1978).
Simon’s adaptation of his play California Suite returned him to an ensemble cast/vignette format similar to his 1971 film Plaza Suite. Walter Matthau returned to star in his fourth Simon feature, and director Herbert Ross was back to helm his third. The re-teaming was a smash hit, earning $42 million for his second entry in the top 20 films of 1978, and would likely have earned much more if not for that being a very competitive year with phenomenons like Grease ($181.8 million), Animal House ($141.6 million) and Superman ($134.2 million). The Heartbreak Kid director Elaine May stepped in front of the camera this time to portray Matthau’s wife (he was her co-star from her own directing debut, A New Leaf), with the rest of the ensemble cast rounded out by such talents as Alan Alda, Michael Caine, Bill Cosby, Jane Fonda, Richard Pryor and Maggie Smith. Doc Simon was on a roll!
Simon’s next project, Chapter Two (1979), was an adaptation of his semi-autobiographical play of the same name. James Caan plays the main character, a widower who is introduced to a recently divorced Marsha Mason. The actress returned for a third appearance in one of her husband’s films, basically playing herself, as Simon had written the story about how they met (Caan and Mason had also previously portrayed a couple in Cinderella Liberty). Murder By Death director Robert Moore also returned for his second turn in a Simon film. The film’s $30 million take landed it at twenty-eighth place for box office in a year when the number one film, Kramer vs. Kramer (which was also about a couple navigating divorce), earned $106 million.
Capitalizing on the success of their 1978 hit film, Foul Play, Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn re-teamed as a divorced couple in Simon’s next original screenplay, Seems Like Old Times (1980), directed by Jay Sandrich. Hawn’s character’s new husband Charles Grodin (his second appearance in a Simon film after 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid), is the D.A. after suspected bank robber Chase. The film earned $43.9 million to come in at fifteenth place for 1980, a year which was capped by the blockbuster The Empire Strikes Back, earning $209 million. Additionally, 1980 was a huge year for Hawn who had another film in the top 10, Private Benjamin, which came in at number six with $69.8 million.
Marsha Mason returned for a fourth time, starring in Only When I Laugh (1981), an adaptation of Simon’s play The Gingerbread Lady. Directed by Glenn Jordan, the dramatic-comedy features Mason as an alcoholic actress trying to navigate reconciling with her estranged teenage daughter, acting auditions, as well as the risks of meeting strangers in bars. The film earned $25.5 million to be the number thirty-one top earner in a year crowded with action/adventure films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, The Cannonball Run, Time Bandits, Clash of The Titans, Excalibur, and Escape From New York.
The similarly-themed but gender-switched I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982) brought Herbert Ross back to direct his fourth Simon screenplay, as well as Walter Matthau to star in his fifth Simon film. The Cheap Detective’s Ann-Margret returned for her second Simon role, this time as Matthau’s girlfriend, helping his estranged visiting daughter reconnect with him. Even competing with so many blockbusters (E.T., Tootsie, Rocky III, Star Trek II, Poltergeist, First Blood, Conan the Barbarian, Blade Runner, The Road Warrior and many more), in the banner year of 1982, I Ought to Be in Pictures‘ $6.9 million in receipts to come in at eightieth for the year signaled that perhaps the Simon express was running out of steam.
In Simon’s next original screenplay, Max Dugan Returns (1983), he flips the plot of his previous two films, and this time it is the parent coming back into the life of the child. Jason Robards as the titular Max shows up at daughter Marsha Mason’s house with a briefcase of money he’s embezzled from a casino in the hopes of reconciling with her and his grandson, played by Matthew Broderick. Amazingly, both director Herb Ross and actress Mason made their fifth and final collaborations with Simon on this film, and while it was Broderick’s first appearance, he was soon to return in the the second film of Simon’s “Eugene Trilogy” The comedy-drama brought in $17.6 million, more than doubling the return of I Ought to Be in Pictures, for fortieth place in a year loaded with blockbusters like Return of the Jedi, Trading Places, Risky Business, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Scarface. In comparison, Simon contemporary Woody Allen’s Zelig came in at sixty-first place, with $11.8 million in box-office receipts.
In what appears to be the only time Simon adapted a work which then had the screenplay written by someone else, he shared credit on The Lonely Guy (1984) for adapting Bruce Jay Friedman’s book “The Lonely Guy’s Guide to Life” (whose rights had been acquired by the film’s star, Steve Martin), with screenplay credit going to Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels. Simon had previously adapted Friedman’s work for The Heartbreak Kid, whose star, Charles Grodin, returned here for his third outing in a Simon work, the same total as Lonely Guy director Arthur Hiller. Martin plays the titular character who after finding his girlfriend cheating on him, enters the world of “lonely guys” and basically commiserates with Grodin while searching for true love. Earning $5.7 million, it didn’t break the top 100 films for the year, and while it would seem that Simon should have written the screenplay himself, his next original work fared even worse.
Simon’s screenplay for The Slugger’s Wife (1985) was directed by his first-time collaborator Hal Ashby, known for such great 70’s films as Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Coming Home and Being There, but despite this pairing, it was a critical and box office failure. The romantic comedy about a baseball player whose performance varies depending on how confident he feels about his singer-wife’s love for him was a definite low point for Simon, with the film earning only $1.8 million to come in at number 143 for the year (three entries below the horror-comedy Re-Animator), but his next script was the first step on a major comeback.
Longtime Simon associate Gene Saks returned to direct his fourth script, an adaptation of a Simon play for Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), the first entry in his semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy“. Jonathan Silverman portrayed the angst-ridden, Jewish teen growing up in Depression-era Brooklyn, but Matthew Broderick (the grandson from Max Dugan Returns), would later return to play the character in the next entry in the series. Broderick had played Jerome on stage in the first two entries, and Silverman would return to play the character on Broadway for the third. Reviews were mixed, and the film earned $11.9 million to come in sixty-ninth in a year filled with big standout films and sequels like Top Gun, Platoon, The Karate Kid Part II, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Aliens. The stage-Jerome Broderick’s smash hit, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came in at number ten for the year, with $70 million. The stage was set for the next entry in Simon’s “quasi-autobiographical trilogy.”
Mike Nichols, the former comedy parter of Simon directing/acting alumna Elaine May helmed the next entry in the “Eugene Trilogy”, Biloxi Blues (1988). Broderick had honed his Eugene Jerome character over 524 performances on Broadway, and the results showed. Taking Simon’s alter-ego through basic training in the deep South, Broderick’s interactions with drill sergeant Christopher Walken are definitely the funniest moments in the film. It had generally positive reviews, and did very well at the box office in a year where seven of the top ten films were comedies (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, Big, Twins, Crocodile Dundee II, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and Beetlejuice), earning $43 million to land at number twenty three.
Before completing the “Eugene Trilogy” (albeit on television), Simon wrote an original screenplay for The Marrying Man (1991), helmed by director Jerry Rees, who had mostly done short animated films. The film stars Alec Baldwin as a rich playboy and Kim Basinger as the nightclub singer that he becomes enamored with, ultimately marrying and divorcing her several times. Baldwin and Basinger who met during filming had their own tempestuous marriage which ended in (one) divorce. It is possibly Simon’s least-well received film, and received mostly negative reviews (although Roger Ebert gave it three stars), earning $12.4 million, coming in at number eighty-eight with films like Drop Dead Fred and Ernest Scared Stupid ranking just above it.
Possibly owing to the commercial and critical failure of The Marrying Man, Broadway Bound (1992), Simon’s final entry in the “Eugene Trilogy,” did not get a theatrical release, instead being shown on ABC Television in March of 1992. In completing the tale of Simon’s alter-ego Eugene Jerome, it brought back Jonathan Silverman, the star of the first film in the trilogy, but this time portraying older brother Stanley. It would have been interesting to have Broderick play the younger brother and see the two “Eugene’s” play against each other, but like for questions of its potential reception as a film and what box office it would have earned, we can only guess what the results would have been like.
The Goodbye Girl’s Richard Dreyfuss returns for his second Simon outing in Lost in Yonkers (1993), a dramatic-comedy adaptation of Simon’s play about two brothers who are forced to live with their grandmother in the titular town after their father takes a job as a traveling salesman to pay off the debt incurred during their mother’s fatal illness. Directed by Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge), the only woman to direct a Neil Simon film, Yonkers received mixed reviews and earned $9.2 million to come in at number 116 for the year. Interestingly, coming in at number fourteen for the year was Grumpy Old Men, starring Simon’s original “Odd Couple” and frequent stars of his films, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Sadly, the success of Grumpy Old Men which capitalized on the famed pair’s re-teaming, would not be duplicated in their true re-match as Felix and Oscar in 1998’s The Odd Couple II (1998). In it, the former roommates who haven’t spoken in many years discover that their children are getting married. Ironically, the Howard Deutch-directed sequel which was based on the original work that had earned Simon so much critical acclaim and financial success (as well as spawning not just one but two network television shows as well as dozens of revivals both in the U.S. and abroad) was to be Simon’s last produced original screenplay for Hollywood.
What followed were the aforementioned remakes of The Out-of-Towners (1999) and The Heartbreak Kid (2007), as well as a variety of adaptations for TV movies and series, both foreign and domestic, but for me it is very bittersweet that the last screenplay that Simon had turned into a feature film would be a callback to the the two characters that had first introduced me to him in the first place.
Rest in peace, Doc!
Marvin Neil Simon (July 4, 1927 – August 26, 2018)
(All images courtesy IMDB)