Neil Simon Takes The Twain -- Prize That Is

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Neil Simon, one of America's most successful playwrights, has been chosen as this year's recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the Kennedy Center announced yesterday.

For the past half-century, Simon has been prolific and often produced. Everyone of a certain age probably can name numerous Simon works, as his plays -- including "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park" and "The Sunshine Boys" -- have translated into film and television and into the national consciousness.

Simon, 78, has specialized in putting ordinary people into ordinary situations -- most of them in New York -- and then arming them with silly brickbats, biting satire or belly laughter.

"I am awed, thrilled and delighted to receive the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize. . . . It makes up for my losing the Samuel Clemens Prize," Simon joked in a statement.

"The Odd Couple" started with a classic setup -- mismatched friends who live together -- and, Simon has said, the gravelly voice of Walter Matthau ringing in his head. In the Broadway original, the buddies were Matthau and Art Carney; in the movie, Matthau and Jack Lemmon; on television, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall; and in the recent smash Broadway revival, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

At a salute in 2000, Mike Nichols recalled Simon's rewriting of "Couple" up to the last minute in 1965. "He brought in a rewrite that contained, among other things, Oscar saying: 'You write me little notes: "We are all out of milk. F.U." It took me twenty minutes to figure out that F.U. meant Felix Ungar,' " Nichols said. The line went in. "That night, when Walter Matthau said it, the laugh was so long that he had to sit down and read an entire issue of the New York Post to fill up time during it."

Born on the Fourth of July in 1927, Simon grew up in the Bronx and has rarely strayed from the borough's settings in his plays, although he has lived in Los Angeles for a long time. And he is quoted as saying: "When it's 100 in New York, it's 72 in Los Angeles. When it's 20 in New York, it's 72 in Los Angeles. However, there are 6 million interesting people in New York -- and 72 in Los Angeles."

His writing career started in the 1950s in the creative incubator of "Your Show of Shows," one of early television's most beloved programs. Also turning out the lines for comedian Sid Caesar were Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner. At the 1995 Kennedy Center Honors, Gelbart recalled, "There is no forgetting Neil -- Doc, as he was to us in those early intern days, where he gave as good as the rest and the best in that supercharged atmosphere."

Simon turned to Broadway in the 1960s. His first hit was "Come Blow Your Horn," later a movie with Frank Sinatra, and Robert Redford appeared in the Broadway and film versions of "Barefoot."

Since 1961, Simon has written more than 40 plays that appeared on Broadway and holds the distinction of being the only playwright who has had four works on Broadway at the same time. With that status, a historic Broadway theater was named for him in 1975. "I don't like writing for actors. The best comedians are the best actors," he has said.

In 1991, Simon received the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for "Lost in Yonkers." In 1985, he won a Tony for "Biloxi Blues," a repeat of his 1965 success with "Odd Couple." He also has won three Academy Awards for his scripts.

Other Simon works include "The Goodbye Girl," "Chapter Two," "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Broadway Bound," "The Out-of-Towners," "California Suite," "Plaza Suite," "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" and "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." He also wrote the book for "Sweet Charity."

The Twain is the second honor the center has given Simon, following the Honors in 1995.

"Neil Simon, like Mark Twain, has a unique way of exposing the American spirit by drawing on experiences in his own life and creating insightful and touching portraits of the world around him," said Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman in announcing the selection.

Peter Kaminsky, one of the creators of the Twain Award, said yesterday that Simon should be saluted for the length of his reign, his fertile comic mind and his humorous look at family life.

"Always, the people experience the realities of life and they deal with it through comedy," Kaminsky said "He gave us a goal to shoot for because his characters are always human and they respond to the comedy we all face."

In a 1997 interview with The Washington Post, Simon reflected on his success. "I know that I have reached the pinnacle of rewards. There's no more money anyone can pay me that I need. There are no awards they can give me that I haven't won. I have no reason to write another play except that I am alive and I like to do it," he said.

The Twain Award will be given to Simon on Oct. 15 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, and the ceremony will be shown later in the fall on WETA (Channel 26).


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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