Correction to This Article
A caption for two photographs with an Oct. 16 Style article about the presentation of the Mark Twain Prize identified actress Lucie Arnaz as Jane Kaczmarek.

For Neil Simon, Great Reviews

Jason Alexander, left, Robert Klein, Jane Kaczmarek and Robert Redford join Mark Twain honoree Neil Simon. At right, Klein and Kaczmarek during an earlier skit.
Jason Alexander, left, Robert Klein, Jane Kaczmarek and Robert Redford join Mark Twain honoree Neil Simon. At right, Klein and Kaczmarek during an earlier skit. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 16, 2006

They not only came to sing the praises of Neil Simon last night at the Kennedy Center, they came to thank him. So many famous people owe some portion of their careers, if not their entire careers, to Simon's genius with words that the thank-yous were entirely personal when the 79-year-old legend was presented with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Would there have been a Matthew Broderick, a Nathan Lane, a Richard Dreyfuss or a Jonathan Silverman without a Neil Simon, who created the stage and movie roles that helped launch or abet their careers? Maybe, but all were on hand last night to attest to the career magic that Simon worked for them (the annual ceremony will be broadcast on PBS stations on Nov. 20).

Silverman, who played Simon-as-a-young-man in the autobiographical plays "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound," said his association with the writer's work "changed my life. He plucked me from obscurity."

Echoing a line Simon wrote for Broderick's post-pubescent character (who spies a picture of a naked woman for the first time) in "Brighton Beach Memoirs,"Broderick said, "Thank you for making it possible to purchase a small golden palace in the Himalayas."

Dreyfuss told a story of reading for a part in a movie that Simon had written called "Bogart Slept Here." Simon heard the reading and told Dreyfuss he was wrong for the part. But Simon liked something else: the acting chemistry between Dreyfuss and Simon's wife at the time, Marsha Mason. So Simon wrote "The Goodbye Girl" with Mason and Dreyfuss in mind -- and Dreyfuss won an Oscar for the role. "He allowed me my whole professional life," Dreyfuss said. "He got me right."

Jane Kaczmarek said she got her "biggest break" when she replaced Mercedes Ruehl in Simon's "Lost in Yonkers" on Broadway in the early 1990s. "I wasn't exactly a starving actress, but I was in the slot marked 'actor,' the kind who don't know a punch line from a punch bowl," said the "Malcolm in the Middle" star. "That was the turning point of my career. I could do comedy!"

Lucie Arnaz, who appeared in two Simon plays on Broadway and met her husband, Laurence Luckinbill, when he was appearing in a third, mentioned that she named her first child Simon. "He said, 'Simon Luckinbill?' Sounds like a Nazi chaser."

Carl Reiner, who wrote for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" with Simon (and a few other Mount Rushmore figures of comedy), turned the gratitude-fest around. Reiner, speaking via video, said Simon was also responsible for Reiner's career, but mainly because of what he didn't do. When Simon offered Reiner the lead in his first play, "One Shoe Off" (later retitled "Come Blow Your Horn"), Reiner passed, citing other projects. "So I had to fend for myself," said Reiner, himself a former Twain winner. "If I had been in your show, I might still be on Broadway, scrounging for work."

Simon was typically modest, and visibly nervous, in accepting the award. "It took me six years to write my first play," he said, recalling that he found the title for "Come Blow Your Horn" from one of his daughter's nursery rhyme books. He said it turned out to be "a so-so play" that was turned into "a so-so movie" with Frank Sinatra. But it was successful enough that Simon considered calling his subsequent works "The Sheep's in the Meadow" and "The Cow's in the Corn."

"For the first time," he said, "I had money in the bank. Yes, sir, yes sir, three bags full!"

The film clips of Simon's work alone could have filled an entire evening. As it was, they gave some sense of the length and breadth of Simon's six-decade career: "The Sunshine Boys," "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park," "The Goodbye Girl" (original and made-for-TV remake), "The Phil Silvers Show," "Biloxi Blues," "California Suite."

Etc., etc., etc.

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