Neil Simon (1927-2018)
He was ubiquitous when I was growing up—both the playwright and the screenwriter. Every week my brother and I watched the TV version of his hit movie which was based on his hit Broadway play, and which was called, in the opening TV credits, “Neil Simon's The Odd Couple.“ It was divorced men in New York City but my brother and I—kids in the Twin Cities—still identified. I was a Felix and my brother an Oscar. We had to live together. We had to share a room. Clean guys will be Felixes and messy guys Oscars for decades to come. He named us.
My father, eventually a divorced man, too, and doing a bad Walter Matthau, repeated the last line of this back-and-forth many times:
Oscar: Now kindly remove that spaghetti from my poker table.
Oscar: The hell's so funny?
Felix: It's not spaghetti, it's linguini.
[Oscar picks up the plate and hurls it against the kitchen wall]
Oscar: Now it's garbage.
Simon's first Broadway hit, “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1961, was about two brothers, and how the younger yearns for the playboy life that the older is realizing is empty. It was always about relationships with him. It was about yearning for what we don’t have—a lithe Cybill Shepherd suddenly appearing on your honeymoon. It was about opposites: sloppy vs. neat; conservative vs. liberal; east coast/west coast; calm and volcanic.
In just 10 years of hit plays, he went through the heterosexual relationship life cycle:
- before (“Come Blow Your Horn”)
- during (“Barefoot in the Park”)
- after (“The Odd Couple”)
- after the after (“The Sunshine Boys”)
I should revisit some of this. When was the last time I saw “The Goodbye Girl” or “The Cheap Detective”? A more recent watch, “California Suite,” I thought was half of a great movie, and again it was the opposites that attracted me: the calm men (Alan Alda, Michael Caine) and frenetic/worried women (Jane Fonda, Maggie Smith). One couple is divorced and bicoastal; the other is still at it even though he’s gay. It’s a moving, farsighted portrayal of a closeted gay man. These two great vignettes are sadly sandwiched among slapsticky bits.
I caught bits of him in the ’80s (“Max Dugan Returns”; “Biloxi Blues”) but lost track by the ’90s. I’ve heard “Broadway Bound” is particularly good; ditto “Lost in Yonkers.”
The following scene was shared on social media today. It's Oscar talking to Felix:
You leave me little notes on my pillow. I told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow! ‘We are all out of Corn Flakes. -F.U.’ It took me three hours to figure out that ‘F.U.’ was Felix Ungar!
My father thought the line so good he wondered if Simon named the character that just for the joke. He always wanted to ask him.