Reel Dad: Remembering the humor and humanity of Neil Simon

He made us laugh and think, chuckle and cry, wonder and resolve.

For more than 50 years, the humor and humanity of Neil Simon — who died on Sunday, Aug. 26, at age 91 — filled stage and movie theaters with a rich collection of characters, a broad range of situations and lasting memories of times well spent. While most of Simon’s work originated on stage, he quickly discovered the magic of the movies with a series of adapted and original films that still leave us wanting more.

Take a look.

The Odd Couple (1968)

While our memories may initially recall the television series — based, of course, on the play and movie — take a fresh look at this gem of a screen translation of a Broadway hit. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon shine as divorced fathers who help each other explore their hopes and fears, joys and disappointments, starts and stops, as they search for new beginnings in their lives. And, thanks to Simon, they try not to take themselves, or each other, too seriously.

Barefoot in the Park (1967)

Simon’s second Broadway hit — after Come Blow Your Horn — became his first movie blockbuster with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford making magic in this comedy about newlyweds trying to adjust to life together. All these years later, the humor still works because Simon writes for character, not for punch line, enabling gifted actors to embed their roles with warmth and authenticity. Watch for Oscar nominee Mildred Natwick as Fonda’s well-intentioned mother.

The Out-of-Towners (1970)

In Simon’s first film written directly for the screen, he gives Jack Lemmon one of the richest characters in his gallery, a mild-mannered man from Ohio who comes to New York City for a job interview only to discover the dark side of Manhattan. The comedy works beautifully because Simon makes us care for this man and his wife — beautifully played by Sandy Dennis — never making fun of the challenges they face. Look for a young Sylvester Stallone in a cameo.

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

In another movie written for the movies — and Simon’s only film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award — he casts then-wife Marsha Mason as a down-on-her-luck Broadway dancer who finds herself sharing an apartment with a self-absorbed actor. Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for his shaded portrayal of a man captivated by his ambition yet touched, perhaps for the first time, by what someone else might need. A lovely romantic comedy.

Chapter Two (1979)

Simon’s whirlwind romance with Marsha Mason — and early weeks of marriage — prompted him to write this Broadway comedy in the same way that life with his first wife inspired Barefoot in the Park. On screen, the one-liners that highlight the play translate into dialogue that defines the characters as Mason — essentially playing herself — and James Caan make us believe in the challenges people face when they want to love more than they may be capable to love.

Only When I Laugh (1981)

In 1970, Simon surprised Broadway audiences by writing a drama, about an actress fighting alcohol abuse, called The Gingerbread Lady. Years later, when he adapted the play to the screen, he believed the role would be a perfect celebration of Marsha Mason’s growth as an actress. The result is one of her most enlightening portrayals — and the fourth of her Oscar nominations — in a film that effectively captures the fears we may face when we face ourselves.

No matter the story, regardless of the characters, every story by Simon revealed a layer of the writer’s character, a piece of his soul, a nuance of his worries, a corner of his joyful world.

And at the heart of his humor was an intense love for New York City, for show business, and for the follies we bring to life when we simply try to life.

Rest In peace.

More movie memories from Neil Simon

And he just kept the stories coming.

Here are a few more movies from the humorous and human mind of Neil Simon.

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

Neil Simon broke into show business as a comedy writer for the classic television series Your Show of Shows. His love for the show in show business shines through this comedy gem about who partners from vaudeville who try to reunite for a professional appearance after many years apart. George Burns won an Oscar for his irreverent portrayal of a man too proud to admit his shortcomings and too authentic to pretend they don’t exist.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)

Living in New York City is no vacation in this celebration of urban challenge that originated on Broadway. Jack Lemmon is at his exasperated best as a man who tries to keep the pressures of city life from getting to him as he sinks, with each day, deeper into a depression defined by his Manhattan experience. Despite the serious issues at hand, Simon manages to find the bright side of each day in a city often too big for the people who live here.

California Suite (1978)

While Neil Simon loved New York – and used many Manhattan references in his plays and movies – he found a delicious brand of humor in the California lifestyle. This quartet of stories – adapted from the stage – offers a delicious role to Maggie Smith (who won an Oscar) as a British actress traveling to Los Angeles because she is nominated for an Oscar. The authentic humor of her roller coaster ride reminds us how precise Simon’s eye for people can be.

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

In a distinct change of pace, Simon takes a short story from Bruce Jay Friedman and turns it into a painful yet humorous examination of the power of ego to undermine the potential of relationships. Charles Grodin grabs our hearts as a young man so absorbed with himself that he can’t imagine his potential to hurt others. Simon reaches beyond the one liner to create dialogue that reveals how disappointment can lead to despair. While making us laugh.

Plaza Suite (1971)

In Walter Matthau, Neil Simon often found a perfect voice for his cynical messages that also cry out with hope. In this adaptation of the Broadway hit, Matthau plays three different characters in three episodes set in the same suite at the famed hotel. Each one-act play gives the actor a chance to show his range while offering Simon a marvelous opportunity to comment on the foolish things people can do when they take life and themselves too seriously.

Biloxi Blues (1988)

In the 1980s, Simon used his own life to illustrate the hopes and fears of a generation in a powerful trilogy of Broadway plays. In this second installment, a young man – well captured by Matthew Broderick – lives the fears of being a young adult, adjusting to the challenges of military life, and gradually realizing the real world may not be what he envisioned from his childhood in Brooklyn. Simon’s sharp eyes and ears make us believe every moment this young man lives.

Murder by Death (1976)

In one of his movies written directly for the screen, Simon has great fun playing with the traditions of the Agatha Christie mystery. This laugh-filled parody makes it easy for his all-star cast (including Peter Falk, Eileen Brennan, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness and Truman Capote) to shine in roles that may not grab a lot of screen time but give us a hearty helping of on-screen entertainment. The result is one of Simon’s most entertaining, if less conventional, movie hits.

Thank you, Neil Simon.

For making us realize that while life can, indeed hurt, it can also bring joy no matter the situation.

But, as the saying goes, only when we laugh.