The late Neil Simon gave us enduring stories and unforgettable characters — along the way helping shape contemporary American theater, film and television, but what did his work do for LGBTQ people?
When a great man of the theater dies, there is an almost reflexive communal gasp in the LGBTQ community. For so long, the medium has been a haven for our people — a place where those who feared persecution for expressing their true identities could hide in plain sight because everyone is pretending. But when the person who passes is not known to be LGBTQ (as far as we know Simon was not) and his works did not necessarily address LGBTQ themes (for the most part also true of Simon’s), we have to dig a little deeper, to ask: what did this man mean to us, do for us, give to us, leave for us?
There’s no disputing that Simon was one of the most popular 20th century writers for the stage and screen. Though not quite as sainted as names like Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, Simon’s work in many ways exceeded theirs for sheer audience-pleasing popularity. For his efforts, he would be rewarded with more combined Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer.
His longest-running hit for the stage was the terrific Barefoot in the Park, which also became a hit film starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and remains (as of this writing) the tenth-longest-running non-musical to ever grace the Great White Way. His “Eugene Trilogy” of three tales about a young man who grew up in New York (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound helped launch the career of bright young actors such as Matthew Broderick. And another coming-of-age tale, Lost in Yonkers, won Simon a Pulitzer in 1991. In 1983, he became the only living playwright to have a Broadway theater named in his honor, and it has gone on to host runs of many beloved productions.
When considering what is there in Simon’s work for the LGBTQ community, one has to consider The Odd Couple. Though ostensibly the story of a pair of bachelor roommates, fussy Felix and outré Oscar, the play (which went on to become a film and television series) was, in many ways, a portrait of day-to-day male couplehood that one could describe as proto-gay. Also, without Felix and Oscar, we wouldn’t have had Bert and Ernie — the Sesame Street characters that gave many of us our first ideas of what a life could look like outside a traditional heterosexual-couple-as-heads-of-household paradigm.
Beyond that, much of Simon’s legacy for LGBTQ audiences will revolve around that fact that he created work that created opportunities some of our most beloved storytellers to shine. He was instrumental in adapting Little Me by bisexual author (and real life nephew of Auntie Mame) Patrick Dennis for the stage. He also helped turn a Fellini film into the musical Sweet Charity, ensuring that generations of piano bar patrons would know how to beckon to a “Big Spender.”Simon’s film Murder by Death is often discussed — along with Clue — as one of the most camp cinematic mysteries of all time, and it features a rare performance by the openly gay Truman Capote. Films such as California Suite added indelible comedic moments to the careers of community allies such as Jane Fonda, Alan Alda, Maggie Smith and Michael Caine. Simon is rumored to have been an uncredited script doctor on A Chorus Line, which did deal with LGBTQ themes more directly. And his play The Goodbye Girl (which also ended up as a hit film) eventually became a memorable — if short lived — musical vehicle for the divine Bernadette Peters and the hilarious Martin Short.
Ultimately, Neil Simon was a writer of the people — from those who tuned in to see his work on classic TV shows like Your Show of Shows and the The Phil Silvers Show to those who bought tickets to crack-up over his jokes in Broadway theaters or at their local cinemas. Both Broadway and Hollywood are engines that run on stories, and the stories he created, even when they weren’t necessarily raising our visibility as a community, fuelled economies that employed hundreds if not thousands of LGBTQ people over the years — not to mention the millions of us to whom he simply gave the gift of laughter.
See what we had to say about another dearly departed entertainer, the great Aretha Franklin. We invite you to share your favorite memories of Simon’s work below.
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