When the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon died on August 27 he left behind a rich legacy of laughter. Arguably the most successful playwright in American history, Simon was nominated for 17 Tony Awards, he won three: for author of “The Odd Couple,” and twice for best play, for “Biloxi Blues” and “Lost in Yonkers.” More impressively, Simon ruled comedy on the Broadway stage for decades.
Simon’s move to the movies proved his work transcended mediums as well with 3 Best Screenplay Academy Award nominations to his credit for Material from (his own) Previous Source, and 1 Best Writing Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for The Goodbye Girl (1977). He won the Pulitzer for “Lost in Yonkers” in 1991 and was bestowed many more honors throughout his storied career. Oddly, none of that came to mind when I heard the news of Simon’s death. Not the recognition, not the over 9,000 Broadway performances of his work, and not the many movies he’s penned that I am fond of. What came to mind first was how my beloved New York City died a little with him.
Yes, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Neil Simon is New York. The city has been a major player in numerous movies I never tire of. Just think of The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Goodbye Girl, The Out of Towners, or The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Without the flavors, the sounds, and the smells of New York they wouldn’t be as good. New York is in every line of dialogue, in every accent, and in every move of the characters. Simon, a Bronx native, wrote about what he knew and what he knew was urban family drama. He had a heightened awareness of what is funny in people even at their worst. Perhaps the best example of that is “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” Simon’s eighth long-running play, which ran for 798 performances from 1971 to 1973.
The Broadway production of “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” was directed by Mike Nichols, who was a frequent Neil Simon collaborator. Nichols won four Tonys for directing Simon material – “Barefoot in the Park” in 1964, “The Odd Couple” in 1965, “Plaza Suite” in 1968, and “Prisoner” in 1972. Although most of Simon’s work is autobiographical, “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” is an exception as it is based on his first wife’s uncle who went bankrupt and had a nervous breakdown in his forties.
I didn’t get to see “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” on Broadway, but would have loved to. The play starred Peter Falk as Mel Edison, Lee Grant as Edna Edison, and Vincent Gardenia, who won the play’s second Tony Award, as Mel’s brother Harry. The production was also nominated for Best Play, but lost to “Sticks and Bones.”
Neil Simon wrote the screenplay to the movie version of The Prisoner of Second Avenue, directed by Mel Frank and released in 1975. Now this I’m familiar with, which is why I chose it as my back-up for The Neil Simon Blogathon. I couldn’t get my hands on my first choice, Robert Moore’s Chapter Two (1979), which is overlooked and one of his favorites. Nonetheless, I’m happy to offer my thoughts on The Prisoner of Second Avenue, perhaps Simon’s darkest comedy.
Prisoner carries a punch thanks to Mel Frank’s terrific direction, memorable performances by the film’s two leads, and Simon’s sharp dialogue. Neil Simon commented on the story’s theme saying, “I don’t think audiences expect or want me to write serious plays. Maybe I was a little more successful with ‘Prisoner’. It’s a serious play that’s very funny.” Yeah, it is. And it translates wonderfully to the screen showing a brutal New York both by happenstance and in actuality. There’s a reason why the films of the 1970s took an upswing on violence. The City was a violent place in the 1970s and although Neil Simon got a lot of slack for portraying it in such a manner – even being accused of hating New York due to Prisoner – he depicted what he saw. Simon said of this to the New York Daily News: “Who hates it? I love it. I’m writing about big city life. The problems in ‘Prisoner’ are not exclusive to New York. People are robbed everywhere. There are major strikes in London, Paris, every major city. I only single out New York because I happen to live there.”
In another interview Simon speaks of remembering a time when he got in taxi cabs and had long discussions with the drivers about baseball. Suddenly as of the early 1970s a wall was put up to protect the drivers from being robbed and the passenger couldn’t get out of the car until the driver opened the door remotely. He depicts this in a scene at the beginning of Prisoner of Second Avenue after the protagonist, Mel Edison, chases a bus in sweltering heat. This is not a pretty picture, but we’re in for an affecting, uproariously funny adventure.
Anyone who has lived in a city like New York has to know all about what happens to Mel and Edna Edison. Their story is quite simple, but fraught with problems. The married couple lives in one of them tenement buildings, as Marjorie Main’s character in Meet Me in St. Louis would say, and encounter any number of tribulations one after another until poor Mel suffers a nervous breakdown. As the movie opens the City is in its eighth consecutive day of a heat wave as its inhabitants scurry through the bustling streets. Mel Edison steps out of his building and misses his bus. It’s the first sign that this is not going to be a good day for Mel. What we don’t know is that missing his bus is the least of his problems because in the coming days he will be nagged by the noisy airline stewardesses that live next door, by barking dogs, a continuously flushing toilet, rude neighbors, and a smell of garbage so potent it reaches the Edison’s 14th floor apartment. In addition, Mel is fired from his job of 22 years and is robbed of all his belongings including his liquor! I mean, the poor guy can’t catch a break. Mel’s saving grace is his wife, Edna, who gives as good as she can take. They are perfectly suited in character as are the two actors are playing against each other. They are the ultra-talented Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft.
The Prisoner of Second Avenue is the third of four appearances by Jack Lemmon in a film written by Neil Simon. The others are The Odd Couple (1968), The Out of Towners (1970) and The Odd Couple II (1998). You probably know I can go on and on about Jack Lemmon’s talent and his performance in The Prisoner of Second Avenue because I already have in previous posts so I’ll try to keep this short.
In Prisoner Jack plays one of his “everyman” characters, the kind of man he is most associated with. His performance in this is astounding. One of his best, in my opinion, and that’s something considering he could do no wrong in my eyes. As is often the case, I am blown away when Jack says absolutely nothing, when he adds his signature poignancy to the broad comedy that makes him one of the all-time best. Despite quip after quip, the funny repartee, and the incredible circumstances presented this character, the truth is that Mel is deeply disillusioned, he is at the end of his rope and there’s nothing funny about that. No one could have given such a role in such a film the depth given it by Jack Lemmon. He breaks my heart – in another comedy. That’s Jack’s gift. Neil Simon described Jack’s talent saying, “there are terrific actors today that are good at what they do, but no one could open up like Jack Lemmon, no one could surprise you like Jack Lemmon.” He does so in Prisoner time and time again.
Anne Bancroft matches Lemmon word for word and feeling for feeling in this terrific movie. Her delivery is essential Simon epitomizing exactly what draws me to his material. She is funny, she is truthful, she is broad, and she too gives you the feels when the time calls for it. Prisoner is the first of two Neil Simon written films starring Bancroft. The second is Paul Bogart’s Broadway Bound (1992).
Gene Saks, who directed the Simon-penned The Odd Couple (1968), Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), Barefoot in the Park (1967), and Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972) plays Mel’s brother Harry in The Prisoner of Second Avenue and does a fine job of it. Elizabeth Wilson plays Mel’s sister Pauline and Florence Stanley reprises her role as Pearl from the play. You can also see Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham as the taxi driver in the beginning of the movie and Sylvester Stallone appears as a guy who Mel thinks pickpockets him.
As much as I admire The Prisoner of Second Avenue it’s story is not unique Simon fare. Not only does Jack Lemmon also star in The Out of Towners, but that 1970 movie has many thematic similarities with Prisoner such as the exasperation of having every conceivable thing that can go wrong go wrong to a couple. Neil Simon also wrote a play that’s a very funny take on the biblical story of Job, titled “God’s Favorite” that was produced for the stage in 1974. This one wasn’t made into a film, but I’m familiar with it because it’s included in one of his anthologies. “God’s Favorite” also centers on a family except this time they live in a Long Island mansion. The patriarch of the family is a pious man named Joe Benjamin who is pushed to the limit by one of God’s messengers when he does not succumb to temptation. Everything imaginable is thrown Joe’s way as he is tested over and over again. It’s an enjoyable piece and worth a read.
As I was watching The Prisoner of Second Avenue today I reminisced about how long I’ve been a Neil Simon fan. No doubt I didn’t get the nuances in this work when I was a much younger person, when I first became aware of his talent through movies, but the laughter was just as heartfelt. This many years later, this many more laughs enjoyed, I can say with certainty that Neil Simon is the person I would most have liked to write like. I feel deeply connected to his words despite the fact that none of the families he wrote about are like mine. In fact, had I not been exposed to Neil Simon plays for the entirety of my life I would not be the person that I am nor would New York City be the same in my mind. Both are better because of him.
Neil Simon (July 4, 1927 – August 26, 2018)