Neil Simon Gave Him Two Big Breaks, but Matthew Broderick's Inspiration Is His Late Father

updated 05/16/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sunlight is streaming into Matthew Broderick's Greenwich Village apartment. From the windows, which overlook Washington Square Park, the trees appear ready to burst into full bloom. And so, in fact, does Broderick's career. At 21, he opened in March to rave reviews in the Broadway smash Brighton Beach Memoirs, Neil Simon's 20th play. Simon's latest movie, Max Dugan Returns, also recently opened, with Broderick sharing billing with Jason Robards and Marsha Mason. More kudos. In June his second movie, War-Games, is due. Advance word is that the film will be a blockbuster, and Broderick is going to be a major star.

Yet as he looks around the comfortable, book-filled four-bedroom apartment he grew up in—the apartment he still shares with his mother, Patricia, and his sister, Janet, a potter, Matthew is subdued. "It's really sad to be here," he says. "Every object is connected with my father."

Matthew's dad, James Broderick, was an actor too, best known from 1976 to 1980 as Kristy McNichol's father on the TV show Family. Broderick died of cancer last November, the day after Matthew started rehearsals for Brighton Beach Memoirs. "I remember telling him how the first rehearsal went," says Matthew sadly. "He never got to see any of this."

Still, James predicted it. When Matthew, then 18 and a senior at New York's Walden School, announced that he wanted to try acting, his father's joking advice was, "You'd better decide if this is what you want to do—because you just might get somewhere." For a while that seemed doubtful. Though a prize pupil of drama coach Uta Hagen, Matthew spent a year "auditioning like a madman" without getting a single part. His only comfort was that acting—or trying to act—was "a way to avoid college, which I would have wasted." Then he was tapped for a Sally Field movie. But two weeks into shooting, director Martin Ritt became ill and the production was shut down. Says Matthew, "I had already bought the cigars. It broke my heart."

Solace came in the form of a play called Torch Song Trilogy, about a drag queen who adopts a 15-year-old boy, who is himself gay and who calls the drag queen "Mom." Though his agent warned Matthew the role might hurt his image, Broderick took the part "with my family's full support." The show became a hit, and Matthew's performance attracted the attention of both critics and producers.

When Matthew auditioned for Brighton Beach, he was told he was good but might be too old for the part of 14-year-old Eugene, who is in fact the young Neil Simon in this largely autobiographical play. Several months later Simon auditioned Matthew again. He was so impressed by Matthew's "street-wise but sweet" quality that Matthew won the role in the play and the part of Mason's teenage son in Max Dugan. "Sometimes," says Simon, "you meet someone you immediately know is better for a part than anyone else could be. It's a lot like falling in love."

Already there is pressure on Broderick to leave Brighton Beach in June, when his contract expires, and accept one of the many movie offers that have been dangled before him. But he worries that "it might seem ungrateful to leave the play so soon."

Matthew, who smokes a pack of Merits daily and puts away up to eight cups of coffee, knows the pitfalls of acting. He remembers vividly the lows when his father was out of work. "Those times were bad," he recalls. "Acting was really the only thing he knew how to do for a living."

Matthew's sole complaint now is that he's never played anyone his own age. "I'm not knocking it," he says,' " cause it's getting me a lot of work. But someday I would like to play someone who's not a virgin."

Even though teenage girls wait for him outside the theater every night, Matthew's love life is on hold. He is devoted, he says, to a blond L.A. college student, Valerie O'Brien, 22. They met on WarGames, in which she was an extra, and Matthew says, "I don't really see anyone else," even though their schedules keep them 3,000 miles apart. "I have to be content with that for now."

Though he is easing into upper income brackets, modest Matthew has no plans to move out of his family's apartment. In the offing is the Brighton Beach movie, which Simon would like to make before Matthew is too old for the part. But Matthew isn't worrying much about the future. "My father taught me not to be fooled by a sudden burst of success," he says. "I didn't come to this thinking you get one good part and everything just sails along from there."

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