Comedy Writer Danny Simon Nurses An Old Wound—the Frustration of Being Neil Simon's Brother
06/27/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
If Woody Allen is to be believed—and really, who would know better?—Danny Simon has the kind of genius that should bring contentment. And yet he is not a happy man. This can happen when you've been left behind more often than you care to remember.
The first person to bail out of Danny's life was his father. Irving Simon's problem was time: He didn't have enough of it to provide a stable home life for Danny, younger brother Neil (yes, that Neil Simon) and their mother, Mamie. He was too busy, Danny remembers, "being a playboy. Sometimes he'd lose jobs because he was out chasing women. Even when he had money, he'd withhold it from us. Neil and I lived in that kind of blackness."
Danny was the closest thing Neil would have to a father. "I used to play stickball morning to night, the whole time keeping an eye on my baby brother in his carriage," says Danny, recalling their early years in the Bronx. "I brought him up more than anyone."
Neil, also known as Doc, remained under Danny's protection well into manhood. Danny taught him to write comedy, got him his first show business job, and shared his first big money with him—$200 to write for Robert Q. Lewis, then a star at CBS Radio.
It was an admirable display of giving, especially by one who had received so little. But Danny wanted—needed—full credit. "I was the leader," he says. "When we were writing, it was Danny and Doc, not Doc and Danny. He would have starved if it weren't for me."
At first Danny's dominance was no problem for the team. They raced through writing gigs for stars like Red Buttons, Milton Berle and Victor Borge. They invented stunts for Beat the Clock, and wrote for NBC's Broadway Open House for the giddy sum, shared, of $750 a week. Starting in 1953, they wrote for Your Show of Shows, with Sid Caesar, one of the most popular TV programs ever.
Then, in 1954, Caesar's reign ended, and so did the team of Simon and Simon. "He had a need to strike out on his own, to get away from his brother," explains Danny. That's the way Neil sees it too. "I finally told myself, 'That's enough,' " he says. " 'I have to grow up.' "
For a while both brothers prospered—Danny as head writer for NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour, where a shy 17-year-old named Woody Allen came under his wing, and Neil as a writer for Phil Silvers on You'll Never Get Rich. In 1958 the Simons began writing their first plays. Danny's Trouble-in-Law was produced for TV's U.S. Steel Hour. Neil's Come Blow Your Horn opened on Broadway in 1961. Danny had wanted to direct it, but didn't. Neil wanted Danny to come to the opening, but he refused.
By 1962, the year Neil wrote his smash hit The Odd Couple, the rift had become a chasm. Ironically, Danny had practically handed the play to Neil. In 1961, while going through a divorce, Danny had left New York and moved to the West Coast to crash for a while with an agent friend whose wife had moved out on him. Danny was the neat one, the friend the slob. Danny used to cry a lot about his wife and two kids. Once he ruined the brisket, which was the only thing he could cook, except boiled eggs. The next morning the pair staged a mock argument about the ill-fated brisket. "It was like God put the idea in my head," Danny remembers. "A play about two divorced guys who move in together and have the same problems they had when married. It was the best idea I ever had."
Unfortunately, Danny was going through a period of paralyzing self-doubt, and didn't feel up to writing it. Neil volunteered, and Danny turned over 14 pages of notes. The rest is history.
Despite the distance between the brothers, they haven't done badly by each other. Neil arranged for Danny to receive a sixth of the author's $3 million share of The Odd Couple's income, and Danny has invested profitably in many of Neil's plays. The trade-off for Neil is artistic inspiration. In addition to serving as the model for fussbudget Felix Unger in The Odd Couple, Danny was the prototype for the womanizing older brother in Chapter Two and, most recently, for the brother in Neil's current Broadway hit, Brighton Beach Memoirs.
And therein lies the possibility of a happy ending. Brighton Beach Memoirs is a thinly disguised autobiography in which Neil writes lovingly of his older brother, from whom he—the protagonist—is separated as a boy. Danny cried and laughed from the moment the curtain went up. "I was touched by Doc's hidden feelings toward me," he says. "The floodgates opened."
Now the rift seems to be healing. The brothers are in touch twice a week. "He seems to have mellowed," says the elder Simon. "Recently, after all these years, I was thrilled to hear him say, 'I love you, Danny.' "
These days Danny, now 62, lives alone in a two-bedroom condo in Sherman Oaks, Calif. His 1953 marriage to Arlene Friedman ended in 1962. He has two children—Michael, 26, an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division, and Valerie, 24, a secretary.
Financially, Danny seems secure. He claims to pull down $100,000 a year from his floating comedy-writing course, for which students (mostly in their 20s and 30s), at various locations around the country, pay $250 for three days of learning the difference between dreck and good comedy. And, of course, the royalties keep rolling in.
But life for Danny is far from perfect. His dreams—to direct on Broadway, to finish a "painful, autobiographical comic movie"—remain largely unfulfilled, and he still seems obsessed with the brother who once left him behind. "By Neil's standards of success, I'm a nothing," he says. "I've always been trying to prove something to people. I should have gone further with the talent I have."