Agony is at the root of comedy, and for Mr. Simon it was the agony of an unhappy Depression childhood that inspired much of his finest work. And it was the agony of living in Los Angeles that drove his determination to break free from the grind of cranking out jokes for Jerry Lewis on television and make his own name. As he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Rewrites” (the first of two volumes), the plush comforts of Hollywood living might extend your life span, but “the catch was when you eventually did die, it surely wouldn’t be from laughing.”
Born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, Marvin Neil Simon was the son of a garment industry salesman, Irving Simon, who abandoned the family more than once during his childhood, leaving Mr. Simon’s mother, May, to take care of Mr. Simon and his older brother, Danny. When the family was intact, the mood was darkened by constant battles between the parents.
The tensions of the family, which moved to Washington Heights when Mr. Simon was 5, would find their way into many of his plays, notably the late trilogy but also the early comedies, including his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn” (1961), about a young man leaving home to join his older brother, a bachelor and ladies’ man. And when the family finally broke up for good, the young Mr. Simon went to live with cousins while his brother was sent to live with an aunt, circumstances reflected in “Lost in Yonkers.”
“When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled,” Mr. Simon wrote in “Rewrites.” “It was a sign of approval, of being accepted. Coming as I did from a childhood where laughter in the house meant security, but was seldom heard as often as a door slamming every time my father took another year’s absence from us, the laughter that came my way in the theater was nourishment.”
Danny Simon, older by eight years, was the signal influence on Neil’s career. “The fact is, I probably never would have been a writer if it were not for Danny,” Mr. Simon wrote. “Once, when I was 15 years old, he said to me, ‘You’re going to be the funniest comedy writer in America.’ Why? Based on what? How funny could I be at 15?”
Mr. Simon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and attended New York University as an enlistee in the Army Air Forces Air Reserve training program. He continued his studies at the University of Denver while assigned to a base nearby. (His military experience inspired the second play in his late trilogy, “Biloxi Blues.”)