Thesps pay homage to playwright

WASHINGTON — The list of actors who owe much of their careers to playwright Neil Simon is long and impressive. Many of them were on hand here Sunday to honor Simon as he received the Kennedy Center’s annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Robert Redford kicked off the evening reminiscing about his big break in “Barefoot in the Park.” Then came a platoon of thesps to pay homage, including Jonathan Silverman, Jason Alexander, Matthew Broderick, Christina Applegate, Richard Dreyfuss, Nathan Lane, Paul Reiser, Robert Klein and Jane Kaczmarek.

Each saluted the showbiz legend, seated in a box with wife Elaine Joyce in the center’s Concert Hall, and explained how their professions were launched, bolstered or revived with their roles in Simon’s plays. Many offered insights into how the prolific writer would retool scripts during tryouts.

Departing from the parade of standup comedy of past Twain events, the evening got downright personal. Dreyfuss recalled how he was invited to read with Simon’s then-wife, Marsha Mason, for a part in a film Simon had written called “Bogart Slept Here.” Simon wasn’t pleased with the session, but he liked the chemistry. He dumped the idea and returned months later with a new script called “The Goodbye Girl,” written specifically for the pair. “He detected things about me that I didn’t even know,” said Dreyfuss, who won an Oscar for the part. “He got me right.”

Kaczmarek said she got her big break replacing Mercedes Ruehl in “Lost in Yonkers” on Broadway, while Lucie Arnaz said she met her husband, Laurence Luckinbill, playing a Simon role on the Rialto.

Also on hand were Allen Toussaint, Patricia Heaton and Heather Headley.

Carl Reiner, a previous Twain prize winner and writer with Simon for Cid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” appeared via videotape to recall the old days and offer some good-natured ribbing.

Skits from Simon shows were performed by several of the actors, another first for the Twain event. And, of course, there were clips from seemingly every film made from a Simon play: “The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “Biloxi Blues,” “The Goodbye Girl,” “Broadway Bound,” “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” and many more. Clips of Simon’s early TV writing also were presented.

The 79-year-old writer accepted the Twain prize with his customary stage shyness, telling of his first experience at age 12 seeing a live play that featured actor Canada Lee. He said he knew then he wanted to be a playwright. All he needed was an idea. He said it took him six years to write his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn,” the title of which he took from his daughter’s book of nursery rhymes.

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