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Matthew Broderick was 19 years old, fresh from an off-Broadway supporting gig in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, when he found himself on a stage in New York auditioning for the first time in front of Neil Simon. The late great playwright was looking for a young actor to play his teenage alter-ego in the 1982 stage production of his semi-autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broderick must have nailed it. He not only went on to play the character in Brighton Beach Memoirs but also in Biloxi Blues. Below, the now-56-year-old actor recalls that first audition, the letters Simon would sometimes write him during the production and how he could always tell when Simon hated what he was doing on stage.
I remember being on stage and Neil Simon was sitting in the audience. He said hello and he smiled, but that’s all he did. He didn’t ask how I was or if I had any brothers or sisters or any of that sort of thing. He wasn’t trying to be intimidating — he was just very shy. He was kind of mysterious to me. All I could see from the stage were his glasses, which were horn rim and kind of largish. I just saw this little bit of head and a nice sweater and a nice, clean shirt collar. He looked very neat and trim.
So, I started reading and I remember at one point I made him laugh, thank God. And that’s how I got my very first lead in a play. And then, later, he cast me in my first movie [1983’s Max Dugan Returns].
Our relationship was mostly professional. I only had a handful of dinners with him, and I never had lunch with him alone. But he wrote me letters, really lovely letters, so we had a bit of a friendship that way — although the letters weren’t always very friendly. If he thought something was not right in a performance, he could be pretty scathing. “I can’t stop you from ruining my play but I can blah, blah, blah,” that sort of thing. As successful as he was, he could also be a paranoid about whether the next play was going to work. He took his work incredibly seriously. But he never held a grudge. And most of the letters were very complimentary. They were mostly opening-night letters, when we moved to a new city. You’d get to the stage and they’d be waiting for you on your table. They were beautifully written in his beautiful handwriting. And sometimes he would also give you a page from one of his scripts in a Tiffany frame. A handwritten piece of the script, on legal paper, of one of your speeches and his signature. I got two, one from Brighton Beach and one from Biloxi Blues.
During rehearsals, Simon would never give notes directly to an actor. I would try something out and I would see his head lean over to the director and him whispering into his ear. And I knew that meant I was going to get killed. “Whatever it is you’re doing, stop that.” Every time he leaned over, I knew I was in trouble.
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