Marsha Mason Recalls Whirlwind Courtship With Neil Simon: "We Were Like Teenagers"

Neil Simon and Marsha Mason in the 1970s

Simon's ex-wife talks about her marriage to the late great playwright, who died Aug. 26 at 91, why he asked her to quit acting and how Dustin Hoffman inspired 'The Goodbye Girl.'

Neil Simon’s matrimonial history had more entrances and exits than one of his comedies (five marriages, two to the same woman). But the late playwright’s whirlwind courtship with and 10-year marriage to Marsha Mason — they were wed three weeks after they met — remains one of Simon’s greatest romantic works. Below, the 76-year-old actress tells The Hollywood Reporter about how they met; why he (briefly) asked her to give up her career; and the true story behind how Simon wrote her most famous film, The Goodbye Girl.

We met the first day of rehearsals for The Good Doctor in New York City in 1973. And we were married three weeks later. It was an extraordinary connection. It was this electric chemistry. We were like giddy teenagers during rehearsals. We’d get caught kissing in the hallways of the theater. 

After we got married, he did ask me to give up acting — he said he didn’t want to be married to an actress. He had a deep fear of abandonment. And he was somewhat controlling. But it came out of a great deal of insecurity and fear. And we didn’t know each other — we needed a couple of years to get to know each other. Also, I had made a commitment to the family — his daughters Ellen and Nancy [from his first marriage to Joan Baim, who died in 1973, four months before Simon married Mason] were just 9 and 15 at the time. So I said alright, I’ll try. But then, a few years later, he wrote The Goodbye Girl and I ended up starring in it, so the "not acting" thing didn’t last. 

He actually wrote an earlier version of The Goodbye Girl under a different title — it was called Bogart Slept Here. It was loosely based on Dustin Hoffman’s story of being discovered by Mike Nichols for The Graduate — the original was about a young actor getting discovered by a big director and moving with his wife and children to Hollywood and the adventures they had in Los Angeles. Dustin lived down the street from us in New York that first year we were married, so we became friends and that was the inspiration for the original story. But then Neil realized that the problems of a successful actor aren’t nearly as interesting or universal as the problems of a struggling one, so The Goodbye Girl ultimately became a radically different story. 

It was a wonderful marriage, but after 10 years our personal and professional needs became different and it just became too complicated and difficult. And Neil just changed his mind [about the marriage]. It took me a long time to get over [the divorce], but we remained friends afterward. There was always this deep affection. That never went away.