Quinn Cummings On Working With Neil Simon

Sep 1, 2018
Originally published on September 1, 2018 1:05 pm
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Neil Simon wrote more than 30 plays and screenplays, including "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot In The Park" and "Brighton Beach Memoirs." He won Tonys, Oscars and the Pulitzer Prize. But when he died this week at the age of 91, Quinn Cummings remembered that she had a piece of theatrical history. Quinn Cummings was just 10 years old when she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar in Neil Simon's 1977 film, "The Goodbye Girl."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOODBYE GIRL")

QUINN CUMMINGS: (As Lucy McFadden) I can't sleep.

MARSHA MASON: (As Paula McFadden) Give it five minutes. You just got into bed.

CUMMINGS: (As Lucy McFadden) I can predict the future.

MASON: (As Paula McFadden) Yeah? How about predicting mine?

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

CUMMINGS: (As Lucy McFadden) I could predict the phone ringing in your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SIMON: She starred alongside Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss in "The Goodbye Girl." A sequel was never made. That doesn't mean there wasn't a script. Quinn Cummings, now a writer, producer and director, has a copy that Neil Simon wrote and told us why she thinks the film never got made.

CUMMINGS: I was a kid, but the sense I got was that Richard Dreyfuss had left "The Goodbye Girl," won the Academy Award and was having a stratospheric career at that point. And it was as much a function of not being able to find time to slot it into the movies that had already been created. And I was going to keep getting older. And if we had to wait 18 months or two years from where we were already, I was going to be a very different person.

SIMON: Yeah.

CUMMINGS: So if you want to blame somebody, it's possible you can blame me.

SIMON: (Laughter) What was he like for a 10-year-old, Neil Simon?

CUMMINGS: I understood he was important. I didn't understand how important he was, which was probably a mercy because you can't function around a legend. You can function around a person. He was very quiet. He was there on the set a lot, which - seeing as this was my first movie, I didn't understand how unusual that was. He was watching the material get up on its feet. I think, in some ways, he was always a playwright. To him, the rehearsals were where you made it better. And I think his instinct was always, I think it's right, but let me hear it.

SIMON: From the advantage you've had of being in a Neil Simon film and then your own career as a creator over the years, what made Neil Simon not just funny but accomplished, a pro at it?

CUMMINGS: There have been obits over the last few days. And the two that stuck with me were what Mel Brooks said, which was Neil Simon was the clutch hitter for jokes and that you could always go to him. He would always figure out what the funny was and that he was also the kindest and - what did he say? - the least jealous comedy writer he ever knew. This is a big thing. Comedy writers are - and I speak as someone who's written comedy - kind of broken people. For some reason, he wasn't a broken person.

SIMON: Yeah.

CUMMINGS: And then, the second one that I saw was somebody talked about seeing "The Odd Couple" in China, and the movie was translated into Mandarin. And he said that he couldn't hear the dialogue because people were laughing so hard. What Neil Simon got right was he saw the absurdity in people, but he didn't look for the cruelty. It's easy to be cruel and funny. It's harder to hold people affectionately and with a clear eye.

SIMON: Yeah. You know, those of us who love Neil Simon - no relation alas. Although, the one time I met Neil Simon, I told him that I went through a period where all of my childhood pets were named Neil.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Neil, the turtle, you know, Neil, the bird. He seemed to like - not as much as the Pulitzer, but he seemed to like that. Over this past week, I wrote down one of his great lines, I think, where he said, if you can go through life without experiencing pain, you probably haven't been born yet.

(LAUGHTER)

CUMMINGS: And to recognize that pain is part of the comedy is the finest, finest line.

SIMON: Yeah. You have plans for this script?

CUMMINGS: I do. I am trying to find its correct home. If I can find someone - if I can find the right situation to take it and to purchase it, my plan right now is to split the proceeds, among others, with groups working with the children who have been separated from their families down at the border because I was 9 years old when I did this movie. I was a child. I - that child needs to have helped other children.

SIMON: Quinn Cummings, remembering Neil Simon and talking about her own life, thanks so much for being with us.

CUMMINGS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.