If he were writing a play about his real-life 22-day courtship and marriage to Marsha Mason, the leading lady of his latest Broadway work, Neil Simon says it would have to be titled “Mush.” By any name, the saga seems to feature an odd coupling—a sort of big-league Bridget-Loves-Bernie. Marsha, 31, is a parochial school graduate from St. Louis who was just nominated for an Oscar as best actress for playing a hustler in her first starring film, Cinderella Liberty. Neil, 46, is a kid from the Bronx who rose from writing gags for a Catskills comic to turning out virtually annual stage hits and screenplays (from Come Blow Your Horn to The Heartbreak Kid) which earn him royalties once estimated by Variety at $30,000 a week.
Yet life for the Simons is no sybaritic splurge. In their five months of marriage the Simons have been more or less homebodies in their East 62nd Street Manhattan townhouse (and they don’t even have a second home). Part of the problem is that Neil is what the psychologists now label a “workaholic”—no year is complete unless he has written a new play. And Marsha continued to perform in the show in which they met, his Chekhov adaptation, The Good Doctor, until a recent gall bladder operation set her career back temporarily.
For Marsha, the years after St. Louis included an acting apprenticeship in commercials and the TV soap opera Love of Life, divorce, psychoanalysis and classical repertory seasoning with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Neil too has had personal downs and depressions, and his wife of 20 years died of cancer last summer, leaving him with daughters now 11 and 16.
The denouement of the Mason-Simon “Mush” came the very first day of rehearsal of The Good Doctor. “We had finished reading ‘The Seduction,’ which was the last scene of the first act,” Marsha recalls, “but I was still sitting at the table. Neil came up behind my chair and put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Gee, I just love you. You’re terrific.’ I instinctively reached my hand up to pat his and, it sounds perhaps very silly, but it was a definite moment. We were both sort of taken aback.”
Part of the tingle was professional awe. “I’d always respected Neil’s work,” says Marsha. “There’s always pride in speaking any author’s good dialogue, but every once in a while the fact that it was Neil’s play did come through and it was a terrific feeling.”
At the same time, Marsha has served as muse or at least inspiration for Simon’s quasi-autobiographical script-writing. Elements of Marsha’s “type,” he says, have influenced his new screen adaptation of his Broadway musical Promises, Promises. The female lead is a rather free-wheeling young elevator operator, and Simon “started picturing Marsha as the girl, so I dressed the girl in my mind the way Marsha is dressed.” Which is to say, very casually, little makeup and nonshow business. “I’ve given the girl characteristics that were not in the original,” he continues. “For example, like Marsha, she now likes certain health foods and vitamins.”
The trouble is that for a compulsive writer like Simon who works at home those details can strike him at any hour. “I will go to my desk at night to pick up a letter or something,” he says, “and then I will look at the page that I’ve been working on all day. I’ll say I just have to cross one line out. Then I say, well, I know what the next line is, and then I’m sitting down and I’m working again. It’s like something has pulled me there and I can’t go to sleep until I finish it. It’s as though I was going to drop dead, and they were going to find this page with a line I hated.”
When he has stopped hating lines and is finally finished, he shows the complete version to Marsha, and then they discuss it (but never before). She usually sees the man in the writer and vice versa. “As a writer he’s funny and he’s warm; as a person he’s the same,” she says. (Unlike some of his characters, he’s not an oppressive nonstop quipster.)
While Simon is working, Marsha is using her enforced postoperative layoff from acting to build a relationship with her stepdaughters. “Ellen and Nancy,” she says, “are very special and loving, and they’re the ones that made me feel at home and welcome. I really think that’s a strong reflection on how Joan [the first Mrs. Simon] and Neil raised them. I feel no need to take Joan’s place. I just am another dimension for them, which is just as it should be.”
Marsha has no imminent plans to have children of her own. She did not have any by her previous marriage either, yet her natural childbirth scene in Cinderella Liberty was so graphic as to send costar James Caan off the set. For Marsha, it was a symbolic, affecting experience.
Marsha has no housework problems—the Simons have a staff of two. The whole past year, she says, has been “a wonderful time in my life, and I’m enjoying every single minute of it.” Even Neil seems to be easing up a little. Though he has newly branched out into songwriting—doing some lyrics for Burt Bacharach—Simon plans to take Marsha away to Jamaica for their long delayed honeymoon. But just for a week.