December 19, 1977 12:00 PM

AS A WRITER, YOU MAKE ME LOOK GOOD. AS A HUMAN BEING, YOU MAKE ME LOOK WONDERFUL. NOW IF YOU CAN JUST DO SOMETHING FOR MY TENNIS. NEIL SIMON

—A telegram on a dressing room mirror

Judd Hirsch will have to take a bye on playing Simon’s tennis coach for the nonce: he’s tied up playing Simon himself on Broadway in the just-opened—and achingly autobiographical—comedy Chapter Two. Hirsch will be tied up “60 or 70 years,” in fact, according to the half-serious prediction of Today critic Gene Shalit, who hailed it as “the finest play Neil Simon has ever written.”

The odd coupling of America’s most successful playwright (Variety once estimated his royalties at $45,000 a week) with a tough-guy actor from a couple of canceled TV series (The Law, Delvecchio) may puzzle those who would have typecast, say, Woody Allen. But 12 pages into the writing Simon decided that he had to have Hirsch, whom he’d seen on TV and admired for his “New York sound” and feel. “Neil told me it had something to do with a hard crust and a soft center,” recalls Judd, 42 (to Simon’s 50). “I was as shocked as anybody to think that he would pick me to represent the heart of him—this man was giving me his life to put up on the stage.”

Indeed, Simon pointed a few years ago to his poodle and said, “There’s the only one in the family I haven’t written a play about yet.” Still to come at that time were perhaps the most traumatic events in Simon’s life: the death of his dancer first wife (and mother of his two daughters) of cancer in ’73 and a turbulent, 22-day courtship of recently divorced Midwestern actress Marsha Mason, 15 years his junior. In Chapter Two, very little more than the names has been changed.

“I wrote it about two years after letting go of a lot of ghosts,” Simon recounts. “I didn’t do it to enlighten the world. It was mainly for my own sake, to deal with it.” “Even if the play had never been put on,” adds Marsha, speaking also for her stepdaughters, now 20 and 15, “Neil would still have done something terribly helpful for all of us. Something brave and very lovely.” Putting it on was no less courageous. “Sometimes in rehearsal, Neil would excuse himself,” says director Herbert Ross, whose professional relationship with Simon ranges from The Sunshine Boys to his new movie starring Marsha, The Goodbye Girl. “I think it was because Judd was working too close to the bone.” Marsha found vignettes when she too just “dissolved.”

What kept everybody intact throughout was Hirsch, though he confesses to have been suffering inside “a consuming case of galloping paranoia.” Director Ross was impressed enough to declare that Hirsch “has the range of a well-trained British actor of the stature of Olivier or Burton.” Judd, in fact, graduated into the theater just like Simon. A Bronx boyhood, the same high school (De Witt Clinton), the Cats-kills and New York colleges (Hirsch got his degree in physics from CCNY). Curiously, Judd’s Broadway entry came in Neil’s first smash, Barefoot in the Park (based on the first week of Simon’s first marriage). They never met, though, because Hirsch was just a replacement for a secondary part.

While Simon’s unparalleled chain of clicks continued (16 on Broadway in 17 years, including The Odd Couple; 14 screenplays like Murder by Death), Hirsch had a harder slog. His stats numbered more agents than parts, not counting commercials (of which he did “hundreds”). Once, while in the off-Broadway Hot I Baltimore, he took three weeks off, and his replacement, David Groh, was spotted to co-star (temporarily) in Rhoda. Judd calls it “a blessing” now, because it freed him to headline (he beat out both Tony Roberts and Paul Michael Glaser) in the two-hour pilot of The Law, a TV classic examining the U.S. legal system. That led to a series aborted at three episodes which Hirsch calls “slick, pale pretenders” of the gritty original and led him to write off network executives as “chicken s—s.” Judd did accept Delvecchio last year, of which Neil cracks, “He was always too busy chasing cars to develop a character.”

Judd’s romantic history was also less glowing along the way than Simon’s. The inspiration for Chapter Two had two women in his life, of whom he has exulted, “If you meet one, God is good to you.” Hirsch is still awaiting his first. He was married briefly some 20 years ago (“It was my fault it ended, I just didn’t feel it had a future”) and there was an interlude with actress Jennifer Warren a decade ago. But Hirsch’s most enduring relationship is with his 11-year-old son, Alexander. The quick encounter with the boy’s mother occurred at a Catskill resort where he was working in the kitchen. “We were just two people who met, came together and parted,” he explains. “But we look upon Alexander as a gift from heaven. She is a very capable person and a good mother.” She and the boy live in L.A. For those sentimental souls who tried to knit up all the dramatic loose ends by linking Hirsch with divorcée Anita Gillette, 41, his co-star as the Marsha Mason of Chapter Two, it’s no soap. “The closest we’ve gotten,” Judd deadpans, “is our cars parked next to each other in the garage.”

While their surrogates are bumper-to-bumper on Broadway, the California-convert Simons are back on the Coast finishing their next film collaboration, The Cheap Detective. (It stars Peter Falk, who was Neil’s fallback choice if Hirsch had been unavailable for Chapter Two.) For Judd, who has a Greenwich Village apartment and a cabin he built himself in the Catskills, the nine-month commitment to the play is no problem (save for the wrench of not seeing his son). He’s pleased to be part of the catharsis of the author, “and for me,” says Hirsch, “this play is the end, hopefully, of 20 years of acting obscurity.”

He’s unfazed by the rush of TV series deals and movie properties that, he laughs, “are straining my agent’s eyes. I don’t do big cars, big houses or big egos. I’m an actor,” declares Judd. “All I need are good parts.”

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