Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10
Interviewed by James Lipton
(I)n the early days, I worked principally with Mike Nichols. He was after me day and night: This scene isn’t good enough. Work on this. Fix this . . . . But, I always knew he was right. I wasn’t that experienced a playwright. The way I work now . . . . the conversation is generally short. (The director) might say, There’s something wrong with this scene. I’ll say, I know what you mean. Let me go home and work on it. I’m much less influenced by the director now than I was before. I depend on the director in terms of interpretation of the play.
(W)hat I try to do in terms of rewriting is always to benefit the character, not the actor. There’s something an actor sometimes says that drives me crazy: I would never do that. I say you’re not doing this, the character is. The one thing I almost always look for is the best actor not the funniest actor. I rarely, rarely cast a comedian in a play. The best comedian I ever had in a play was George C. Scott. He was funnier than anybody in the third act of Plaza Suite because he was playing King Lear. He knew the essence of comedy is not to play “funny.” I remember, at the first reading of Barefoot in the Park, the whole cast was laughing at every line in the play. When we finished the reading, Mike Nichols said, Now forget it’s a comedy. From here on we’re playing Hamlet.
Some . . . emphases change enormously in the rehearsal period, but I also have to worry about what’s going to be done in stock and amateur and European productions . . . The Prisoner of Second Avenue opens in the dark. All we see is a cigarette as Mel Edison comes in. The part was played by Peter Falk. He sat down on the sofa, took a puff of the cigarette, and in the dark we heard aaaahhhhhhh. I don’t know how you’re going to be able to spell that, but it’s got a lot of hs in it—a lot of them. It got a huge laugh because the audience heard two thousand years of suffering in that aaaahhhhhhh. When Peter left and other actors played the part, they would go ahh. There weren’t enough hs and the line wasn’t funny. People tell me that when they study my work in acting class, the teachers have to give them the sounds, the nuances, the way the lines are said. I guess Shakespeare can be said a thousand different ways, but in certain kinds of lines—for example, that run on Ho in Biloxi Blues—everything depends on the timing of it. I’ve always considered all of this a form of music. I wish I could write tempo directions, like allegro and adagio. That’s why I put dots between words or underline certain words, to try to convey the sense of music, dynamics, and rhythm.
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Part XV of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.