Nathan Lane first encountered Simon at the age of 11, when a play-of-the-month club sent him The Odd Couple to read, and he promptly devoured it hidden between the pages of his geography textbook. But the Tony-winning actor’s professional association with the playwright began in 1987, when he portrayed Stanley in the first national tour of Broadway Bound, the final installment in Simon’s trio of autobiographical plays.
Lane then went on to originate the role of Max Prince in 1993’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor and breathe new life into Oscar Madison opposite Matthew Broderick’s Felix Ungar in a 2005 revival of one of Simon’s biggest hits, The Odd Couple, bringing him full circle.
In the wake of Simon’s death on Saturday, EW called up Lane to reminisce about the legend, what their working relationship was like, and why Simon meant so much to him throughout his career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve starred in three of Neil Simon’s plays. What do you think it is about his voice that was such a good fit for you?
NATHAN LANE: He had a very specific way of writing. Like with any great writer, it’s like music and you have to observe the notes and you have to honor what it is he’s writing – the grammar and the punctuation, it’s all very important because he put a lot of thought into that. Anyone who is good with language would be a good fit for Neil Simon. In many ways, his writing does a lot of the work for you.
He often said, from his point of view, he was writing dramas with comic moments in them. The most important thing with his material was always play it as you would a serious play and allow Neil to do his work. People will laugh because of his incredible skill in capturing whatever the dilemma the character is going through, and it’s not about trying to make him funny. He’s already done all of that, and you just have to play the truth of the situation and the seriousness of it.
Of the shows you did, do you have a favorite and why?
Each one is a very fond memory. Broadway Bound may be my favorite play of his. It may be the best play he ever wrote. It was the national tour so I auditioned, and he was there in the theater, but I didn’t get to meet him. I didn’t really meet him until several months later at the opening night in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theatre. There was a knock at the door after the show and I opened it and there he was — taller than I had imagined, with his famous horn-rimmed glasses, and he had that sort of Mona Lisa smile that said, I know something you don’t know and I’m probably going to write a play about it. He probably sensed my nervousness and fear in meeting him for the first time. He was very kind and gracious. He was very sweet about the whole thing, and tried to make me feel good about what I had done. I was very relieved.
And Laughter on the 23rd Floor?
Laughter on the 23rd Floor was exciting because it was a new play. Getting to originate a role in a new Neil Simon play was a dream come true. I had the thrill of going out-of-town with him and watching him in action and seeing his rewrites. He would constantly rewrite, making it better and figuring out the play in front of audiences. I was originally asked to play one of the comedy writers. Then, at the last-minute, they had a reading of it. They were going to get a big, burly actor to play the Sid Caesar character. [The play is inspired by Simon’s years writing for The Show of Shows and comic Sid Caesar.] Sid Caesar was 6’2”, 250 pounds. They asked me to read the role of Max Prince, the character based on Sid. Just for the purpose of the reading they felt I would bring the right energy to it. So, we did the reading, and it went very well and then they said to me, “Well, now, we can’t see anybody else playing this part.” Neil said to me, “What you lack in height, you make up for in anger.”
The last Simon play you did was the 2005 revival of The Odd Couple.
When I was 11 years old, I had joined a play of the month club called the Fireside Theatre and the first play I received was The Odd Couple. I took it to school with me and during geography class stuck it in the textbook and was reading it and quietly laughing. That particular play has always been meaningful to me. Many years later, I was doing a tribute for him, the Kennedy Center Honors [in 1995]. I read Oscar Madison’s tirade about Felix’s annoying habits. Eight years later, Neil wrote me a beautiful note saying he was remembering my performance of that speech and he wanted to see me do the whole thing in a revival of The Odd Couple. He’d been holding onto the rights in the hope that I would do that. I remember having that copy of the play that I had hidden in a textbook when I was 11, that I sheepishly brought in and asked him to sign it. It’s certainly a classic American comedy of the 20th century. It was an honor just to be asked to do it.
Do you have a favorite memory of him?
I’ve played a small part in his remarkable career, but he’s not someone who I really got to know on a personal level. Whenever I was with him, I felt 11 years old. He was always very kind to me and appreciative. I never wanted to let him down or disappoint him. When I did well by him, it was incredibly gratifying because you felt you were pleasing the master. It was mainly this working relationship. It was one of mutual admiration and a tremendous amount of respect, and, on my part, trying to honor his work and to live up to that.
He could be funny, obviously. He wasn’t on in the way that Mel Brooks is constantly, relentlessly funny and entertaining. With Neil, [it was] if something [occurred] to him. We were in my dressing room once and we were discussing a scene. He kept looking over at this humidifier on the dressing table. It was a big, blue water-filled tank from which steam would slowly and steadily rise. At the end, he goes, “Alright I’ll see you later” and then he went to the door, turned back, and, with perfect timing, he pointed to the tank and very seriously said, “By the way Nathan, I think your fish is dead.” He could be funny when he wanted to be, but it was mainly about the work. It was doing the work because it was serious business.
You just completed the run of Angels in America at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway — did you ever feel that had some sort of poetic resonance?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t really. He’s one of the rare people in the theater. He’s a giant. It’s one of those careers that is really unparalleled. Certainly, he was incredibly deserving of that honor. When we did Laughter on the 23rd Floor, in that same season, Perestroika [Part Two of Angels in America] debuted. Frank Rich, the last two reviews of his career as a critic — he reviewed Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Perestroika. So, it does bring back memories then to be acting in it myself. I’m just very proud to have played a small part in his career and been a part of it. It’s something I will always treasure.