Neil Simon, George C. Scott, and the Making of “Plaza Suite”

Since Norman mentioned the Neil Simon play “Plaza Suite” in his last post, I thought you might enjoy a few excerpts from Simon’s hilarious, heartbreaking memoir Rewrites, in which he discusses the making of “Plaza Suite”. The following is Simon’s recollection…

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The trick now was to find the two stars, good enough and flexible to play four different characters in one night and make us believe we were actually watching eight different actors. We each made some lists of names. Two names appeared on all three lists, among many others. They were George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton.

I was keeping my fingers crossed in our attempt to get George and Maureen. Maureen wasn’t a problem. [The director] Mike Nichols just asked her. Maureen is no fool. George would be trickier to land. [The producer] Saint [Subber] called George’s agent and told her of the play. She said it was doubtful George could do it, since he had so many offers on the table. Still, as a favor to Saint, she arranged a lunch at Sardi’s East for me to meet George and asked that I bring the script. I thought it odd that he didn’t want to read the script before meeting me, but maybe he wanted to size me up. Next to him, I was a 32 small.

Sardi’s East was a new (and short-lived) restaurant in Manhattan’s East Fifties, with small offices to let in the building just above it. I went to the restaurant at the appointed hour with more than a little trepidation. I am terrible about explaining my plays. Not that I consider myself inarticulate, but I always wanted the plays to speak for themselves. If there were nuances in the dialogue or a description of a character’s feelings, I just couldn’t say it without losing the nuances. I also don’t want to sell plays. I’m not a salesman. I’m not my father. I don’t want to have to be funny as myself, Neil, for someone to believe my play is good.

When I arrived at Sardi’s East, George was sitting at the table, looking more like he was on a throne. His agent, a warm, intelligent, and pragmatic woman (she’d have to be to handle George), sat next to him. He greeted me with a cordial but very quick smile, the kind that vanishes even before it is completed. There was very little small talk. Something about the weather, something about the restaurant, and that was it.

George looked at the script in my hand and said, “Is that it?”

“It” was what I had been working on for nine months. I nodded. He reached out, took it from my hand, flipped through the pages, then said, “Plaza Suite, eh?” I don’t think he had a clue as to what it was about.

He suddenly rose and looked at us. “You two have lunch. I’ll go up and read it. I’ll be down when I finish.” And he was gone.

I turned to his agent. “You mean he’s going to read it now?”

She was looking over the menu and muttered, “Why not?”

“It’s a long play,” I said. “I haven’t cut it yet. It could take a long time.”

She shrugged slightly and said, “So eat slowly. He’s worth it.”

We sat eating our lunch, finished in about forty-five minutes, and then filled in about another hour and a half with any story we could think of. She could see my impatience as I kept looking at my watch.

Suddenly George entered the room without a single expression on his face, except for the possible hint of disinterest. He stopped to say hello to some friends at another table, and whatever they said amused him and he laughed loudly. By the time he got back to our table, the smile had vanished from his face. He sat, threw the script on the table, looked me straight in in the eye, and said, “I like it. Let’s do it.”

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This being the third play I was doing with Mike Nichols, I decided to sit four rows behind him in the theater, watching every move he made, listening to every word he said, watching his style, his tricks, his attack on the art of directing. I did this in the realization that one day I might want to direct a play myself, and what better teacher could I find? After watching the first ten days of rehearsal, I had learned nothing. I saw nothing. He had no tricks. He had no modus operandi. No method, no style. What he had mostly was his intelligence: his knowledge outside the world of the theater; his keen, sharp eye for the manners and behavior of people. Not only did he give the actors a sense of encouragement and security, but he allowed them the freedom to try what they wanted, and if he liked it, he left it in. He was always in control but never a browbeater, never a Svengali, never a tyrant. If he did see a selfish actor, one who wanted to position himself in a better light for his own sake, he would cut him off right there. I once saw him fire an actor on the spot for that infraction, making it clear to everyone what the rules were, and that it was clearly Mike who made the rules. He didn’t care what it cost if a new and difficult prop had to be made or scenery rebuilt. He would throw out costumes he had already approved of, because the next week he thought they were wrong. With the exception of The Odd Couple, some of the successes I had with Mike (and they all were) made somewhat less profit than other plays I did, perhaps because of his excesses. In the end it didn’t matter; what we ended up with was always a better play. He often came late while everyone sat around waiting. Sometimes he gave a valid excuse, other times he offered none. If he had a cold, he had gofers to get him hot soup, nasal spray, and a surprise. He always asked for a surprise. The ten-year-old in him never completely went away.

His real test came about two weeks into rehearsal. George Scott did not show up one day. He did not call in, he didn’t answer his phone, and he never returned our messages. He was missing, plain and simple. We heard this behavior was not unusual for him. He was once married to actress Colleen Dewhurst; then they divorced, but still maintained close contact with each other. Finally they married again and finally divorced a second time. George had served in the Marines during the war, although he hardly ever talked about it. He was a private man in so many ways, yet then just as suddenly he could be warm and friendly and accessible to everyone. The stories went around Broadway about George’s disappearances and drinking, although I personally never saw him drink except at one opening night party. He seemed to be happy in those first weeks of rehearsal, loved working with Maureen and Mike and the cast, and usually left at night in a good mood. If Mike was working on act 1, scene 2, then stopped at night, we would pick up in the same place the next morning. George was always prepared for the next day. I had heard from a friend that from time to time George was visited by a black mood that overcame him. he could sometimes sense when it was coming and warn friends in advances, but it came nonetheless. Still, the day of his disappearance, we had not been warned by him of any problems, and we weren’t quite sure what it was.

The next day rehearsals began at 10 A.M. and still no George Scott. After waiting for an hour, this anxious playwright said to Mike, “What should we do?” Mike said, “Hope,” and then asked the understudy to rehearse with Maureen. Maureen hated the understudy, not necessarily personally, but who could come close to replacing George C. Scott? She swore to us she would never go on with the understudy. Maureen, who might have been as affected by George’s moods as anyone, insisted on calling him “The Pussycat.” When she walked in on that second day, she asked, “Is the Pussycat here?” When she heard he wasn’t, she sat down in her chair, opened her purse, and said, “Well, then, it’s a good day to smoke.”

At 3:30 in the afternoon, George walked in, his hands deep in his overcoat pockets, looking as though he had just relived World War II. The scowl on his face was so menacing, it would have scared even him. I was certain he might smash in the face of the first person who talked to him. I looked at Mike, who was up on the stage talking to the company manager. He turned and saw George, who now stood still, seemingly frozen to the spot. He didn’t seem to be looking at anyone in particular. How was Mike going to handle this? I wondered. Take George into another room and have a warm, comforting chat with him? Possibly, but not likely. Would Mike call a half-hour break, let George pull himself together, and try to rehearse? Also possible. Obviously he wasn’t going to berate him in front of the company. Mike wanted to live as much as any of us.

What Mike actually did was the simplest of all things: he looked over and said, “Hi, George. We’re on act one, scene two. You’re on the phone calling this girl in New Jersey.” There was a silent moment where no one moved or breathed, then George slowly walked to the bed, sat down, picked up the phone, dialed, thought for a second, and called out “Line.” The stage manager quietly gave him his line, and George picked up his cue and proceeded with the scene as though he had never been gone. No word was ever mentioned about the incident. That’s why I don’t direct, and why Mike justly receives his surprise when he’s not feeling well.

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The Boston opening went as well as any I had had up till this time. In some ways it surpassed The Odd Couple. As the curtain fell, everyone backstage started to celebrate. George Scott knew it played like hell, and he was even hugging the electricians. He was jubilant. He invited the entire cast and crew up to his hotel suite for a party while we waited for the reviews. Joan and I walked across the Boston Common in a light snowfall. She said to me, “If you’re not happy tonight, I’ll kill you.” No, this was a glorious night and nothing could spoil it.

It was two hours before Joan and I could fall asleep or even wanted to. We were cherishing moments. In the darkness of the night, an hour after we had fallen asleep, the phone rang. I turned on the light and looked at the clock. It was twenty to four in the morning. What crank dentist from Pittsburgh was calling at this time? I picked up the phone. It was Mike. I have heard Mike unhappy. I have heard him angry. I have heard him morose. I had never heard his voice filled with such deep, dark despair. I wouldn’t even dare guess what horror I was about to hear.

“Can you come to my room?” he said.

“Now?”

“I think you’d better.”

“It’s a quarter to four.”

“As fast as you can.”

“Is it bad?”

“Bad doesn’t describe it.”

Joan sat up in bed and looked at the clock. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. I sense tragedy. I’ll call you later.”

I didn’t wait for the elevator. I ran up three flights of stairs, pulling on my pants, shoes, and a shirt as I ran to his room.

“George wants to quit the play.”

I stood there, not knowing if this was Mike’s ultimate joke. I kept waiting for his big smile to be followed by “You schmuck. You really believed me?” Instead he was white as a ghost.

“I don’t believe it. Why?”

“He just left here twenty minutes ago. He was here two hours. He says if he stays, he’ll ruin the show.”

“What are you talking about? He was brilliant. His reviews are brilliant. Did you hear him on the phone with Colleen? I never saw anyone so happy.”

Mike nodded, “Maybe that’s what triggered it. I don’t know. Maybe he’s afraid of success. Too much guilt; doesn’t deserve it. Pick out any one of those you like. He said something was coming over him. He can always feel when it’s happening. Only this one is a bad one. This one’s a tornado, he said. He doesn’t want to hurt Maureen or you or me.”

It was still incomprehensible.

“What if we talk to him together tomorrow? With Maureen? All four of us between the matinee and evening show?”

“He’s not playing tomorrow. He’s leaving in the morning. He’s not coming back to the play.”

I called downstairs for room service and asked for a double brandy. Mike asked for a pot of coffee and chocolate ice cream.

“Ice cream? You’re going to eat ice cream now?”

“You mean if I don’t eat ice cream, maybe he’ll come back to the play?”

We hardly talked until room service arrived, thinking of ways out of this blinding tunnel. I suddenly realized this was only half our troubles. “If he quits, Maureen will quit. She won’t play with the understudy.”

“I know.”

“You know? You mean we close the show tonight? It could be the biggest hit of the year, and we’re going to close it in Boston while you’re eating ice cream?”

He shrugged. “Looks that way.”

It was madness. No, worse. What’s worse than madness? This was.

The phone rang. It was Joan. “Are you all right?”

“No. George wants to quit the show. No, George has already quit the show. I’ll call you back later.”

Mike suddenly had one of those “I have an idea” looks in his eyes. “Maureen might stay if we could find a first-rate replacement.”

“Oh, come on. George is the only first-rate replacement.”

“There are other actors in the world.”

“Like who?”

“Hal Holbrook. He’s a genius.”

“He’s way too young… What about Marty Balsam?”

“Yeah. Maybe… José Ferrer?”

“Why José Ferrer if you just said yeah, maybe to Marty Balsam?”

“Yeah, maybe isn’t good enough… Why does he have to have a name? What about an unknown?”

“Like who?”

“I don’t know. If he’s an unknown, how would I know him?”

“This is nuts. Christ! … What about Christ?”

“All right, now don’t laugh. What about Olivier?”

Laurence Olivier? He’s going to come to replace George C. Scott in Boston?”

“Maybe he’s not working. You never know until you ask him.”

“Well, why stop at Olivier? If we’re going to play fantasies, how about Brando? Or Henry Fonda? Maybe I could make it funnier and we could get Jack Benny and Rochester. Does Saint know about this yet?”

“I called him first. I think he’s under sedation.”

The sun was starting to come up, and I went back to my room to get a few hours of staring at the wall. Joan and I appeared backstage an hour before the matinee. Maureen had already been told that George was not playing today. She said very calmly, “If you want me onstage, you’ll have to go out and find a stagecoach and six horses to drag me on.” Mike talked to her alone. She did the matinee. When people heard that George Scott would not appear, they asked for refunds. I went out to watch the understudy playing with Maureen. I lasted ten minutes. The disappointed audience who remained found enough to enjoy in the show, but we’d never make it in New York without George. Joan took the afternoon plane to go back and deal with real life. Mike and I went to dinner and kept pitching names at each other.

“Jeff Chandler?”

“I think he’s dead.”

“What if we offered him more money?”

The insanity of all this led to a strange euphoria, as if we were on some drug called In Denial.

“What about Doris Day?”

“To replace Maureen?”

“No. To replace George. I know she’s wrong but she’s a big name. And at the curtain call she could sing ‘Que sera, sera.'”

Two and a half days passed. We began to start thinking seriously about postponing the show until next season. Only Mike had a new play to do next season, for which he’d probably get George Scott. We decided to go to the theater and see the show for what might be the last time. When we walked in the stage door, the stage manager said, “George is in his dressing room. He’s putting on his makeup.”

I looked at Mike. “What are you going to say now? Act one, scene one?”

Mike went in alone and stayed about twenty minutes. When he came out, he said, “He’s staying. He wants to do the show. Whatever he had to go through, it’s over.”

I suddenly thought to myself, it all came too easy. When George Scott came down from his office at Sardi’s East, threw the script on the table, and said, “I like it. Let’s do it,” I should have known something was wrong. When it comes that easy, somewhere along the line you’re going to pay for it.