Neil Simon, His Press
Agent and the Kidney They Have in Common
By JOYCE WADLER
The press agent who gave Neil Simon a
kidney is at first reluctant to be interviewed. Bill Evans, boyish
looking at 54, is a press agent of the old school, trained in the
notion that the publicist's name stays out of the paper. He is a
fellow accustomed to keeping his emotions in control, who jokes that
Mr. Simon is now working on a play about growing up in a reserved WASP
household in Ohio. Jokes are fine. His kidney loves living on Park
Avenue, Mr. Evans will write in a note a few weeks after the surgery,
but it's really looking forward to Bel Air in a couple of months.
When it comes to discussing the
transplant, though, the talk of the town when Mr. Evans donated a kidney
to his most famous client two months ago, Mr. Evans thinks not. He is
concerned about what he calls "the glop factor." A story about how heroic,
how brave, how self-sacrificing? Oh, please.
Mr. Simon is at first not interested in
talking about it either. But the kidney transplant he had at the Rogosin
Institute in New York in March has given him his life back — and the
institute has asked him to help educate the public.
So, on a recent morning, the two men sat
in the office of Mr. Simon's New York apartment: Mr. Simon, 76, the
five-times-married, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright; and Mr. Evans, a
publicist with his own company who has represented all of Mr. Simon's
Broadway shows since 1976, as well as productions like "Private Lives" and
"Master Class." He was pulled to the city by theater — in particular, by
those smart, witty people in Stephen Sondheim's "Company." He also related
to the floundering hero in that show who has never been in a committed
relationship, for Mr. Evans was also floundering.
When Mr. Evans was a raw, beginning press
agent of 26, Mr. Simon's producer, Emanuel Azenberg, hired him for
"California Suite." Mr. Evans and Mr. Simon met for the first time in Los
Angeles. Mr. Evans, whose parents read aloud from Mr. Simon's early comedy
"Barefoot in the Park" with their friends, as others might play a board
game, was thrilled. He also remembered feeling instantly at ease with Mr.
Simon. The two men use the same words to describe each other: "low key"
and "smart." Mr. Simon was also impressed by the Colgate grad who was not
at all like the crude, pushy press agents in the movies, "with the cigar
and a hat flipped up."
They have worked together now for 28
For this interview, Mr. Simon wears a
sweater. Mr. Evans is dressed in a suit, like a kid ready for his school
picture. Both men look healthy. Patients who receive kidney transplants
must avoid crowds for the first two months, so Mr. Simon has been mostly
at home. There's a little kvetching about that.
"I've seen every baseball game, every
football game, every news show — after a while there's nothing to do," Mr.
Also, "Now it's the Yankees that are
making me sick."
Elaine Joyce, Mr. Simon's blond, trim
wife, has put out a welcoming tray of cookies, but Mr. Simon is focused on
his subject. Asked about kidney disease, he folds his arms protectively in
front of his body and dispatches the information as if on "Meet the
"I actually know very little about the
whole thing," Mr. Simon says. "I was told I had to have dialysis. They put
needles in you and rotate the blood in your body. No matter what they
explained to me, if it's told in medical terms, I don't understand it.
Whereas if I'm doing a play, I can do enormous research. Something more
important, like my body, I don't know because I don't know how to deal
Then, to a photographer seated at the
table who is about to pick up a camera: "Can you not move around, please?
It bothers me."
Ms. Joyce is the medical historian in
this marriage. She says that Mr. Simon had polycystic kidney disease,
which worsened dramatically in the early years of their marriage in the
1990's. By the fall of 2002, his kidneys could no longer function and he
For him, the procedure was difficult. He
suffered severe cramps and nausea. Vomiting spells came on so quickly that
he had to curtail going out. His memory deteriorated. Leaving the hospital
in Los Angeles after dark, he once missed a turn and could not remember
how to get home. Losing three work days a week to the treatment was, Mr.
Simon says, "a terrible blow."
"There were times I was able to do some
of the writing there, but your mind isn't clear enough to do what you want
to do," he says.
What was he working on? "I don't remember
what the play was," Mr. Simon says.
Mr. Evans steps in. " `Rose's Dilemma,' "
he says, referring to a show that received poor reviews when it opened
"Sometimes I work on two things, so I
don't remember," Mr. Simon says. "I realize something now: I liked the
play, I liked the writing, yet when we did it at the Manhattan Theater
Club, which is not really where I wanted to go with it, it didn't really
work. I realize now that my mind was working differently being on
There had been a well-publicized incident
during previews of the production. Mr. Simon's star, Mary Tyler Moore, was
performing with an earpiece (to hear the prompter). When Mr. Simon wrote a
note telling her to learn her lines or "get out of my play," and his wife
delivered it half an hour before a matinee, Ms. Moore quit the show.
Talking about that now, Mr. Simon says
that he "really loved" Ms. Moore and thought her work was "great." He
simply wanted her to learn the lines.
"I just wrote a note," he says. "I didn't
think it was a mean note, but then I wouldn't know what I was writing
about then. I felt badly about that and we lost a very good actress when
Does Mr. Simon remember what he wrote?
"Vaguely, vaguely. It had to do with not
using those earphones with the dialogue. And then I found out later on, a
lot of people have done that and I felt like a fool."
It was known in the theater community
that Mr. Simon had health problems. Still, Mr. Azenberg, the producer, was
shocked when he saw him around this time. "There was an aspect of him that
was nobody I knew," Mr. Azenberg says. "He was exhausted, distracted. The
memory wasn't there. You felt that he's not going to make it, that he was
deteriorating. He couldn't remember names, but really serious names. We
would talk about who was in the cast of `The Odd Couple' — he wouldn't
Mr. Simon had started thinking of
transplant surgery. Doctors at the Rogosin Institute, which is affiliated
with New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Medical College of Cornell
University, had said his age would not be a problem. Getting a kidney from
a living donor, which offers the highest success rate, was, however. Mr.
Simon's younger daughter, Nancy, had offered to donate, but because she is
a mother, she and her husband decided against it. Meanwhile, Mr. Simon's
doctors told him he might have to increase his time on the dialysis
machine. That, Mr. Simon says, would have been unbearable.
"I didn't want to live my life anymore,"
Mr. Simon says.
Enter Mr. Evans. He lives in New York
with his longtime partner, Chuck Fischer, an artist and designer. Mr.
Simon lives primarily in Los Angeles. So, much of their relationship is
over the phone, but they are close. There is also the bond of doing 19
shows together, the opening nights when Mr. Evans would determine that
everyone who should be there was there and tell the general manager it was
time to take the curtain up. Then he would stand with Mr. Azenberg and Mr.
Simon at the back of the house. Mr. Evans still remembers a night at the
Ahmanson, a large theater in Los Angeles, when Barbara Barrie delivered a
big line and "it smacked through that audience like a tidal wave," he
says, "kind of bouncing off the walls and bouncing back." He adds, "It's
amazing when somebody has the ability to communicate like that."
For Mr. Simon, those openings are "like
going through the fire."
"You're always looking for someone to
help the show, protect the show," he says.
It was natural, then, that Mr. Simon and
Mr. Evans would discuss Mr. Simon's need for a kidney.
"We were talking about it," Mr. Simon
says. "I said, `I just need to get a kidney somewhere.' Bill said, `Well,
I'll give you one.' I said, `You would?' He said, `Let me think about it.'
He wanted to call Chuck. And he called me the next day and said he would."
"It was like, matter of fact, calm, `I
can do it,' " Mr. Simon says. "I was shocked. I thought, then, how ideal
he was. There were no children, and if the match was right, and he was
younger than me, he makes me younger."
Did Mr. Simon try to talk him out of it?
"No, I was too needy. I was overwhelmed."
Explaining why he offered a kidney, in a
discussion at which Mr. Simon is not present, Mr. Evans gets perilously
close to the glop factor, which he keeps fretting about. "I don't think
this should be in the paper," he says. "It's so sappy." Then the
explanation: Mr. Simon is like family to him and his parents raised him to
believe that if a loved one is in trouble, you show up. When Mr. Evans had
some personal problems, Mr. Simon was there for him. Mr. Evans spent much
of his life just sort of falling into things. This is a decision he makes.
He researched it and found you can lead a perfectly normal life with one
In the discussion with Mr. Simon present,
Mr. Evans's tone is more restrained.
His mother, sister, brother and partner
are "completely supportive," he says. "They realized it is a family. It
wasn't like this was somebody they were not very acquainted with; it's
someone who has been crucial in my life."
Mr. Simon speaks: "The doctor had told me
the donor gets, I don't want to use the word `thrill,' but the donor gets
more out of it than you do in a way. In a sense, they're saving a life.
I'm getting the life."
The surgery was done by a Rogosin
Institute Transplantation Center team at New York-Presbyterian
Hospital/Cornell. Mr. Evans and Mr. Simon and their partners waited
together in pre-op and Mr. Evans noticed that when Mr. Simon suddenly
threw up, Ms. Joyce grabbed a wastebasket without batting an eye. Then Mr.
Evans and Mr. Simon were taken to adjoining operating rooms.
"That was my biggest fear, that it would
drop," Mr. Simon says. " `All right, we'll get another one. Chuck? Ready?'
The surgery was performed on a Tuesday.
That weekend, Mr. Evans was home with Mr. Fischer, walking the dog around
the block — "the slowest walk she's ever had," Mr. Evans said. The
procedure is more painful for the donor than the recipient, doctors say.
But Mr. Evans, asked about that, recalls nothing memorable.
Mr. Simon and Mr. Evans intended to keep
the surgery private, but word got out. So many flowers arrived at Mr.
Evans's apartment that his partner had to bring them up in a luggage cart.
"Get rid of them," Mr. Evans remembers
saying. "It's too much!"
The reaction from people he knows was
overwhelming, Mr. Evans says later. But there is something else. He was
unprepared for the intensity of his own emotions. Still, this is what he
thinks it is all about: he is a gay man — if things had been different
when he was a younger man, he might have adopted children; in those days,
though, that wasn't done. Friends who have had children have said it
changed them, and now he understands. Giving a kidney is as close as he
will come to giving life.
Another discussion, this one on the
phone, with Mr. Simon. In his 1996 memoir, "Rewrites," he wrote that it
has always been difficult for him to call a friend and ask for a favor. If
Mr. Evans had not made the offer, would he have been able to ask?
"No," Mr. Simon says.