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July 4: Happy Birthday Neil Simon and Tracy Letts

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Today our headliners will be best known to those who follow the theater—they are both winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—although each one has also adapted more than one of his plays for the screen.

Neil Simon celebrates his 90th birthday today.  He began his writing career working in television, and was one of the incredible array of writers working on Sid Caesar’s shows in the fifties, which also included previous birthday headliners Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.  He was a two-time Emmy nominee for Caesar’s Hour.

At the beginning of the sixties, Simon turned to playwriting.  His first play, Come Blow Your Horn, premiered on Broadway in 1961 and was quite successful.  He has won three Tony Awards, for the retired category of Best Author for The Odd Couple, and for Best Play for Biloxi Blues and Lost in Yonkers, the last of which also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  A few of his other notable plays include Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite, The Sunshine Boys, and Brighton Beach Memoirs.

Simon has also been a successful screenwriter.  He has done screenplays for many adaptations of his plays.  He has also written a number of original screenplays, including The Heartbreak Kid, Murder by Death, The Goodbye Girl, and more.  He has been nominated for four Oscars and won a Golden Globe for the screenplay for The Goodbye Girl.

Tracy Letts, who is turning 52 today, joined Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company at the age of 20, and also was a founder of the improv troupe Bang Bang Spontaneous Theatre.  His first play, Killer Joe, was first produced in 1993.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony for Best Play for August: Osage County, which became his first play to be performed on Broadway in 2007.  He is also an active stage actor, and won a Tony for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play as George in the 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Letts also has a film and television career.  He has had prominent roles in indie films such as last year’s Christine and Indignation, and was a regular on seasons 3 and 4 of Homeland.  He has also written the screenplays for the film adaptations of three of his plays, Killer Joe, Bug, and August: Osage County.

Eva Marie Saint, who turns 93 today, won Best Supporting Actress in her feature film debut in On the Waterfront, and was the heroine in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.  She was a five–time Emmy nominee during an extensive TV career, winning for the 1990 TV movie People Like UsGina Lollobrigida, a prominent international star of the fifties and sixties, is turning 90.  American audiences knew her from films like Beat the Devil, Trapeze, and Solomon and Sheba.  Later in her life she became a successful photojournalist and sculptor.

Jenny Seagrove, who is 60, is known to British television viewers for a number of prominent roles, especially for starring in the BBC series Judge John Deed.  She made a number of features in the 1980s, such as Local Hero, Nate and Hayes, and The Guardian, and her lengthy stage career includes playing Olive Madison in a West End production of The Female Odd Couple, a gender-flipped revision by Neil Simon of his Tony-winning play.  Spanish actress Victoria Abril celebrates her 58th.  She is an eight-time Goya Award nominee, winning Best Actress for the movie Nobody Will Speak of Us When We’re Dead, and has worked several times with Pedro Almodóvar, in films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

Becki Newton, who turns 39, played the regular role of Amanda Tanen on Ugly Betty and has had lead role on short-lived series like The Goodwin Games and a recurring role on How I Met Your MotherStephen Rannazzisi shares a birthday with Newton; he starred on FX’s The League as Kevin MacArthur.  German actor David Kross, who became known for playing the young Michael Berg in The Reader, turns 27.  He continues to work in both German and English language films.

Attorney turned TV journalist and talk show host Geraldo Rivera is turning 74.  He has been working in television for well over 40 years and still appears regularly on Fox News Channel.

Three-time Grammy winner Bill Withers turns 79.  The soul/R&B singer had big hits in the early seventies like “Lean on Me” and “Use Me,” and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Peter Rowan, who is turning 75, has been a major figure in bluegrass for over fifty years, one of the great experimenters in that form of music.  His latest studio album (I believe it’s his 48th), My Aloha!, incorporates traditional Hawaiian instruments.  Stephen Foster (1826-1864) was the first great American popular songwriter, sometimes called the “father of American music.”  Songs like “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and many others have been popular for the better part of two centuries.

Two of the most high-profile and controversial owners in modern professional sports shared a birthday.  George Steinbrenner (1930-2010) was the principal owner of the New York Yankees from 1973 until his death.  The Yankees won seven World Series titles during that time, but “The Boss” often drove everyone who worked with or for him crazy with his temper, his interfering style, and his free-spending ways.  Al Davis (1929-2011) was the principal owner of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders from 1972 until his death.  The Raiders won the Super Bowl three times under Davis’s ownership, but often the spotlight was on Davis’s frequent legal battles with the NFL.

Other sports birthdays include Alfredo Di Stéfano (1926-2014), one of the greatest footballers of all time.  He led Real Madrid to five consecutive victories in the European Cup from 1956-1960, but a variety of circumstances meant he never played in a World Cup.  Pam Shriver, who turns 55, was one of the top women’s tennis players in the world for nearly two decades beginning in 1978.  Although there were always a few singles players better than her around, she won an incredible 21 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles, several in partnership with Martina Navratilova.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was one of the first great American novelists.  Considered one of the “transcendentalists” in American literature, he is remembered for novels such as The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and especially The Scarlet LetterLionel Trilling (1905-1975) was a leading American literary critic, part of the “New York Intellectuals” movement of the thirties and forties who remained on the left but rejected Soviet communism.  He was the author of the novel The Middle of the Journey.

Esther Friedman (1918-2002) and Pauline Friedman (1918-2013) were identical twin sisters who became known to the world under different names.  In 1955, Esther took over the “Ask Ann Landers” advice column when its originator, Ruth Crowley, died.  She wrote it until her own death in 2002.  Pauline began her own advice column, “Dear Abby,” a year later in 1956, which she wrote until retiring in 2000, passing it on to her daughter Jeanne Phillips.

Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) was a stage actress famous on both the West End and Broadway.  She became the first English actress to headline an American musical, starring in the Gershwin Brothers’ Oh, Kay!  Her final role was Anna in the original Broadway production of The King and I, which brought her a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.  Gloria Stuart (1910-2010) was a prominent leading lady for Universal and Fox in the 1930s.  She later became famous for playing the elderly Rose Dawson Calvert in Titanic, receiving an Oscar nomination.

Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957) was one of the great “moguls” of the classic Hollywood studio system.  He was the “Mayer” in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and one of the studio’s founders in 1924.  Initially he focused on the business side, but after the 1936 death of Irving Thalberg, Mayer took over as head of production as well.  He became the first person in the US to earn a salary of $1 million in 1937.

Historical figures with birthdays today include Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), who became the 30th President of the US when Warren Harding died in office, won election in his own right in 1924, and had the good sense or luck not to run in 1928, avoiding being President at the start of the Great Depression.  Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) was one of the leading figures in the Risorgimento, the lengthy process of Italian reunification during the mid-19th Century.  Sir George Everest (1790-1866) was Surveyor General of India for over a decade in the 19th century; the world’s tallest mountain is named for him.  Meyer Lansky (1902-1983) was one of the leading figures in organized crime in the US for several decades, a major figure in the “Jewish Mob” that became interlinked with the Mafia.  He has been protrayed in film several times, including by Ben Kingsley in Bugsy, and was the model for Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part IIRon Kovic, the ex-Marine turned antiwar activist who told his story in the book Born on the Fourth of July, is turning 70 today.  Tom Cruise played Kovic in the film adaptation of his memoir.

If today is your birthday, congratulations on sharing your big day with these notable names.  Birthday wishes to everyone celebrating a big day today.  Come back tomorrow for more celebrity birthdays.

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Posted on July 4, 2017, in Celebrity Birthdays and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Neil Simon, I really like 1980’s “Seems like Old Times”, I just enjoy everything about that film really (especially the dinner sequence). I viewed it as a kid, and in seeing it later, my feelings never changed. I like “The sunshine boys” and “Biloxi Blues” as well.
    Geraldo Rivera, my lasting impression of him is when he did his talk show with a bandaged nose, while I also recall his unearthing of Al Capone’s vault, which ended up being a letdown.
    George Steinbrenner, I’m not a Yankees fan, but he obviously knew how to be profitable while fielding championship teams.
    Al Davis, I can believe Steinbrenner and him are born on the same day (Davis once said he wanted his Raiders teams to be a combination of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ speed & the Yankees power; for a long time he succeeded). like Steinbrenner, he’d pay the price for winner (just don’t holdout for more money on Mr. Davis, because in the doghouse you go), except Davis knew more about Pro Football players and strategy than typical owners (even today), since he was a scout and coach, not really a traditional owner by any means (he he he was called “General Partner”, emphasis on “General”). Davis was also an equal opportunity employer, hiring the first Hispanic (Tom Flores) and Black (Art Shell) head coaches, along with the first NFL team CEO (Amy Trask).
    Calvin Coolidge, yep, he’s the only American President born on the fourth of July.
    Louis B. Mayer, I don’t think one can tell the history of film without mention this guy.
    Mayer Lansky, I though he was a compelling underworld figure, more of a business man than a button man.
    Ron Kovic, I had a history professor in college who spoke of great length about him, and also recommended to any of us who haven’t seen “Born on the Fourth of July” to see it.
    Wow, I didn’t name one actor/actress here: that’s a first.

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    • Yes, it was kind of fitting for George Steinbrenner and Al Davis to share a birthday. There were some similarities between them, but one big difference was that Davis, who had over a decade of pro and college coaching experience, knew what he was doing when it came to evaluating players, coaches, etc., in a way that Steinbrenner didn’t.

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      • I agree, George Steinbrenner had the business/marketing/merchandising aspect of his sport down cold (whereas Al Davis believed the Raiders sold themselves, which in a way I believe they did), but the player acquisition side of it (Jay Buhner trade, acting flaky on Dave Winfield, which essentially got him banned for a spell, plenty other decisions…) he was much too impulsive at. The Yankees became great again when it appeared he was more hands-off.

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  2. I meant that Amy Trask was the first female NFL CEO.

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  3. A big day in the theater world. American theater, and film to a lesser degree, are richer because of the contributions of Neil Simon and Tracy Letts.

    Eva Marie Saint was one of the best of all of Hitchcock’s heroines, and starred in quite possibly the most entertaining film the director ever made.

    Jenny Seagrove I know from her presence in two films from 1983, Local Hero and Nate and Hayes. She was lovely, she had a very enchanting screen presence, but she never got that one role that could have made her a major star.

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