On Sunday, legendary playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon died at the age of 91. Here’s what I find interesting about his legacy: everyone seems to have his or her own distinct way into his work. When Orson Welles’ name is mentioned, it’s a good bet Citizen Kane is going to be brought up. But with Simon, as tribute after tribute went by on social media, there were so many different titles mentioned – and there also seemed to be warm nostalgia for someone’s first experience watching something Neil Simon wrote.
So, with that, I decided to write about my entryway into Neil Simon’s work because it’s a little more of an esoteric pick. And it’s a movie that completely benefits from the tendency of cable channels in the early 1980s to run a particular movie on a never-ending loop. (One particular joy from this era was the premium cable channel television guide. Remember these? Probably not. But they’d show up in the mail once a month, these little booklets, and with full-color photos show you all the brand new movies that you’d be able to watch over and over and over again without commercial interruption. And on one of these guides, there were the full-color photos of Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn on the cover with their 1980 film, Neil Simon’s Seems Like Old Times.
Seems Like Old Times was directed by Jay Sandrich, who directed episodes of pretty much every situation comedy that you’ve ever seen from the late 1970s until the early 2000s. Sandrich directed everything from episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show to The Golden Girls to The Office. (Sandrich is also the son of legendary director Mark Sandrich who directed Holiday Inn and numerous Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films.) With all his work in television, the only theatrical film in his credits is Seems Like Old Times.
“I do remember what an amazing human being Neil was,” says the now 86-year-old Sandrich after I tracked him down. “He was the most talented and fun person I ever worked with.”
Seems Like Old Times is one of those movies that’s ingrained in your head if you are a very specific age – namely, as mentioned above, a young child who watched a lot of cable television in the 1980s. And it came at a very interesting time for one of its co-stars, Chevy Chase. Chase had left Saturday Night Live in 1976 and his film career at that point wasn’t quite the success that people had predicted. In 1978 Chase and Hawn starred in another movie together, Foul Play – which received mixed reviews and made enough money at the box office that someone thought it was enough of a good idea to reteam Chase and Hawn two years later. Then in early 1980 came Oh! Heavenly Dog, in which Chase co-stars with Benji the dog and, let’s say, the reviews were not kind. In mid-1980 came Caddyshack. And, look, you know what Caddyshack is today, but it wasn’t considered anything close to a “hit” when it was released. And then came Seems Like Old Times, three years before Chase would have his breakout role as Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation.
In Seems Like Old Times, Chase plays Nick Gardenia, a man who is kidnapped and forced to rob a bank. With the police chasing him, he approaches his ex-wife, Glenda (Hawn), to help him out. The problem is Glenda is now married to Ira (Charles Grodin), the Los Angeles district attorney who wants to become the attorney general of California. Also, Ira hates Nick. This all sets up a mad dash of comedic timing scenes involving Nick hiding under a bed in Ira and Glenda’s guest room while Ira always just misses catching Nick. It culminates at a dinner thrown by Ira for the Governor of California who loves eating something called “chicken pepperoni.” (For the life of me I thought chicken pepperoni was fake because it’s mentioned in this movie like 20 times, but a quick Google search confirms there are real recipes for chicken pepperoni. I now want to try eating chicken pepperoni.) All the while Robert Guillaume is in this movie as Ira’s coworker at the DA’s office and gets all the best one-liners.
Nick is eventually cleared of his charges and he promises to leave Glenda and Ira in peace. Though, rewatching recently, the movie ends on kind of a strange note. Glenda and Ira agree they need a vacation and just decide to drive into the middle of nowhere. During a thunderstorm, Ira veers off the road to avoid a cow and crashes the car into a tree and breaks his leg. Glenda, looking for help, finds a nearby house and knocks on the door. The person living at the house is Nick and the last thing we see is Glenda with a big smile on her face. What does this imply? Is Glenda going to leave poor Ira in the car? Or is she just happy to see a familiar face who can help? Sadly, we will never know, but life is full of mysteries.
“Working with Chevy and Goldie was great fun and we all had a really good time,” says Sandrich when I ask him about working with Chase at that point in his career, adding that Chase and Hawn always looked like they legitimately liked working together. Hawn was Chase’s first guest on his ill-fated The Chevy Chase Show. It was a terrible interview that was mostly made up of inside jokes and “remember when we did this?” type moments. (You can watch it here but it’s probably best if you don’t.) But, we do get the sense that Hawn legitimately adores Chase and there are a couple of sweet moments.
Neil Simon is no longer with us, but we all have our own introductions to his work. And mine just happened to also be my introduction to Chevy Chase. True story, the first time I watched this movie I thought Chevy Chase was Neil Simon. You know, since Simon’s name was so prominent in the marketing materials in the monthly cable guide, then the star of the movie must be Neil Simon. It made sense at the time.
Sandrich told me he never returned to making theatrical films because he didn’t enjoy how long it took to make a movie. But, could Sandrich answer perhaps the most important question in regards Seems Like Old Times? “I don’t remember what chicken pepperoni is. Sorry.”
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