The $500,000 grants were announced Tuesday by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The money, paid quarterly over five years, comes with no strings, allowing winners unfettered freedom to pursue their creativity.
Simon's guilt stemmed from already being amply funded in an industry that's "a little bit recession-proof," he said. Still, the award's prestige will go far with network executives. While critically acclaimed, Simon's dissection of urban problems in "The Wire" and more recently "Treme" hasn't yet scored Emmys or high Nielsen ratings.
"It makes it easier to go into the room with the network and argue against doing the usual thing in television," Simon said. His next pitch? The history of the CIA since World War II and a housing desegregation fight in the New York town of Yonkers are two subjects inspiring him now. "Not all these things have the best possible commercial outlook," he said.
MacArthur winners don't need to tell anyone how they'll spend the grant money. There are no reporting requirements.
"We could spend it all on cake," joked theater director David Cromer, one of this year's recipients. Cromer, known for staging American classics like "Our Town," said he wasn't ready to discuss what he may attempt with the grant's support. But he has some non-cake ideas.
"It purchases you freedom," Cromer said. "I can do things now that aren't necessarily going to generate an income."
That's exactly what the foundation has in mind. Bob Gallucci, the foundation's president, called the grants "an investment in people who have already done extraordinary things." There have been 828 MacArthur Fellows, including this year's winners.
"We're hoping not only that they'll do extraordinary things in the future, but that this fellowship will make that somewhat more likely," Gallucci said.
Jason Moran, a jazz pianist and composer, said he was elated and that the grant would fuel many of the projects that have lain dormant in his mind.
"I have already begun making minor plans on band expeditions to Senegal to study Senegalese drumming, or bringing our music down to perform in rural parts of America, or to simply create new collaborations with artists in other fields, or begin a series of recordings made on the old format of Edison wax cylinders," he said. "It's all in play now."
None of the winners is from New Orleans, but the city exerts a strong pull on the 2010 grantees. Simon's newest HBO series "Treme" is about residents of post-Katrina New Orleans. Cromer recently revived Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," set in New Orleans, to great praise.
And Shannon Lee Dawdy, an anthropologist and archaeologist from the University of Chicago, has studied New Orleans since 1994. After Hurricane Katrina, she worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Louisiana to make sure recovery efforts respected the city's archaeological heritage.
She regrets she hasn't been able to save Holt Cemetery, a potter's field where homemade plot markers were washed away by the post-Katrina flooding.
"I would like to work with the local community to preserve living traditions and the site itself," Dawdy said, and the MacArthur grant may help. "It might mean that I'm able take things I've long wished to do, things in the 'wouldn't it be nice?' category, and make that actually happen magically."
Receiving word of the MacArthur was "like receiving a phone call from the Greek gods," Dawdy said, because "someone you can't see is pulling the strings of your fate."
Winners have no idea they've been nominated. Nominators are pledged to secrecy.
There's "nothing more fun" than informing the winners, Gallucci said. He broke the news to four grantees this year, he said, first making sure they weren't driving or holding a baby.
Subterfuge can be involved in the notification.
MacArthur winner Amir Abo-Shaeer, a public high school physics teacher in California, said he was expecting a call from a college student named Liz Brooks who was interested in his work when the foundation called to tell him about the grant.
There was no Liz Brooks. She was a creation of the foundation to get the busy teacher on the phone. "I am prepared to lie like a rug," admitted Gallucci, who notified Abo-Shaeer of the grant.
Abo-Shaeer, who left a job in industry to become a teacher, wants to train other educators about his innovative curriculum and the importance of recruiting and inspiring female students.
"Right now I teach full time. I can relieve my schedule to be a teacher trainer. If I have an idea that's exciting or interesting, I can try it," he said.
The MacArthurs have been nicknamed "genius grants," which can be problematic for winners.
Simon, the HBO producer, said his wife would like to thank the foundation for "five years of fresh material." The morning after she heard the news, Simon's wife, best-selling novelist Laura Lippman, told him, "Hey Genius, you forgot to take the trash out last night."