NEW YORK — Playwright Neil Simon, a master of comedy whose laugh-filled hits such as “The Odd Couple,” “Barefoot in the Park” and his “Brighton Beach” trilogy dominated Broadway for decades, has died. He was 91.
Simon died early Sunday of complications from pneumonia at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, said Bill Evans, a longtime friend and spokesman for Shubert Organization theaters.
In the second half of the 20th century, Simon was the American theater’s most successful and prolific playwright, often chronicling middle class issues and fears. Starting with “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1961 and continuing into the next century, he rarely stopped working on a new play or musical.
Simon’s stage successes included “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “Plaza Suite,” “Chapter Two,” “Sweet Charity” and “Promises, Promises.” But there were other plays and musicals, too — more than 30 in all.
For seven months in 1967, he had four productions running at the same time on Broadway: “Barefoot in the Park”; “The Odd Couple”; “Sweet Charity”; and “The Star-Spangled Girl.”
Simon was the recipient of four Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the Kennedy Center honors (1995), four Writers Guild of America Awards and an American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement honor. In 1983, he had a Broadway theater named after him, and in 2006, he won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
The bespectacled, mild-looking Simon was a relentless writer — and rewriter. In the introduction to one of the many anthologies of his plays, he wrote: “I am most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on the paper in the Smith-Corona will be the first perfect play ever written in a single draft.”
He was a meticulous joke smith, peppering his plays, especially the early ones, with comic one-liners and humorous situations that critics said sometimes came at the expense of character and believability. But for much of his career, audiences embraced his work, which often focused on middle-class, urban life. Many of the plots were drawn from his own personal experience.
“I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world,” he told The Paris Review in 1992.
Simon’s own life figured most prominently in what became known as his “Brighton Beach” trilogy — “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” — which many consider his finest works. In them, Simon’s alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome, makes his way from childhood to the U.S. Army to finally, on the verge of adulthood, a budding career as a writer.
Simon was a Depression-era child who was raised mostly by his strong-willed mother, Mamie, and mentored by his older brother, Danny, who nicknamed his younger sibling Doc. After serving in the military in 1945 and 1946, he began writing with his brother for radio and then for television, a period in their lives chronicled in Simon’s 1993 play, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.”
The brothers wrote for such classic 1950s TV series as “Your Show of Shows,” and later for “The Phil Silvers Show,” in which the popular comedian portrayed the conniving Army Sgt. Ernie Bilko.
Yet Simon grew dissatisfied with television writing and the network restrictions that accompanied it. Out of his frustration came “Come Blow Your Horn,” about two brothers (not unlike Danny and Neil Simon) trying to figure out what to do with their lives.
It was his second play, “Barefoot in the Park,” that really put Simon on the map. Critically well-received, the 1963 comedy, directed by Mike Nichols, concerned the tribulations of a pair of newlyweds, played by Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford, who lived on the top floor of a New York brownstone.
Simon cemented that success two years later with “The Odd Couple,” a comedy about bickering roommates: Oscar, a gruff, slovenly sportswriter, and Felix, a neat, fussy photographer. Walter Matthau, as Oscar, and Art Carney, as Felix, starred on Broadway. Matthau and Jack Lemmon played the roles in a successful movie version. Jack Klugman and Tony Randall appeared in the TV series, which ran on ABC from 1970-1975. A female stage version was done on Broadway in 1985, and it was revived again as a TV series from 2015-17, starring Matthew Perry.
The play remains one of Simon’s most durable and popular works. Nathan Lane as Oscar and Matthew Broderick as Felix starred in a revival that was one of the biggest hits of the 2005-2006 Broadway season.
Many of his plays were turned into films as well. Besides “The Odd Couple,” he wrote the screenplays for movie versions of “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and more.
Simon also wrote original screenplays, the best known being “The Goodbye Girl,” starring Richard Dreyfuss as a struggling actor, and “The Heartbreak Kid,” which featured Charles Grodin as a recently married man, lusting to drop his new wife for a blonde goddess played by Cybill Shepherd.
Simon was married five times, twice to the same woman. He is survived by his fourth wife, actress Elaine Joyce; two daughters, Ellen and Nancy; three grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits