Neil Simon, the legendary comedic playwright whose beloved hits include “The Odd Couple,” “Barefoot in the Park” and “Sweet Charity,” has died at 91.
The writer died early Sunday of complications from pneumonia at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, where he was surrounded by his family, said his longtime friend Bill Evans, director of media relations for the Shubert Organization.
Neil Simon’s place in the dramatic canon never rivaled that of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee or August Wilson, to name a few 20th-century icons who died before him. But Simon proved more consistently popular with mass audiences by channeling the neuroses of a certain milieu (often middle class, city-dwelling) into one clever, accessible comedy after the next.
He was, for a long stretch, the American people’s playwright.
Simon’s Broadway productions included cherished plays such as “The Sunshine Boys” and the musicals “They’re Playing Our Song” and “Promises, Promises.”
In the 1980s, Simon enjoyed a career revival, and increased critical acclaim, with his semi-autobiographical “Eugene trilogy,” consisting of three plays focusing on a young man who grew up in New York City: “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.” “Lost in Yonkers,” another coming-of-age tale, earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1991.
As word spread of his death, the theater world collectively mourned. Josh Gad called Simon “one of the primary influences on my life and career.” Harvey Fierstein hailed him as a wordsmith who “could write a joke that would make you laugh, define the character, the situation, and even the world’s problems.”
Many of Simon’s works were adapted for the screen as feature films (he was a four-time Oscar nominee) and TV movies. He also wrote original screenplays, including the smash hit “The Goodbye Girl,” which earned him a Golden Globe Award in 1978. He collected the first of four Tony Awards (including a special one for contributions to the theater, in 1975) in 1965, for “Odd Couple,” which also became a hit TV series in the 1970s.
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Television had actually been Simon’s launching pad. In the 1950s, he worked for “The Phil Silvers Show” and for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” where his colleagues included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen, three other Jewish, New York-bred writers who would weave their sensibilities indelibly into the wider fabric of American humor.
His success in theater and film found Simon collaborating with, and nurturing, some of the greatest comedic actors of the past century. “The Odd Couple” alone was a vehicle for performers ranging from Art Carney and Walter Matthau, who respectively introduced the fussy Felix Ungar and slovenly Oscar Madison on Broadway, to Jack Lemmon, who joined Matthau for the 1968 film version, to Matthew Broderick (who got a huge boost early in his career with Simon’s plays “Brighton” and “Biloxi”) and Nathan Lane, stars of the most recent Broadway revival, in 2005.
As for the notion that Simon was a relative lightweight creatively, the writer had an estimable defender in the venerated theater critic and playwright Walter Kerr, who observed that “Americans have always tended to underrate writers who make them laugh” and that Simon’s “best comedies contain not only a host of funny lines but numerous memorable characters and an incisively dramatized set of beliefs that are not without merit. Simon is, in fact, one of the finest writers of comedy in American literary history.”
Awarding Simon the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995, President Bill Clinton added that, more simply, Simon “challenges us and himself never to take ourselves too seriously.”
That was a philosophy Simon endorsed in life as well. “I love living,” he once said. “I have some problems with my life, but living is the best thing they’ve come up with so far.”
Contributing: The Associated Press