Award Winning Playwright Neil Simon Dies At 91

Iconic Broadway legend Neil Simon, who was responsible for hits such as "The Odd Couple, has died at the age of 91.

Neil Simon, an iconic American playwright who authored several classic Broadway classics, including The Odd Couplehas died at the age of 91:,

Neil Simon, the playwright whose name was synonymous with Broadway comedy and commercial success in the theater for decades, and who helped redefine popular American humor with an emphasis on the frictions of urban living and the agonizing conflicts of family intimacy, died on Sunday. He was 91.

His death was announced by his publicist, Bill Evans.

Early in his career, Mr. Simon wrote funny for television greats, including Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar. Later he wrote funny for the movies, too. But it was as a playwright that he earned his lasting fame, with a long series of expertly tooled laugh machines that kept his name on Broadway marquees virtually nonstop throughout the late 1960s and ’70s.

Beginning with the breakthrough hits “Barefoot in the Park” (1963) and “The Odd Couple” (1965) and continuing with popular successes like “Plaza Suite” (1968), “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971) and “The Sunshine Boys” (1974), Mr. Simon ruled Broadway when Broadway was still worth ruling.

From 1965 to 1980, plays and musicals written by Mr. Simon racked up more than 9,000 performances, a record not even remotely touched by any other playwright of the era. In 1966 alone, he had four Broadway shows running simultaneously.

He also owned a Broadway theater for a spell in the 1960s, the Eugene O’Neill, and in 1983 had a different Broadway theater named after him, a rare accolade for a living playwright.

For all their popularity with audiences, Mr. Simon’s great successes in the first years of his fame rarely earned wide critical acclaim, and Broadway revivals of “The Odd Couple” in 2005 and “Barefoot in the Park” in 2006 did little to change the general view that his early work was most notable for its surefire conceits and snappy punch lines. In the introduction to one of his play collections, Mr. Simon quoted the critic Clive Barnes as once writing, “Neil Simon is destined to remain rich, successful and underrated.”

But he gained a firmer purchase on critical respect in the 1980s with his darker-hued semi-autobiographical trilogy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1983), “Biloxi Blues” (1985) and “Broadway Bound” (1986), comedy-dramas that were admired for the way they explored the tangle of love, anger and desperation that bound together — and drove apart — a Jewish working-class family, as viewed from the perspective of the youngest son, a restless wisecracker with an eye on showbiz fame.

“The writer at last begins to examine himself honestly, without compromises,” Frank Rich wrote of “Biloxi Blues” in The New York Times, “and the result is his most persuasively serious effort to date — not to mention his funniest play since the golden age” of his first decade.

In 1991, Mr. Simon won a Tony Award as well as the ultimate American playwriting award, the Pulitzer Prize, for “Lost in Yonkers,” another autobiographical comedy, this one about a fiercely withholding mother and her emotionally and intellectually underdeveloped daughter. It was also his last major success on Broadway.

Mr. Simon and Woody Allen, who both worked in the 1950s writing for Mr. Caesar (along with Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, among others), were probably equally significant in shaping the currents of American comedy in the 1960s and ’70s, although their styles, their favored mediums and the critical reception of their work diverged mightily.

Mr. Simon was the populist whose accessible, joke-packed plays about the anxieties of everyday characters could tickle funny bones in theaters across the country as well as in 1,200-seat Broadway houses. Mr. Allen was the darling of the urban art-house cinema and the critical classes who created comedy from the minutiae of his own angst.

But together they helped make the comedy of urban neurosis — distinctly Jewish-inflected — as American as the homespun humor of “Leave It to Beaver.” Mr. Simon’s early plays, often centered on an antagonistic couple of one kind or another wielding cutting one-liners in a New York apartment, helped set the template for the explosion of sitcoms on network television in the 1970s. (The long-running television show based on his “Odd Couple” was one of the best, although a bum business deal meant that Mr. Simon earned little money from it.)

A line can be drawn between the taut plot threads of Mr. Simon’s early comedies — a slob and a neatnik form an irascible all-male marriage in “The Odd Couple,” newlyweds bicker in a new apartment in “Barefoot in the Park,” a laid-off fellow has a meltdown in “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” — and the “nothing”-inspired, kvetching-character-based comedy of the seminal 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld.”

(…)

Born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, Marvin Neil Simon was the son of a garment industry salesman, Irving Simon, who abandoned the family more than once during his childhood, leaving Mr. Simon’s mother, May, to take care of Mr. Simon and his older brother, Danny. When the family was intact, the mood was darkened by constant battles between the parents.

The tensions of the family, which moved to Washington Heights when Mr. Simon was 5, would find their way into many of his plays, notably the late trilogy but also the early comedies, including his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn” (1961), about a young man leaving home to join his older brother, a bachelor and ladies’ man. And when the family finally broke up for good, the young Mr. Simon went to live with cousins while his brother was sent to live with an aunt, circumstances reflected in “Lost in Yonkers.”

“When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled,” Mr. Simon wrote in “Rewrites.” “It was a sign of approval, of being accepted. Coming as I did from a childhood where laughter in the house meant security, but was seldom heard as often as a door slamming every time my father took another year’s absence from us, the laughter that came my way in the theater was nourishment.”

Danny Simon, older by eight years, was the signal influence on Neil’s career. “The fact is, I probably never would have been a writer if it were not for Danny,” Mr. Simon wrote.

Mr. Simon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and attended New York University as an enlistee in the Army Air Forces Air Reserve training program. He continued his studies at the University of Denver while assigned to a base nearby. (His military experience inspired the second play in his late trilogy, “Biloxi Blues.”)

At that time, Danny had begun working in publicity at Warner Bros. in New York. Neil joined him there as a clerk after his discharge from the Air Force. Together they began writing television and radio scripts, eventually making $1,600 a week providing gags and sketches for Mr. Silvers, Jerry Lester, Jackie Gleason and Mr. Caesar on “Your Show of Shows” and later “Caesar’s Hour.”

(…)

Most recently, in the fall of 2009, Mr. Simon expressed surprise and dismay at the quick closing of a much-anticipated Broadway revival of his “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” It was intended to run in repertory with “Broadway Bound” but closed in a week when it received mixed reviews. “I’m dumbfounded,” he said. “After all these years, I still don’t get how Broadway works or what to make of our culture.”

It was a poignant comment from the man who more or less defined Broadway achievement for a couple of decades. But while quick flops were relatively rare in his career, Mr. Simon always fought to gain critical respect. Although he was nominated for 17 Tony Awards, he won just three: for playwright of “The Odd Couple” (best play went to Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season”; there were separate awards for play and playwright) and twice for best play, for “Biloxi Blues” and “Lost in Yonkers.”

“I know how the public sees me, because people are always coming up to me and saying, ‘Thanks for the good times,'” Mr. Simon told The Times in 1991. “But all the success has demeaned me in a way. Critically, the thinking seems to be that if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good.”

Looking back, Mr. Simon wrote with a still starry-eyed joy of his decision to embark on a playwriting career: “For a man who wants to be his own master, to depend on no one else, to make life conform to his own visions rather than to follow the blueprints of others, playwriting is the perfect occupation. To sit in a room alone for six or seven or 10 hours, sharing the time with characters that you created, is sheer heaven.

“And if not heaven,” the master craftsman of the well-timed joke added, “it’s at least an escape from hell.”

More from Variety:

Neil Simon, one of the rare late-20th century playwrights who was a brand name for plays such as “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park,” died Sunday. He was 91.

A statement from his reps said, “Neil Simon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, died last night at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. The cause was complications from pneumonia.”

“His wife, Elaine Joyce Simon, was at his bedside along with Mr. Simon’s daughters, Ellen Simon and Nancy Simon.”

Beginning in the 1960s, Simon could guarantee good Broadway advance sales, a rare feat for a writer. He had more than 30 plays mounted on Broadway, including four that ran simultaneously in 1966: “Sweet Charity,” “The Star-Spangled Girl,” “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park.”

He also wrote numerous screenplays, some of them originals, some adaptations of his stage work. But he was best known as a playwright, both for his long string of Gotham shows as well as countless productions by regional and amateur theater companies, which helped him become the most-performed playwright of his era.

At a time when the legitimate theater was in decline and devoted American playwrights an endangered species, Simon stood head and shoulders above the rest. His early comedic successes, such as “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park,” were both critically well received and financially successful, and even his naysayers, who accused him of being glib and formulaic, could not deny his craftsmanship and the sheer volume of his output.

Simon once said that he was a disciplined writer, sitting at a typewriter for eight hours and constantly banging on the keys even if he was writing gibberish, because he needed the regularity of constantly writing.

After decades of writing comedies, he began to win more awards with his more introspective and autobiographical plays, exploring his working-class upbringing in such comedy-dramas as “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and the Tony and Pulitzer winner “Lost in Yonkers.”

Simon never much wandered from his roots. And even when his plays were geographically distant from his New York-Jewish background, the sensibility remained in the approach to comedy and the characters that inhabited his pieces. A Neil Simon comedy was as identifiable as the work of any other major American playwright, whether O’Neill, Williams or Philip Barry.

In addition to his screen adaptations of plays, he wrote original motion picture scripts including “The Goodbye Girl,” the 1972 “The Heartbreak Kid” (adapted from Bruce Jay Friedman’s story) and 1976’s “Murder by Death.” But he maintained a fervor and enthusiasm for the theater that made him unique in the era of television and film.

Simon got his start in TV, as one of the writers on “Your Show of Shows,” the landmark comedic variety show of the 1950s that starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. His colleagues included Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks.

Like George M. Cohan, whose landmark statue unites the Broadway theater district, Marvin Neil Simon was born on the Fourth of July, in the Bronx. He was dubbed Doc as a young boy — he had a habit of imitating the family doctor — and it stuck, long after people forgot his original first name, Marvin.

 

He and older brother Danny first began writing comedy skits when Doc was only 15. After a stint in the Army, he and Danny were reunited at Warner Bros. Danny was working in publicity and his brother in the mailroom. Simon got his BA from NYU in 1946.

Their work impressed CBS producer Goodman Ace, and he hired them to script a radio show for Robert Q. Lewis. After writing material for Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Jerry Lester, Simon landed on “Your Show of Shows” as well as Phil Silvers’ shows, including the weekly comedy “Sgt. Bilko.” Simon also wrote material for Tallulah Bankhead’s 1951 show and “The Garry Moore Show.”

Tiring of the sausage factory atmosphere of collaborative TV writing, Simon struck out on his own after writing and rewriting the play “Come Blow Your Horn” about 15 times. It landed on Broadway and became his first success in 1961, earning him $1,000 a week and freedom from television.

Simon then penned the book for the Sid Caesar-starring musical “Little Me” in 1962, followed by his first major success, “Barefoot in the Park,” in 1963. The comedy became one of Broadway’s longest-running legitimate plays, with 1,532 performances, and a smash film in 1967. His next comedy, 1965’s “The Odd Couple,” would top even that success, especially as a film and a long-running TV sitcom (though Simon had no connection to the TV series); the play was revived on Broadway in 1985 with a gender switch and again in 2005. Key to Simon’s early successes was his director, Mike Nichols.

His output during the 1960s included two musical librettos, “Sweet Charity” and “Promises, Promises,” based on Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” and Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” respectively. “The Star-Spangled Girl” was an attempt to break from his roots. “Plaza Suite” was a bigger hit, a trio of one-acts set in the Plaza Hotel. He would return to the format for “California Suite” and “London Suite.”

His 1969 comedy hit “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” about a man and the women in his life, would also set the format for 1990’s “Jake’s Women,” a play that failed to make it to Broadway. “The Gingerbread Lady” (1970) was his first attempt at more serious dramatic fare, and with less spectacular results. In the early ’70s he sought to emulate Chekov with “The Good Doctor,” and he wrote a biblical parable, “God’s Favorite.”

Audiences clamored for his more commercial fare such as “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” “California Suite” and “The Sunshine Boys.” “Sunshine Boys,” which was an even bigger success onscreen, was written while his wife of 20 years, Joan, was dying of cancer. She was the mother of his daughters Ellen and Nancy, and the emotional devastation of that life passage and his rapid turnaround marriage to actress Marsha Mason formed the basis of his first serious-minded success, “Chapter Two,” in 1977.

Even before he began adapting his plays to the screen, Simon had written the feature comedy “After the Fox” in 1966. His first original bigscreen comedy to become a hit was “The Out-of-Towners,” which starred Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis.

The detective spoof “Murder by Death” followed, and his 1977 “The Goodbye Girl” won an Oscar for Richard Dreyfuss and brought wife Mason a nomination.

Simon’s screen career was fostered by producer Ray Stark, who shepherded many of the playwright’s stage comedies and original works to the screen.

Simon had won a Tony for “The Odd Couple” in 1965, several of his plays and musicals had been Tony nominated, and he was worth more than $10 million, but the ease of his popular appeal worked against him critically. The turnaround began with “Brighton Beach Memoirs” in 1983. The autobiographical drama of his adolescence brought Simon his first taste of serious acclaim. It was followed by the more comedic but equally pungent “Biloxi Blues,” a coming-of age-comedy about his uneventful Army days. Like “Brighton Beach,” it starred Matthew Broderick as Eugene, Simon’s alter ego. And it won Simon another Tony for best play in 1985. The trilogy was completed with “Broadway Bound,” about his early career in the theater.

In 1991 his play “Lost in Yonkers,” another serio-comedy, brought him his highest accolade — a Pulitzer Prize for drama — as well as a third Tony award.

After the film version of “Biloxi Blues,” his movies failed to ignite. Similarly, such plays as “Jake’s Women” were a miss, and “Rumors” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” about his TV comedy writing days, falled to catch on.

But by then Simon was the most popular and frequently performed playwright of his day. His 1997 autobiography “The Play Goes On: A Memoir” was a success.

One of Simon’s best-known works, of course, was The Odd Couple, which started out as an award-winning Broadway play that premiered in 1965 and starred Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison and Art Carney as Felix Unger, was adapted into a film that came out in 1968 starring Matthau in his Broadway role and Jack Lemon in place of Carney in the role of Felix Unger, and a television series that premiered in 1970 and ran for five seasons starring Tony Randall as Unger and Jack Klugman as Madison. The play was also revived for Broadway on several occasions and rebooted for a short-run television series in 2015 as well as a sequel to the movie that was released in 1998 in which Matthau and Lemon reprised their roles. Several other Simon plays made it to the big screen, but none of them achieved the cultural success that The Odd Couple did. Nonetheless, from the 1960s through the 1990s, and then stretching into the 21st Century with several revival productions, there are few people who have been as prolific in theater than Neil Simon was, and few who can claim the successes he earned during his career.

No doubt, the lights on Broadway will be dimmed tonight. However this is a loss not just to Broadway, but to American culture as a whole.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Obituaries, Popular Culture, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Slugger says:

    “Kings for such a tomb would wish to die”
    I must have been the only Yiddish speaker in the theatre, and when Walter Matthau called George Burns a putz in “The Sunshine Boys” I broke up with laughter to find that I was the only one laughing. Simon was well served by the actors who fleshed out his characters; they include Matthau, Jack Lemon, and many others.

  2. Kylopod says:

    @Slugger: You’re really a Yiddish speaker? Like fluent? Damn, I hardly meet any of those these days, outside of the Hasidic enclaves in Brooklyn. (That said, I’m surprised no one recognized the word putz, as that’s a fairly well-known term in American English, though it may depend on which part of the country you’re from.) Both of my grandfathers spoke Yiddish (I once heard them carry on a conversation in the language over the phone), though I was relatively cut off from the language growing up, beyond hearing the usual stew of expressions like vey is meer, bubbe meise and the like. Still, I have enough familiarity with the language that I’ve occasionally found myself questioning the subtitles in movies ranging from Hester Street to A Serious Man.

    Anyway, I was a big fan of Simon. I never saw any of his plays on stage (I’m not much of a stage-goer), but I’ve seen plenty of his films.

  3. Slugger says:

    @Kylopod: Probably a generational thing. My parents spoke Yiddish at home. I don’t get much practice these days.

  4. Kylopod says:

    @Slugger: It was partly generational, but my family was a little more cut off from Yiddish than usual for Ashkenazi Jews of their generation. My maternal grandparents were from Poland, and while my grandfather’s first language was Yiddish, my grandmother was apparently among a minority of Polish Jews who grew up speaking Polish, not Yiddish. So Polish was the main language that my mother’s family spoke, and while my grandfather could speak Yiddish, I didn’t often hear him speak it.

    My father’s parents, on the other hand, were American-born Jews. While my grandmother was somewhat involved in her temple, my grandfather was very secular, and I never really heard him talk about anything Jewish until he got very old, when he started reminiscing a lot, singing old Jewish songs and the like. It was around that time that I heard him in the aforementioned phone conversation with my other grandfather. It took me aback, because I had totally forgotten he spoke the language. But it had been the language he had used at home with his Ukrainian-born father.

    It’s not easy to find resources for learning Yiddish, because so few people speak it anymore. Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone don’t offer it. Hasidim are basically the only people left in the world who use it as a primary language.

    When I went back and watched some of the old Three Stooges’ shorts I’d seen as a kid, I was struck by how much Yiddish they used. They threw in a lot of Yiddish words and expressions, and they (Larry especially) would start speaking at length in it whenever they were pretending to be any sort of foreign character (similar to what Sacha Baron Cohen does today with Hebrew). At that point Yiddish hadn’t penetrated American culture yet, so it was sort of like their own private inside jokes.

  5. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Kylopod: I never knew the Stooges were subtle, I’ll have to do a binge watch over Labor Day to try and find the bits; purely as an intellectual pursuit of course.

  6. Kylopod says:

    @Mr. Prosser: Who said anything about subtle? I just said they used a lot of Yiddish in their routines, and since most American audiences at the time wouldn’t have understood any of it, it was like their own private inside jokes (or at least stuff only other Jews would understand).

    While my own Yiddish isn’t good enough to confirm this, I’ve read that some of what they said included some fairly risque dialogue that would never have passed the Hays Commission had it been in English.

  7. Mr. Prosser says:

    @Kylopod: Sorry, I used the wrong word I guess.