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Famed playwright Neil Simon dead at 91

By Charles Isherwood

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.”

Mr. Allen and Mr. Simon, who shared roots in the urban Jewish lower middle classes, were also united by the classic funnyman’s ability to inspire belly laughs by the millions in other people while managing to find the dark clouds hovering insistently over their own fates, however apparently successful they might seem.

Mr. Simon once wrote of approaching Mr. Allen in a restaurant when both men were at the height of their success, to offer congratulations on Mr. Allen’s “Manhattan.” How was he feeling? “Oh, all right,” Mr. Allen answered. Mr. Simon wrote, “When I saw his dour expression, I saw my own reflected agony.” This, when Mr. Simon himself had two hit shows on Broadway, another play ready for rehearsals and two movies set for production. (Plus an ulcer, of course.)

Agony is at the root of comedy, and for Mr. Simon it was the agony of an unhappy Depression childhood that inspired much of his finest work. And it was the agony of living in Los Angeles that drove his determination to break free from the grind of cranking out jokes for Jerry Lewis on television and make his own name. As he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Rewrites” (the first of two volumes), the plush comforts of Hollywood living might extend your life span, but “the catch was when you eventually did die, it surely wouldn’t be from laughing.”

Family tension

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.”

“It was a real learning process,” Mr. Simon said of his days among the Caesarians, a group that has become a television legend and inspired Mr. Simon’s 1993 comedy “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” starring Nathan Lane. “We were exhausted,” he said, adding, “On Monday, you would come in knowing you had six new skits to do.”

The Simon brothers also wrote weekly revues for Camp Tamiment, the summer resort in the Poconos. It was there that Neil Simon fell in love with Joan Baim, a dancer and counselor. By the end of the summer, they were married.

A Broadway name

“Come Blow Your Horn,” the play Mr. Simon wrote to escape the slavery of gag writing for television comics, ran for 677 performances and gained him connections and notice. But it was with “Barefoot in the Park,” a comedy inspired by his and his young wife’s experiences living in a fifth-floor walk-up in Greenwich Village, that Mr. Simon became a Broadway name.

It was the first Broadway show directed by Mike Nichols, then best known for his comedy work with Elaine May.

Mr. Nichols would go on to become one of Mr. Simon’s most frequent collaborators. Mr. Nichols won his first Tony Award for directing “The Odd Couple.” He also directed “Plaza Suite,” with George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton, and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” with Peter Falk and Lee Grant. Mr. Nichols died in 2014.

“Barefoot in the Park” made a star of Robert Redford, who was cast alongside Elizabeth Ashley. It played for close to four years and made a hot commodity of Mr. Simon in Hollywood.

The movie, with a screenplay by Mr. Simon, and with Mr. Redford and Jane Fonda in the starring roles, became a hit when it was released in 1967 at Radio City Music Hall, breaking the box-office record. That record would be smashed by the movie version of “The Odd Couple.” Both movies were directed by Gene Saks, who would direct many of Simon’s later plays, including the “Brighton Beach” trilogy and “Lost in Yonkers.” (Mr. Saks died in 2015.)

Mr. Simon’s screenwriting career included dozens of titles, among them many adaptations of his plays. In addition to “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple” (with the original stage star, Walter Matthau, and Jack Lemmon replacing Art Carney), he wrote the screenplays for “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” with Mr. Lemmon and Anne Bancroft, and “The Sunshine Boys,” with Mr. Matthau and George Burns, as well as “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Lost in Yonkers,” among others.

He also wrote original movies, including, “The Out-of-Towners,” the period spoof “Murder by Death,” “The Goodbye Girl” and most notably “The Heartbreak Kid,” a black comedy, based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, directed by Elaine May and starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd.

Movie hits

Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for his performance in “The Goodbye Girl” as an impish, irritating actor with whom an unemployed dancer played by Marsha Mason moves in. The movie received a total of nine Academy Award nominations, including one for Mr. Simon’s screenplay. (He received four Oscar screenplay nominations in his career, although he never won.)

Ms. Mason was Mr. Simon’s wife at the time. His first wife, Joan, died of cancer in 1973. He met Ms. Mason at an audition, and they were married four months later. He wrote about their relationship in the play “Chapter Two,” which was made into a movie starring Ms. Mason and James Caan.

“It’s my favorite play for many reasons,” Mr. Simon once said of “Chapter Two.” “It was cathartic for me. In the two years Marsha and I were married, I gave her a rough time — still trying to hold on to my relationship with Joan. Marsha is beautiful and talented, and I found ways to find fault with her.”

Mr. Simon was married five times. After his divorce from Ms. Mason, he married the actress Diane Lander in 1987. They divorced a year later but remarried in 1990, then divorced again. Mr. Simon married the actress Elaine Joyce in 1999. She survives him, along with his daughters Ellen and Nancy from his first marriage and his daughter Bryn from his marriage to Ms. Lander. He is also survived by three grandchildren and one great-grandson. Danny Simon died in 2005.

Mr. Simon wrote the book for three successful Broadway musicals in the 1960s. “Little Me” (1962), with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and featured Mr. Simon’s old boss Sid Caesar playing the multiple loves of an adventuress named Belle Poitrine. “Sweet Charity” (1966) reunited Mr. Simon with Mr. Fosse for a musical based on Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” with music by Mr. Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. “Promises, Promises,” based on the movie “The Apartment,” featured music by Burt Bacharach and lyrics by Hal David.

“Promises, Promises” was Mr. Simon’s biggest musical success, running 1,281 performances. It was revived on Broadway in 2010.

Mr. Simon returned to musicals in 1981 with “They’re Playing Our Song,” featuring music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager. His last musical book was for an unsuccessful stage adaptation of “The Goodbye Girl” in 1993.

In his most productive period, Mr. Simon wrote plays at the rate of almost one a year and produced almost 30 over his career. Many of the later works, from the 1990s and beyond, were tepidly received and had brief Broadway runs. “Proposals” (1997), a quasi-Chekhovian comedy, and “45 Seconds From Broadway” (2001), his last new play on Broadway, a tribute to a fabled Rialto coffee shop, were quick flops. But “The Dinner Party” (2000) ran for almost a year.

Mr. Simon made headlines in 2003 when Mary Tyler Moore abruptly left his play “Rose’s Dilemma” (2003) at the Manhattan Theater Club. That turned out to be his last produced play. He also made news with the announcement of his kidney transplant in 2004. The donor was his longtime press agent, Bill Evans, who subsequently retired. (Jokes were made.)

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