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Acerbic theater critic Simon dies at 94

Theater critic John Simon, who died Sunday, poses

Theater critic John Simon, who died Sunday, poses for a photo shoot held in 1975 at the offices of New York Magazine. Credit: Getty Images/Donaldson Collection

John Simon, a theater and film critic known for his lacerating reviews and often withering assessment of performers' physical appearance, has died. He was 94.

His wife, Patricia Hoag Simon, said her husband died Sunday night at Westchester Medical Center. She said the couple was having lunch at a local dinner theater when he fell ill.

Simon served as the chief theater critic at New York magazine for nearly 40 years before being dismissed in 2005. He then worked at Bloomberg for five years before being fired in 2010. In his later years he worked for several newspapers outside the city.

Some might call him tart and unsentimental. Others might say curmudgeonly or belittling. Either way, it was a rite-of-passage in the theater community to find your work butchered by Simon. Time magazine called Simon "the most poisonous pen on Broadway."

He called 2000's "Jesus Christ Superstar" "a production so stillborn I defy God himself to resurrect it."

In a 1998 production of "Twelfth Night," he wrote of Helen Hunt: "She wears a permanently befuddled expression, scrunches up her eyes as though under a barrage of grapefruits, and always leads with her head as if to butt her lines into an enemy goal."

At least one actor fought back. Actress Sylvia Miles dumped a plate of pasta on his head when she encountered him in a restaurant in 1973 — retaliation for comments he had made about her body.

Simon defended his sharp elbows, arguing that the theater was becoming dumbed down and that critics needed to have a sense of humor. He said he was unwilling to hold his tongue if the audience lost out.

"A critic has to be as good as any writer," Simon told the American Theatre Critics Association. "A critic has to be as good as any good teacher," and a "critic should be a thinker, to know as much about the world as possible. You should think about what's going on in the world and reflect on it as it pertains to a play."

From 1950-1955, Simon taught at Harvard, the University of Washington and M.I.T. He also taught at Bard College and the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s. His articles appeared in everything from Town and Country to Esquire and the Weekly Standard.

He was the author or editor of over a dozen books, including "Uneasy Stages," a collection of his reviews from 1963 through 1973, and "John Simon on Theatre," which included the next three decades. Other books include "John Simon on Music" and "John Simon on Film."

Simon was born in Yugoslavia in 1925 and received his B.A. in English, as well as his master's and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University. He was a George Polk Award winner and was a Fulbright Fellow. In his last post just before Halloween, he wrote: “One person’s critic is another person’s crackpot.”

He began by writing critiques for Commonweal and the Hudson Review. He also reviewed for New York's Channel 13, but was forced out in 1967 because the station considered his notices misanthropic.

After being fired by Bloomberg, he found employment at The Westchester Guardian and Yonkers Tribune, and continued to file reviews.

His wife, after his death, suggested some ways to celebrate her husband’s life: “Go see a play or read a great book or poem or watch some tennis in his honor — he loved all those things.”

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