Neil Simon, the last of Broadway’s red-hot commercial playwrights, who penned hits such as “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park,” died Sunday. He was 91.
In more than 30 plays and 20 screenplays, Simon defined middle-class neurotic urban humor for Broadway and Hollywood in the second half of the 20th century. His sensationally popular hits included the Eugene Trilogy — which includes “Brighton Beach Memoirs” — as well as “The Sunshine Boys” and “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.”
Simon died of complications from pneumonia at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, said Bill Evans, a longtime friend and spokesman for Shubert Organization theaters.
Simon won the Pulitzer Prize, four Tony awards, the Kennedy Center honors and several other prizes — so many that he told The Washington Post in 1997 that “there’s no more money anyone can pay me that I need. There are no awards they can give me that I haven’t won.”
His work was so popular that he had four productions running at the same time on Broadway for six months in 1967: “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Sweet Charity” and “The Star-Spangled Girl.”
Simon’s name continues to be a fixture of Broadway: in 1983, the Alvin Theatre on West 52nd Street was renamed the Neil Simon Theatre.
Entertainers and celebrities on Sunday cited the influence Simon and his work had on them.
Matthew Broderick said, “I owe him a career,” citing the works that became his Broadway and movie debuts, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Max Dugan Returns.”
“The theater has lost a brilliantly funny, unthinkably wonderful writer,” Broderick said in a statement. “And even after all this time, I feel I have lost a mentor, a father figure, a deep influence in my life and work.”
Tony Award-winning actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein said Simon’s death is a loss for the entire entertainment industry.
“He could write a joke that would make you laugh, define the character, the situation, and even the world’s problems,” Fierstein wrote on Twitter.
Simon’s legacy extended in serious ways with what came to be called the Eugene Trilogy, the three semi-autobiographical comic-dramas that began in 1983 with “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” This was followed in 1991 with “Lost in Yonkers,” the dark masterwork that won him a Pulitzer Prize and his third Tony Award.
His work often had tragic undercurrents.
“Sometimes I just write a frivolous comedy, but usually plays are serious things happening to people,” he said in an interview before a national tour of “California Suite” in the late 1970s. . “Since I have an oblique sense of humor, plays like ‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’ come out funny. The plays are successful because people identify with them.”
Several of Simon’s plays were turned into movies, and he wrote the screenplays for some of his best-known work, including “Barefoot in the Park.”
Simon was born in the Bronx and raised in Washington Heights. In an interview with Newsday in 1997, he resisted as simplistic the idea that, despite the similarities with his own life and family, the plays were a straightforward retelling of his youth. He said he changed the setting to Brooklyn, in part, to make the overworked father’s Depression-era commute to the garment district even more of an ordeal.
He also insisted that “not a line” of the three plays was ever uttered “in real life,” including, apparently, jokes uttered by his alter ego, Eugene, about the horrors of broiled liver and puberty.
Like Eugene in “Biloxi Blues,” Simon served in the Army and returned wanting to write comedy. He and his older brother, Danny, got their start writing musical reviews in the Poconos. Self-taught, they went on to write for Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, whose writing staff included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in TV’s so-called golden age of comedy. His 1993 play, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” was inspired by the high-wire comic tension in the writers’ room for Caesar’s classic shows.
That play, like “Jake’s Women” and “45 Seconds from Broadway,” was not embraced with the passion and the profits of his early prolific career. In those days, he averaged one play a year. “A writer should be a working writer,” he said “a play is about a year of my life, so I wanted to be worth the effort.” He wrote fast, but first drafts usually took six months. His first play, the 1961 “Come Blow Your Horn,” took three years.
Simon was married five times, once to actress Marsha Mason and twice to actress Diane Lander. His first wife of 20 years, Joan Baim, died of cancer in 1973.
Simon and Baim had two daughters, Ellen and Nancy, who survive him. Simon adopted Lander’s daughter, Bryn, from a previous marriage. He is also survived by three grandchildren and one great-grandson.
“He was a great talent and man, husband and father,” Mason said. “With his passing his plays and work live on and will be enjoyed by many generations to come.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Among Neil Simon’s plays — many of which were turned into films — are:
"Barefoot in the Park" (1963)
"The Odd Couple" (1965)
"Sweet Charity" (1966)
"Plaza Suite" (1968)
"Promises, Promises" (1968)
"Last of the Red Hot Lovers" (1969)
"The Sunshine Boys" (1972)
"California Suite" (1976)
"I Ought to Be in Pictures" (1980)
"Brighton Beach Memoirs" (1983)
"Biloxi Blues" (1985)
"Broadway Bound" (1986)
"Lost in Yonkers" (1991)
"The Goodbye Girl" (1993)