Neil Simon, the prolific playwright whose Broadway hits included the newlyweds-in-Manhattan romp Barefoot in the Park, the prototypical bromance The Odd Couple, and the autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs, died Saturday night in New York City of complications from pneumonia, his publicist announced. He was 91.
A native of the Bronx, Simon launched his career scripting variety shows for the likes of Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis. He amassed an impressive collection of screenplays including The Out-of-Towners, The Heartbreak Kid, and The Goodbye Girl (one of the five films he wrote for his second wife, Marsha Mason). And he authored two memoirs, Rewrites and The Play Goes On. But if you had asked the born-and-bred New Yorker to list his occupation on, say, a resume, it would have read “Broadway playwright.”
Simon hadn’t written a new play since 2003’s Rose’s Dilemma, a forgettable work now better remembered for the offstage kerfuffle between Simon and star Mary Tyler Moore, who quit during previews after he sent her a note telling her, essentially, to learn her lines or leave. (“I realize now that my mind was working differently being on dialysis,” he explained to The New York Times in 2004, on the mend after a kidney transplant. The donor was Simon’s friend and longtime publicist, Bill Evans.) Still, the playwright really only began to slow down once he hit 70; even then, he brought three plays — 1997’s underrated Proposals (his Chekhovian ode to the courtship of his first wife, Joan Baim), 2000’s Paris-set Dinner Party, and 2001’s theatrical valentine 45 Seconds From Broadway — to the Great White Way.
None were particularly well-received, and after early-’90s disappointments like Jake’s Women, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and a musicalization of The Goodbye Girl, many simply deemed Simon out of fashion.
Of course, it’s always been fashionable to call Simon unfashionable. (And not just because he wrote his plays on yellow legal pads and typewriters.) He wrote domestic comedies, with simple settings, populated by middle-class characters — and he wrote a lot of them. “Critically, the thinking seems to be that if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good,” he once said. He had his first hit in 1961 with Come Blow Your Horn, which he said took “a year to write and two and a half years to rewrite.” His next was 1963’s Barefoot in the Park, featuring a fresh-faced Robert Redford, and in 1965, he struck gold with his most famous work, The Odd Couple (though not as much gold as he should have — he sold the film rights to Paramount and never earned a nickel from the 1970-75 TV series).
For a long while, it seemed like every season brought another Simon play: The Star-Spangled Girl (1966), Plaza Suite (1968), The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969), The Gingerbread Lady (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), The Sunshine Boys (1972), The Good Doctor (1973), God’s Favorite (1974), California Suite (1976), Chapter Two (1977). Between churning out comedies, he also served as librettist on the musicals Little Me (1962), Sweet Charity (1966), Promises, Promises (1968), and They’re Playing Our Song (1979). Most were hits, some were misses, but they all contributed to Simon’s status as the undisputed king of the Broadway comedy. “The truth is, there isn’t a single joke I ever heard in my life that I can remember,” he confessed in the first chapter of Rewrites. “This, coming from the man most critics have dubbed ‘The King of theOne-Liners.'”
But Simon’s best work is arguably also his darkest: his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedies Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985), and Broadway Bound (1986). A few months after the debut of Memoirs — which featured a star-making performance by a young Matthew Broderick — the Alvin Theatre where the show was playing was rechristened the Neil Simon Theatre. And in 1993, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers, his tender tale of a mentally impaired woman, her brutal German mother, and their extended family; it was Simon’s all-time favorite, “the most honest play I’ve ever written.”
Simon is survived by his wife, the actress Elaine Joyce Simon, whom he married in 1999, as well as two daughters, three grandchildren, and one great-grandson.