Neil Simon, Celebrated Writer for the Stage and Screen, Dies at 91

Neil Simon - Photofest - H 2016
Courtesy of Photofest

Neil Simon - Photofest - H 2016

His legendary body of work includes 'The Odd Couple,' 'Barefoot in the Park,' 'Promises, Promises,' 'The Goodbye Girl' and 'Lost in Yonkers.'

Neil Simon, the pioneering playwright who set a new tone in theatrical comedy with such shows as The Odd Couple and captured the spirit of the middle-class American family with plays like Lost in Yonkers, has died. He was 91. 

Simon, who boasted more combined Oscar (four) and Tony (17, winning three times) nominations than any other writer, died early Sunday of complications from pneumonia at NewYork-Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan, publicist Rick Miramontez said. 

With a career that spanned five decades and more than 40 plays, many of which he also adapted for the screen, Simon is arguably the most commercially successful American playwright in history.

Only the second playwright to have four Broadway productions running simultaneously (that was in the 1960s, when he was earning a reported $60,000 a week), Simon earned countless other awards, including the Mark Twain Prize for Comedy in 2006 and Kennedy Center Honors in 1995.

A master of the set-’em-up, knock-’em-down style of comedy, Simon helped build the sitcom form as a writer on such 1950s hits as Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and The Phil Silvers Show. However, it was for the stage that Simon honed his quintessential style and invented the stage dramedy, extracting humor out of daily life. His unrelenting wisecracks and approachable tone made him an audience favorite.

“Neil has the ability to write characters — even the leading characters that we’re supposed to root for — that are absolutely flawed,” Jack Lemmon, who starred as Felix Ungar in the 1968 film adaptation of Simon’s The Odd Couple, once said of the writer. “They have foibles. They have faults. But, they are human beings. They are not all bad or all good; they are people we know.”

Born Marvin Neil Simon in the Bronx on July 4, 1927, he grew up in Washington Heights during the Great Depression. His father, Irving, was a garment salesman and his mother, Mamie, a homemaker. His parents’ financial difficulties affected their marriage, and Simon’s childhood was an unhappy one. He graduated at age 16 from DeWitt Clinton High School, where he earned the nickname “Doc.”

“It's partly why I became a writer, because I learned to fend for myself very early,” Simon once said. “I began to think early on, at the age of seven or eight, that I’d better start taking care of myself somehow, emotionally. ... It made me strong as an independent person.”

Simon began writing after he signed up with the Army Air Force Reserve at New York University. He was assigned to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver in 1945, where he worked for the Army newspaper as the sports editor. He attended the University of Denver from 1945-46.

His first big writing break came in 1950 with Your Show of Shows, Caesar’s live sketch comedy series, where he and his older brother, Danny, collaborated with such writers as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin and Carl Reiner.

Simon’s experience working as a junior writer inspired his 1993 play Laughter on the 23rd Floor. “I knew when I walked into Your Show of Shows that this was the most talented group of writers that up until that time had ever been assembled,” he once said.

Simon transitioned to writing for the stage, putting together sketches for To Catch a Star in 1955 with his brother. His first Broadway play with a writing credit line all his own came in 1961 with Come Blow Your Horn, quickly followed by Barefoot in the Park, starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, in 1963.

“I wanted to be a playwright; I wanted to be a real writer,” Simon said in a 1997 interview on Theater Talk shortly after his book Rewrites was released.

“I don’t know if it was confidence as much as it was fear,” he continued about the experience of writing his first play. “It was like running for my life. If I didn’t do it, if I didn’t make it, if I gave up on it at any one time, [that dream] would be over for me. And I would go out there and I would never have the aspirations fulfilled that I had for myself. So working on that was really a matter of life and death.”

Hollywood knocked on his door almost immediately, and Paramount Pictures in 1963 released the film adaptation of Come Blow Your Horn (Frank Sinatra starred, Norman Lear wrote the screenplay and Bud Yorkin directed).

Simon did his own adapting for Barefoot in the Park (1967), starring Redford and Jane Fonda; The Odd Couple (1968), with Lemmon and Walter Matthau as the mismatched duo (the play starred Matthau and Art Carney); Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), starring Alan Arkin (James Coco starred on stage); The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), with Lemmon and Anne Bancroft in for Peter Falk and Lee Grant; and The Sunshine Boys (1975), with George Burns winning an Oscar at age 80.

Simon later adapted his 1970 play The Gingerbread Lady into the movie Only When I Laugh (1981), which earned three Oscar nominations, including one for his then-wife, actress Marsha Mason. Of Mason’s four career Oscar noms, three came from collaborations with him.

The Odd Couple was arguably Simon’s largest commercial success, with the film adaptation and an ABC series, which ran from 1970-75 and starred Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. However, one of Simon’s regrets was selling the screen rights to Paramount, and he didn’t watch the show for the first two years because he was so upset. A reboot of the series, starring and executive produced by Matthew Perry (he played Oscar Madison), ran for three seasons on CBS starting in 2015.

Aside from the adaptations of his stage work, Simon also wrote The Heartbreak Kid (1972), starring Cybill Shepherd, and 1977’s The Goodbye Girl, which starred Richard Dreyfuss (who won an Oscar for his performance) and Mason and was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1993.

Simon also wrote the book for such musicals as Sweet Charity, Little Me and Promises, Promises.

Simon was known for using his own life as dramatic fodder, and his 1977 play Chapter Two drew inspiration from his experience in 1973 of losing his wife of 20 years, dancer Joan Baim, to cancer at age 41 and starting a new life with Mason, whom Simon had cast in his 1973 play The Good Doctor. (They married 22 days after she auditioned.) Chapter Two was adapted into the musical They’re Playing Our Song.

Simon and Mason ended their marriage in 1983, and he married actress Diane Lander in 1987. (They divorced in 1988, remarried in 1990 and divorced again in 1998.) He married actress Elaine Joyce in 1999, and she survives him.

Simon’s autobiographical plays also include the “Eugene” trilogy Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985) and Broadway Bound (1986). He followed those with Lost in Yonkers in 1991, starring Kevin Spacey, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Even The Odd Couple came somewhat from personal experience — his brother moved in with a divorced man after his own marriage ruptured.

Simon was a chronic rewriter, and the late director Mike Nichols, who guided the original productions of Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, among others, spoke to The New Yorker about Simon’s habit:

“He rewrote and rewrote and rewrote because he wanted to,” said Nichols, who won four Tonys for directing Simon’s plays. “For The Odd Couple, we had so many endings, I don’t remember how the play ends. Walter kept saying, ‘What do you care? It’s gonna run for years anyway.’ It was that he knew he could do better.”

Even though Simon boasted major commercial success, he wasn’t always a favorite with the critics, and recent revivals of his work — including the 2005 Broadway return of The Odd Couple that starred Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane and a 2009 staging of Brighton Beach Memoirs — were critical flops. (Broadway Bound was intended to run in rep, but it never opened.)

Still, Simon was the only or main investor in almost all of his plays since the premiere of Plaza Suite in 1968, and Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre, with the opening of the original Brighton Beach Memoirs, was named for him in 1983.

In addition to Joyce, survivors include his daughters Ellen, Nancy (both with Baim) and Bryn (with Lander), three grandchildren and one great-grandson. His brother Danny died in 2005 at age 86.

“Every time I write a play, it’s the beginning of a new life for me,” Simon told The Paris Review in 1992. “I’m enjoying these days of writing, even though I see that the sun is setting.”