Playwright Neil Simon Dies at 91

Neil Simon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, died last night at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. The cause was complications from pneumonia. He was 91 years old. His wife, Elaine Joyce Simon, was at his bedside along with Mr. Simon’s daughters, Ellen Simon and Nancy Simon.

Neil Simon. Photo by Jonathan Exley.

Neil Simon’s unparalleled career in the theater included more than thirty plays and musicals that opened on Broadway over a span of four decades. He made his playwriting debut in 1961, with Come Blow Your Horn and concluded his extraordinary Broadway run with 45 Seconds From Broadway in 2001.

“No playwright in Broadway’s long and raucous history has so dominated the boulevard as the softly astringent Simon. For almost half a century, his comedies have offered light at the end of whatever dark tunnel America has found itself in.” – John Lahr, The New Yorker, May 30, 2010

Neil Simon established his reputation writing some of Broadway’s most successful comedies, including Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Plaza Suite. Many of his later plays explored darker themes, as those found inBiloxi Blues, Broadway Bound and Lost in Yonkers.

Among a host of leading actors who appeared in Simon plays and musicals on Broadway are Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Robert Redford, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, Maureen Stapleton, Christopher Plummer, Peter Falk, Lee Grant, Tammy Grimes, George Grizzard, Jack Weston, Bernadette Peters, Martin Short, Linda Lavin, Gwen Verdon and Art Carney. The directors include Mike Nichols, Gene Saks, Bob Fosse, Robert Moore, Joe Mantello, Jerry Zaks, Herbert Ross, John Rando, and Michael Bennett.

During his long-running career, it was not unusual for Mr. Simon to have two Broadway shows running concurrently, sometimes three, and once, in 1966, he had four (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity and The Star Spangled Girl). His plays have been translated into dozens of languages and are produced around the world.

Marvin Neil Simon was born in the Bronx, New York, on July 4, 1927, to Irving Simon, a salesman in the garment district, and Mamie Levy Simon, a saleslady at Gimbel’s department store. He had one brother, Danny Simon, eight years his senior. He grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. Mr. Simon studied at NYU and the University of Denver while serving in the U.S. Army Air Force Reserve.

Neil Simon began his career in the early 1950s, working as a team with his older brother, Danny, writing scripts for radio and television shows, including The Garry Moore Show. Neil and Danny Simon were hired to join Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and others, writing for Sid Caesar’s legendary television series, Your Show of Shows, and its successor, Caesar’s Hour. On his own, Neil Simon wrote more than a dozen episodes of The Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko).

After 10 years in television, Mr. Simon turned his attention to writing for the stage. His first Broadway show was a comedy, Come Blow Your Horn (1961), directed by Stanley Prager. He wrote the book for the Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh musical, Little Me (1962), which starred Sid Caesar, directed by Bob Fosse.

Next came two of the biggest hits of the 1960s, Barefoot in the Park (1963), starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, and The Odd Couple (1965), starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney. Both shows were directed by Mike Nichols. Mr. Simon won the 1965 Best Author Tony Award for The Odd Couple.

Mr. Simon wrote the book for the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical, Sweet Charity (1966), starring Gwen Verdon, directed by Bob Fosse. The Star-Spangled Girl (1966) featured Anthony Perkins and Richard Benjamin, directed by George Axelrod. Plaza Suite (1968), starred George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton, directed by Mike Nichols.

He wrote the book for the Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical, Promises, Promises (1968), directed by Robert Moore, choreographed by Michael Bennett. Robert Moore also directed Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969), as well asThe Gingerbread Lady (1970) starring Maureen Stapleton. The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971) starred Peter Falk and Lee Grant, directed by Mike Nichols.

Jack Albertson and Sam Levene played The Sunshine Boys (1972), directed by Alan Arkin. This production marked the beginning of Neil Simon’s long association with producer Emanuel Azenberg, who produced all of Mr. Simon’s original Broadway plays and musicals that followed.

Christopher Plummer starred in The Good Doctor (1973), directed by A.J. Antoon. God’s Favorite (1974), starred Vincent Gardenia, directed by Michael Bennett.

In 1975, Neil Simon received a Special Tony Award for his extraordinary contributions to the American Theatre.

California Suite (1976) featured Tammy Grimes, George Grizzard, and Jack Weston, directed by Gene Saks. Herbert Ross directed Anita Gillette, and Judd Hirsch, in Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play, Chapter Two(1977).

Mr. Simon teamed with Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager on a musical inspired by their personal relationship, They’re Playing Our Song (1979), starring Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein, directed by Robert Moore. Ron Leibman starred in I Ought to Be in Pictures (1980), directed by Herbert Ross. Fools (1981), a comic fable, featured John Rubinstein, directed by Mike Nichols.

Mr. Simon returned to semi-autobiographical work with his acclaimed trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985), both starring Matthew Broderick, and Broadway Bound (1986), starring Jonathan Silverman and Linda Lavin. All three plays were directed by Gene Saks. Brighton Beach Memoirs won the 1983 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Biloxi Blues won the 1985 Tony Award for Best Play.

On June 29, 1983, during the run of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broadway’s Alvin Theatre on West 52nd Street was officially renamed the Neil Simon Theatre. This honor was bestowed upon Mr. Simon by the prominent Broadway producer and theater owner, James M. Nederlander.

A female version of The Odd Couple (1985) starred Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers, directed by Gene Saks, who also directed Mr. Simon’s farce, Rumors (1988).

Lost in Yonkers (1991), starring Irene Worth, Kevin Spacey and Mercedes Ruehl, directed by Gene Saks, won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1991 Tony Award for Best Play.

Alan Alda starred in Jake’s Women (1992), directed by Gene Saks. Bernadette Peters and Martin Short starred in The Goodbye Girl (1993), a musical adaptation of Mr. Simon’s movie of the same name, with a score by Marvin Hamlisch and David Zippel, directed by Michael Kidd.

Nathan Lane starred in Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993), a play inspired by Mr. Simon’s days in the writers room during the run of Your Show of Shows. Katie Finneran was featured in Proposals (1997), directed by Joe Mantello.

Henry Winkler and John Ritter starred in The Dinner Party (2000), directed by John Rando. Mr. Simon’s final original Broadway production was 45 Seconds From Broadway (2001), directed by Jerry Zaks.

Two Neil Simon plays premiered Off-Broadway. London Suite (1995), directed by Daniel Sullivan, and Rose’s Dilemma (2003), by Lynne Meadow.

Oscar and Felix: A New Look at The Odd Couple (2002), premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, directed by Peter Bonerz.

Throughout his years of writing plays, Neil Simon also distinguished himself as a screenwriter of more than 25 feature films — both adaptations of his plays and original screenplays. In 1979, Mr. Simon received a Lifetime Achievement Laurel Award from the Writers Guild of America.

Gene Saks was the director of both Barefoot in the Park (1967) with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and The Odd Couple (1968) starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Mr. Simon won a 1968 Writers Guild of America Award for The Odd Couple.  Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera, and Sammy Davis, Jr. starred in Sweet Charity (1969), directed by Bob Fosse. Plaza Suite (1971) featured Walter Matthau, Maureen Stapleton, Barbara Harris, and Lee Grant, directed by Arthur Hiller.

Alan Arkin starred in Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), directed by Gene Saks. Anne Bancroft and Jack Lemmon starred in The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), directed by Melvin Frank. Herbert Ross directed both The Sunshine Boys (1975), starring Walter Matthau and George Burns, and California Suite (1978), featuring Maggie Smith and Michael Caine. Mr. Simon won a 1975 Writers Guild Award for The Sunshine Boys.

Marsha Mason starred in Chapter Two (1979), directed by Robert Moore. Only When I Laugh (1981), a film treatment of Mr. Simon’s Broadway play, The Gingerbread Lady (1970), was directed by Glenn Jordan. Walter Matthau starred in I Ought to be in Pictures (1982), directed by Herbert Ross. Jonathan Silverman headed the cast of Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986), directed by Gene Saks. Matthew Broderick returned to the role of Eugene Morris Jerome, which he originated on Broadway, in the film version of Biloxi Blues (1988), directed by Mike Nichols. Lost in Yonkers (1993) starred Richard Dreyfuss, Mercedes Ruehl and Irene Worth, directed by Martha Coolidge.

Neil Simon’s original screenplays include The Out-of-Towners (1970), directed by Arthur Hiller, The Heartbreak Kid (1972), directed by Elaine May, and  Murder by Death (1976), directed by Robert Moore. Mr. Simon received a 1971 Writers Guild Award for The Out-of-Towners. The Goodbye Girl (1977), directed by Herbert Ross, starred Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss. The Cheap Detective (1978) was directed by Robert Moore. Seems Like Old Times (1980) starred Goldie Hawn, directed by Jay Sandrich. Jason Robards, Jr. played opposite Marsha Mason and Matthew Broderick in Max Dugan Returns (1983), directed by Herbert Ross. Steve Martin starred in The Lonely Guy (1984), directed by Arthur Hiller. The Slugger’s Wife (1985) was directed by Hal Ashby. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon reprised their roles of Oscar and Felix in The Odd Couple II (1998), directed by Howard Deutch.

In addition to a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards, Mr. Simon received many honors, including four Writers Guild of America Awards, an American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement honor, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Monte Cristo Award.

He received honorary degrees from Williams College and Hofstra University and was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1995.

Mr. Simon wrote two volumes of memoirs, Rewrites (1996), and The Play Goes On (1999). In 2016, Simon and Schuster published both books in one volume, Neil Simon’s Memoirs.

Neil Simon was married to dancer Joan Baim, from 1953 until her death in 1973. Their two daughters, Ellen Simon, and Nancy Simon, survive him. His 1973 marriage to actress Marsha Mason ended in divorce in 1983. Mr. Simon and Diane Lander were married and divorced twice (1987-1988 and 1990-1998). He adopted Ms. Lander’s daughter, Bryn Lander Simon, who survives him. In addition to his daughters, he is survived by three grandchildren and one great-grandson. Mr. Simon is survived by his wife, the actress Elaine Joyce Simon, whom he married in 1999.

Text reprinted with permission.


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