Obituaries

Neil Simon, master of comedy on Broadway and beyond, is dead at 91

A long series of expertly tooled laugh machines kept Mr. Simon’s name on Broadway marquees virtually nonstop throughout the late 1960s and ’70s.
New York Times/file 2000
A long series of expertly tooled laugh machines kept Mr. Simon’s name on Broadway marquees virtually nonstop throughout the late 1960s and ’70s.

NEW YORK — Neil Simon, the playwright whose name was synonymous with Broadway comedy and commercial success in the theater for decades, and who helped redefine popular American humor with an emphasis on the frictions of urban living and the agonizing conflicts of family intimacy, died Sunday at a Manhattan hospital. He was 91.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, said his publicist.

Early in his career, Mr. Simon wrote for television greats, including Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar. Later he wrote for the movies, too. But it was as a playwright that he earned his lasting fame, with a long series of expertly tooled laugh machines that kept his name on Broadway marquees virtually nonstop throughout the late 1960s and ’70s.

Advertisement

Beginning with the breakthrough hits “Barefoot in the Park” (1963) and “The Odd Couple” (1965) and continuing with popular successes “Plaza Suite” (1968), “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971), and “The Sunshine Boys” (1974), Mr. Simon ruled Broadway when Broadway was still worth ruling.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

From 1965 to 1980, his plays and musicals racked up more than 9,000 performances, a record not even remotely touched by any other playwright of the era.

In 1966 alone, he had four Broadway shows running simultaneously.

He also owned a Broadway theater for a spell in the 1960s, the Eugene O’Neill, and in 1983 had a different Broadway theater named after him, a rare accolade for a living playwright.

For all their popularity with audiences, Mr. Simon’s great successes in the first years of his fame rarely earned wide critical acclaim, and Broadway revivals of “The Odd Couple” in 2005 and “Barefoot in the Park” in 2006 did little to change the general view that his early work was most notable for its surefire conceits and snappy punch lines. In the introduction to one of his play collections, Mr. Simon quoted critic Clive Barnes as once writing, “Neil Simon is destined to remain rich, successful, and underrated.”

Advertisement

But Mr. Simon gained a firmer purchase on critical respect in the 1980s with his darker-hued semi-autobiographical trilogy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1983), “Biloxi Blues” (1985), and “Broadway Bound” (1986). These comedy-dramas were admired for the way they explored the tangle of love, anger, and desperation that bound together — and drove apart — a Jewish working-class family, as viewed from the perspective of the youngest son, a restless wisecracker with an eye on showbiz fame.

“The writer at last begins to examine himself honestly, without compromises,” Frank Rich wrote of “Biloxi Blues” in The New York Times, “and the result is his most persuasively serious effort to date — not to mention his funniest play since the golden age” of his first decade.

In 1991, Mr. Simon won a Tony Award as well as the ultimate American playwriting award, the Pulitzer Prize, for “Lost in Yonkers,” another autobiographical comedy, this one about a fiercely withholding mother and her emotionally and intellectually underdeveloped daughter. It was also his last major success on Broadway.

Mr. Simon and Woody Allen, who both worked in the 1950s writing for Caesar (along with Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and Carl Reiner, among others), were probably equally significant in shaping the currents of American comedy in the 1960s and ’70s, although their styles, their favored mediums, and the critical reception of their work diverged mightily.

Mr. Simon was the populist whose accessible, joke-packed plays about the anxieties of everyday characters could tickle funny bones in theaters across the country as well as in 1,200-seat Broadway houses. Allen was the darling of the urban art-house cinema and the critical classes, who created comedy from the minutiae of his own angst.

Advertisement

But together they helped make the comedy of urban neurosis — distinctly Jewish-inflected — as American as the homespun humor of “Leave It to Beaver.” Mr. Simon’s early plays, often centered on an antagonistic couple of one kind or another wielding cutting one-liners in a New York apartment, helped set the template for the explosion of sitcoms on network television in the 1970s.

A line can be drawn between the taut plot threads of Mr. Simon’s early comedies — a slob and a neatnik form an irascible all-male marriage in “The Odd Couple,” newlyweds bicker in a new apartment in “Barefoot in the Park,” a laid-off fellow has a meltdown in “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” — and the “nothing”-inspired, kvetching-character-based comedy of the seminal 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld.”

Agony is at the root of comedy, and for Mr. Simon it was the agony of an unhappy Depression-era childhood that inspired much of his finest work. And it was the agony of living in Los Angeles that drove his determination to break free from the grind of cranking out jokes for Jerry Lewis on television and make his own name. As he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Rewrites” (the first of two volumes), the plush comforts of Hollywood living might extend your life span, but “the catch was when you eventually did die, it surely wouldn’t be from laughing.”

Born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, Marvin Neil Simon was the son of a garment industry salesman, Irving Simon, who abandoned the family more than once during his childhood, leaving Mr. Simon’s mother, May, to take care of Neil and his older brother, Danny. When the family was intact, the mood was darkened by constant battles between the parents.

The tensions of the family, which moved to Washington Heights when Mr. Simon was 5, would find their way into many of his plays, notably the late trilogy but also the early comedies, including his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn” (1961), about a young man leaving home to join his older brother, a bachelor and ladies’ man.

“When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled,” Mr. Simon wrote in “Rewrites.” “It was a sign of approval, of being accepted. Coming as I did from a childhood where laughter in the house meant security, but was seldom heard as often as a door slamming every time my father took another year’s absence from us, the laughter that came my way in the theater was nourishment.”

Danny Simon, older by eight years, was the signal influence on Neil’s career. “The fact is, I probably never would have been a writer if it were not for Danny,” Mr. Simon wrote.

Mr. Simon attended New York University as an enlistee in the Army Air Forces Air Reserve training program. He continued his studies at the University of Denver.

Mr. Simon’s screenwriting career included dozens of titles, among them many adaptations of his plays.

Several of his comedies were first staged in Boston, as a testing ground for Broadway. Mr. Simon credited the Boston theater critic Elliot Norton for some of the success of “The Odd Couple,” telling The Boston Globe that Norton “said the third act was lacking something.” That something, Norton told Mr. Simon, was the inclusion in the third act of the Pidgeon Sister characters. “It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. It made an enormous difference in the play. I rewrote it and it worked very well.”

Mr. Simon also wrote original movies, including “The Goodbye Girl” and most notably “The Heartbreak Kid,” a black comedy, based on a story by Bruce Jay Friedman and directed by Elaine May.

Richard Dreyfuss won an Oscar for his performance in “The Goodbye Girl” as an impish, irritating actor with whom an unemployed dancer played by Marsha Mason moves in. The movie received a total of nine Academy Award nominations, including one for Mr. Simon’s screenplay.

Mason was Mr. Simon’s wife at the time. His first wife, Joan, died of cancer in 1973. He met Mason at an audition, and they married four months later.

Mr. Simon was married five times. After his divorce from Mason, he married actress Diane Lander in 1987. They divorced a year later but remarried in 1990, then divorced again.

Mr. Simon married actress Elaine Joyce in 1999. She survives him, along with his daughters Ellen Simon and Nancy Simon from his first marriage and his daughter Bryn Lander Simon from his marriage to Lander.

Looking back, Mr. Simon wrote with a still starry-eyed joy of his decision to embark on a playwriting career: “For a man who wants to be his own master, to depend on no one else, to make life conform to his own visions rather than to follow the blueprints of others, playwriting is the perfect occupation. To sit in a room alone for six or seven or 10 hours, sharing the time with characters that you created, is sheer heaven.

“And if not heaven,” that master craftsman of the well-timed joke added, “it’s at least an escape from hell.”