Neil Simon, who wrote some of the most popular plays in the 20th century American theater, died at age 91 on August 26, 2018, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
His comedies ranged from “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park” to “The Sunshine Boys” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” At one point, in the late 1960s, he had four shows on Broadway at once.
A statement from his reps said, “His wife, Elaine Joyce Simon, was at his bedside along with Mr. Simon’s daughters, Ellen Simon and Nancy Simon.”
Variety reported, “In addition to his four Oscar nominations and 17 Tony nominations, Simon’s works brought an unsurpassed 50 Tony nominations for their actors. His competitive Tony wins came for The Odd Couple (best playwright) and for best play for Lost in Yonkers and Biloxi Blues.”
Simon spoke of his unhappy childhood having supplied him with a great deal of material.
Born on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx, Simon was the son of a garment industry salesman, Irving Simon, who abandoned the family more than once during his childhood, leaving Simon’s mother, May, to take care of Simon and his brother. When the family disintegrated further, he was sent to live with relatives.
In his memoir Simon wrote, “When an audience laughed, I felt fulfilled. 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.”
He 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 while assigned to a base nearby. His later military experience inspired the play Biloxi Blues.
Simon began his comedy career writing jokes for Jerry Lester, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar on “Your Show of Shows” and later “Caesar’s Hour.” He left behind the grind of joke writing when his play Come Blow Your Horn was a success.
His next play, Barefoot in the Park, was an even greater hit, starring Robert Redford. It was based on Simon’s life, newly married to his first wife.
His theatrical successes ran the gamut from Sweet Charity to Chapter Two.
Mr. Simon’s screenwriting career included many adaptations of his plays. In addition to Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple (with the original stage star, Walter Matthau, and Jack Lemmon replacing Art Carney), he wrote the screenplays for The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” with Lemmon and Anne Bancroft, and The Sunshine Boys, with Matthau and George Burns, as well as Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Lost in Yonkers.
He also wrote original movies, including The Out-of-Towners, the period spoof Murder by Death, The Goodbye Girl, The Cheap Detective, Max Dugan Returns, The Slugger’s Wife, and The Heartbreak Kid, a black comedy, directed by Elaine May and starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd.
“No playwright in Broadway’s long and raucous history has so dominated the boulevard as the softly astringent Simon,” wrote a New Yorker critic. “For almost half a century, his comedies have offered light at the end of whatever dark tunnel America has found itself in.”
According to Variety, Simon said that he sat at a typewriter for eight hours every day “and constantly banging on the keys even if he was writing gibberish, because he needed the regularity of constantly writing.”
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In 2006 Neil Simon won the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, presented by the Kennedy Center.
Simon married five times. He is survived by his wife, actress Elaine Joyce; three daughters; three grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at *Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone*, and *InStyle*, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.