Neil Simon, the prolific comedic playwright who brought big laughs to Broadway, has died at the age of 91. According to the Associated Press, the cause of death was complications from pneumonia.
Known for smash hits like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, Simon wrote more than 30 plays over the course of his decades-long career. In 1967, he had four shows— Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Sweet Charity and The Star-Spangled Girl—running simultaneously on Broadway.
His works, packed with wisecracks and punch lines, were hugely popular with audiences, though they did not always garner acclaim from critics—something that irked Simon. “Critically, the thinking seems to be that if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good,” he said in 1991, according to Charles Isherwood of the New York Times.
But despite facing some critical resistance, Simon's plays—and particularly his semi-autobiographical works of the '80s and '90s—were honored with a slew of prestigious awards over the years. The playwright won four Tonys, four Writers Guild of America Awards, an American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement honor, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and, in 1991, a Pulitzer Prize for his heartfelt comedy Lost in Yonkers.
Though they crackle with humor, darkness ripples beneath many of Simon’s plays, which are often preoccupied with tensions between family members and the anxieties of a new middle class. “Simon was writing for an affluent audience not far removed from the Depression and tenement life, people who were both proud of and a little antsy about their new suburban or Upper East Side digs,” David Edelstein wrote in New York magazine in 2009. “He allowed them to laugh at fears they might not even have been able to articulate.”
Many of these tropes can be traced back to Simon’s early years in Depression-era New York. Marvin Neil Simon was born in 1927, in the Bronx. His childhood home was not a particularly happy one; his parents fought, and his father abandoned the family on multiple occasions. Simon later attended New York University and, after enlisting in the Army Air Forces Air Reserve training program, he studied at the University of Denver, which was located near his base.
After being discharged from the Air Force, Simon joined his brother Danny, who was working in publicity at Warner Bros. in New York. The two began writing sketches for "Your Show of Shows," a popular live-variety program that starred the pioneering comics Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. The brothers also worked on Caesar’s second sketch show, "Caesar’s Hour."
When he tired of the rigorous pace of writing for a weekly television series, Simon turned his attention to theater. His first play, 1961’s Come Blow Your Horn, follows a young man who leaves his parents home to live with his suave older brother. It enjoyed a successful Broadway run, but it was Simon’s second play, Barefoot in the Park, that helped make him a giant of the theater world. Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley starred as a newlywed couple living on the top floor of a New York brownstone. The play opened in 1963 and ran for nearly four years.
Two years after Barefoot in the Park came The Odd Couple, another popular success that was later adapted into a film and a television series. In the 1960s and '70s, Simon produced hit after hit: Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Sunshine Boys, Chapter Two. He wrote the book for several musicals, and worked on the screenplays for movie adaptations of his plays, including Barefoot in the Park, which saw Robert Redford reprise his role opposite Jane Fonda.
Simon also wrote original screenplays; one of his most acclaimed films was The Goodbye Girl, which received nine Academy Award nominations.
In the 1980s, Simon impressed theater reviewers with his Eugene Trilogy, a series of three, semi-autobiographical plays that follow a young boy from a Jewish working class family as he comes of age, navigates the army and starts to find his way as a comedy writer. Lost in Yonkers, which earned Simon the Pulitzer in 1991, was another semi-autobiographical work about two teenage boys who are sent to live with their fearsome grandmother and child-like aunt.
Simon suffered a slump in his later career, with plays like Proposals and 45 Seconds from Broadway failing to draw large audiences. But by that point, Simon wasn’t particularly concerned about pleasing critics and crowds.
“There’s no more money anyone can pay me that I need,” he told the Washington Post in 1997, according to the AP. “There are no awards they can give me that I haven't won. I have no reason to write another play except that I am alive and I like to do it.”