Neil Simon, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Playwright Who Ruled Broadway Comedy, Dies at 91

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 on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 91.

His death, at New York Presbyterian Hospital, was announced by his publicist, Bill Evans. The cause was complications of pneumonia, he said.

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.

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

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 the critic Clive Barnes as once writing, “Neil Simon is destined to remain rich, successful and underrated.”

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 Mr. 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. Mr. Allen was the darling of the urban art-house cinema and the critical classes who created comedy from the minutiae of his own angst.

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. (The long-running television show based on his “Odd Couple” was one of the best, although a bum business deal meant that Mr. Simon earned little money from it.)

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.”

Mr. Allen and Mr. Simon, who shared roots in the urban Jewish lower middle classes, were also united by the classic funnyman’s ability to inspire belly laughs by the millions in other people while managing to find the dark clouds hovering insistently over their own fates, however apparently successful they might seem.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Charles Isherwood