Theatre fans of the last six decades are mourning the loss of one of its most prolific playwrights. Neil Simon, a multiple Tony Award winner and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, whose body of work has been entertaining audiences since his first Broadway play Come Blow Your Horn in 1961, passed away this past weekend at the age of 91. Complications from pneumonia are cited as the cause.
At many points in Simon’s career, he would have more than one play running on Broadway at a time. Among his myriad works, standouts include Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Chapter Two, The Star-Spangled Girl, Plaza Suite, The Gingerbread Lady, The Prisoner of Second Avenue, The Sunshine Boys, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, and Rumors. His 1991 play Lost in Yonkers won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that season. His final play to grace Broadway was the 2001 45 Seconds From Broadway.
Simon would also prove to be an accomplished book writer for Broadway musicals including Little Me, Sweet Charity, Promises, Promises, They’re Playing Our Song and The Goodbye Girl (based on his 1977 screenplay for the film of the same name). Working on musicals, Simon found himself paired with such talents as Cy Coleman, Marvin Hamlisch, Bob Fosse, Dorothy Fields, Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Carolyn Leigh, David Zippel, Michael Bennett and Carole Bayer Sager. Gene Saks was a frequent collaborator, directing many of Simon’s plays for the Broadway stage.
Born Marvin Neil Simon on July 4, 1927, in the Bronx. He was the second son of Irving Simon, a salesman in the Garment District, and Mamie Levy Simon, a saleslady at Gimbel’s department store. His older brother, Danny Simon, was eight years his senior. He grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan and graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School before studying at NYU, The University of Denver, and serving in the United States Army Air Force Reserve.
Simon’s talent for writing comedy started in radio and television. He and his brother wrote scripts for 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 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).
But it was writing for the Broadway stage where Simon excelled, blending his brand of relatable humor with characters and stories that connected to the humanity in us all. Among his other stage plays are Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Good Doctor, God’s Favorite, California Suite, I Ought to Be in Pictures, Fools, Jake’s Women, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, London Suite, Proposals, The Dinner Party, and Rose’s Dilemma. Simon won three Tony Awards for Best Play throughout his auspicious career: The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues, and Lost in Yonkers. He was also given a special Tony honor for his contributions to theatre.
Simon also wrote for film, often turning his own plays into screenplays, as well as few originals including The Out-of-Towners, The Heartbreak Kid, Murder By Death, The Marrying Man, and the Oscar-nominated The Goodbye Girl.
Neil Simon married dancer Joan Baim in 1953. She died in 1973, her loss and its effects the inspiration for Simon’s play Chapter Two. 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.
Theatre critic and historian John Lahr wrote of Neil Simon: “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.”
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.