Neil Simon, Playwright Who Struck Box Office Gold, Dies at 91

(Bloomberg) -- Neil Simon, whose Broadway plays including “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Lost in Yonkers” made him the most commercially successful playwright of his time while earning him a Pulitzer Prize, has died. He was 91.

The playwright died early Sunday at a New York hospital of complications from pneumonia, the Associated Press reported, citing Bill Evans, spokesman for the Shubert Organization and a longtime friend of Simon’s.

A master of funny lines, Simon was all business when it came to show business. He fashioned several of his own plays into movies, wrote librettos for two musicals (“Sweet Charity” and “Little Me”) that became movies and turned “The Goodbye Girl,” originally a film, into a stage musical.

Neil Simon, Playwright Who Struck Box Office Gold, Dies at 91

“Who could have replaced him? I don’t think anyone comes close,” said Emanuel Azenberg, his producer for 30 years.

In 1976, Forbes called Simon a “one-man entertainment conglomerate” who had “probably earned more money in his lifetime than any other playwright in history.”

When “Brighton Beach Memoirs” opened at the Neil Simon Theater in 1983, he became the only living playwright with a Broadway house named for him until September 2010, when the former Henry Miller’s Theater was renamed for Stephen Sondheim.

Theater Owner

As an impresario, Simon owned the Eugene O’Neill Theater for 16 years and staged eight of his own plays there. He came to regret being a proprietor on discovering how hard it was finding plays that could fill a theater.

“It became incumbent upon me then to try to write a play every year or so to go into the O’Neill,” he wrote in “Rewrites,” his 1996 memoir. “I stopped being a writer and was now in the play-supplying business, which was the last thing I wanted.”

Simon eventually sold the theater and began financing his plays by himself or with partners, Azenberg said.

For all his success, Simon didn’t escape reviewers’ barbs. Critics carped that his plays were too facile, full of funny lines that masked a lack of dramatic substance. Although the onstage repartee sounded fast and easy, Simon wrote many drafts of a play before allowing it to be staged.

He said he put “Come Blow Your Horn,” his first Broadway play, through 22 rewrites. It opened on Feb. 22, 1961, to mixed reviews. Audiences made it a hit, flocking to 678 performances as the production ran for 19 months.

Tony Awards

Simon’s second Broadway effort, the book for “Little Me,” was nominated for a Tony Award. His next play, “Barefoot in the Park,” opened in October 1963 and ran for 1,530 performances, through June 1967.

Over the years, Simon wrote about 30 plays and won Tony awards for “The Odd Couple” (1965), “Biloxi Blues” (1985) and “Lost in Yonkers” (1991), the play that won the Pulitzer. His screenplays received four Academy Award nominations.

Marvin Neil Simon was born on July 4, 1927, in New York City to parents whose stormy marriage played havoc with the family’s emotional and financial well-being.

In “Rewrites,” Simon said his father Irving was an unsuccessful salesman who dressed like a “dandy” and often left the family, sometimes for as long as a year.

To make ends meet, Simon’s mother, Mamie, rented a bedroom out to boarders and took a cut of card games she ran on the family’s kitchen table.

‘Doc’ Simon

Simon said his brother Danny, older by eight years, was his strongest male influence and started him in comedy. At 15, Neil wrote sketches with his brother for an amateur production at the department store where Danny worked.

His brother also gave Neil his lifelong nickname, “Doc.” It came from the toy stethoscope he played with as a child. Years later some assumed the nickname referred to Neil’s ability to cure an ailing play.

Simon graduated at 16 from high school and worked as an ad agency messenger until he came of age for a U.S. Army reserve program. He went briefly to New York University before entering active service in Biloxi, Mississippi, just as World War II was ending, an experience he tapped in “Biloxi Blues.”

After the army, Simon worked at Warner Bros. in New York, where Danny was in publicity. They wrote radio sketches and TV material for Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Red Buttons before joining Sid Caesar’s team of writers.

Writer’s Room

Simon based the 1993 play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” on his experience in Caesar’s so-called writer’s room, churning out weekly skits in a competitive, manic group of gag writers that included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen.

He never relished doing comedy in a group and quit to write “Come Blow Your Horn.” He also ended his partnership with Danny, who moved to Los Angeles to work on TV programs.

Sibling rivalry played a part in their breakup, Simon said, noting that over time “I rejected his ideas as I might have rejected a suit of clothes he picked out for me.”

‘Odd Couple’

One idea he didn’t reject stemmed from Danny’s divorce, when his brother shared an apartment with a divorced friend. The man was a slob while Danny was a neat-freak, a situation Neil turned into “The Odd Couple.” Danny Simon died in 2005.

Simon’s first wife, dancer Joan Baim, died of bone cancer, at 41. The couple had two daughters, Ellen and Nancy. A few months later, married actress Marsha Mason. Their courtship and Simon’s guilt over finding happiness so quickly with another woman were the basis of “Chapter Two,” the play that began a two-year run on Broadway in 1977. Mason, who wasn’t in the play, starred in the movie version two years later.

In the 1980s Simon won critical acclaim for what the New York Times called his “breakthrough trilogy” of autobiographical plays: “Biloxi Blues,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” and “Broadway Bound,” which struck a more serious tone than his early comedies.

Simon and Mason divorced in 1981. He married Diane Lander, an actress and single mother, in 1987. After divorcing, they remarried in 1990, and Simon adopted her daughter, Bryn. They divorced again in 1998. The following year he married Elaine Joyce, a former actress.

In April 2010, the New Yorker magazine theater critic John Lahr praised Simon’s body of work in a 5,000-word appreciation, noting critics had rarely paid the playwright his creative due.

“’The Odd Couple’ is a classic of American comedy,” he wrote, adding that “The Sunshine Boys” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” belong in “the same pantheon.”

Lahr ranked Simon among ”comic maestros” like “Georges Feydeau and Noel Coward, whose artistry could be distinguished from their popularity only with the passage of time.”

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