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Neil Simon, Who Lit Up Broadway Marquees for Five Decades, Dies at 91

Neil Simon Obituary

Neil Simon, one of Broadway’s most prolific playwrights has died at 91. Simon photo circa 1974. (Photo: IM Collage)

Neil Simon, who captured the American condition with wit, humor and insouciance through such Broadway plays as The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys and Plaza Suite over a five-decade career in film, theater and television, has died. He was 91.

Simon died this morning (Aug 26) from a serious bout of pneumonia. He was undergoing treatment for renal failure at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, said long-time friend Bill Evans, a spokesman for the Shubert Organizations.

In 2004, Simon received a kidney transplant from Evans. In his later years, Simon also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

His personal life was as big as his Broadway productions.

Simon was married five times, counting his two marriages to actress Diane Lander. He also wed dancer Joan Baim (1953–1973), actress Marsha Mason (1973–1983) and actress Elaine Joyce, from 1999 until his death. He has three children, one of whom he adopted.

His nephew is U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon and niece-in-law is U.S. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici

Simon was born in New York and was raised in the Bronx and Washington Heights. His father, Irving Simon, was a garment industry salesman during the Great Depression, who left much of the child-rearing duties up to his stern wife Mamie. Older brother Danny helped him get his start in show business.

Simon began writing for radio with his brother in 1948 after a stint in the U.S. Army (1945-46) and later segued to television. His 1993 play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, was based on that experience.

Simon honed his comedic skills writing for such early television hits as “Your Show of Shows,” (1940-54), a 90-minute comedy variety show starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.

The writing team included the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner who all went on to fame and fortune in show business.

He entertained millions of men returning home from World War II as a writer on “The Phil Silver Show,” (1955 to 1959). It focused on the shenanigans of Army Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko. It won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Series.

His breakout on Broadway came in 1961 when he was 34. His play Come Blow Your Horn, which had certain autobiographical elements, was a hit. It was about a 21-year-old virgin who moves in with his older brother and gets indoctrinated into the brother’s swinging ’60s lifestyle.

Simon was not only a prolific writer, but also a rewriter. He rewrote the Come Blow Your Horn script more than two-dozen times over the course of several years. But the play was another hit, and it freed Simon to focus full-time on stage and film writing.

It was also the first of Simon’s plays to be turned into a film. Frank Sinatra starred in the 1963 big-screen version.

In all, he wrote more than 30 plays, musicals and film scripts over the course of his career.

“I am most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on the paper in the Smith-Corona will be the first perfect play ever written in a single draft,” Simon wrote.

Simon chronicled his own life in a trilogy that included “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”

He established himself as a major 20th Century playwright with Barefoot in the Park. Oddly, the play was about the seemingly mundane trials and tribulations of newlyweds trying to set up a household in a New York City brownstone.

Yet, it struck a nerve with theatergoers. It ran on Broadway for four years and more than 1,500 performances. It became Simon’s most successful work. It was also turned into a 1967 movie starring Robert Redford, who reprised is Broadway role, Jane Fonda and Charles Boyer.

But the Odd Couple, which opened two years later, took on a life of its own. It opened a window on the lives of Oscar, a gruff sportswriter, and Felix, a neat-freak whose bickering was off-set be endearing moments of a shared existence. The show has been reprised on film, television and theater for decades.

Simon’s film-writing career included such hits as “The Goodbye Girl,” and “The Heartbreak Kid.” Again, the focus was on family life.

“I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world,” he said in a 1992 interview.

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