Prolific Broadway playwright Neil Simon dies aged 91

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Playwright Neil Simon, a master of comedy whose laugh-filled hits such as The Odd Couple, Barefoot In The Park and Brighton Beach trilogy dominated Broadway for decades, has died aged 91.

Simon died early on Sunday of complications from pneumonia surrounded by family at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, said Bill Evans, his longtime friend and the Shubert Organisation director of media relations.

In the second half of the 20th century, Simon was among the American theatre’s most successful and prolific playwrights, often chronicling middle class issues and fears.

Starting with Come Blow Your Horn in 1961 and continuing into the next century, he rarely stopped working on a new play or musical.

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Neil Simon once had four plays on Broadway (Martin Keene/PA)

The theatre world mourned his death, with actor Josh Gad calling Simon “one of the primary influences on my life and career”.

Playwright Kristoffer Diaz said simply: “This hurts.”

Simon’s stage successes included The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, The Sunshine Boys, Plaza Suite, Chapter Two, Sweet Charity and Promises, Promises, but there were other plays and musicals, too, more than 30 in all.

Many of his plays were adapted into movies and one, The Odd Couple, even became a popular television series.

For seven months in 1967, he had four productions running at the same time on Broadway: Barefoot In The Park; The Odd Couple; Sweet Charity; and The Star-Spangled Girl.

Even before he launched his theatre career, he made history as one of the famed stable of writers for comedian Sid Caesar that also included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

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Neil Simon, left, and actor James Coco pose for a photo (AP)

In 2006, he won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour, which honours work that draws from the American experience.

The previous year had seen a popular revival of The Odd Couple, reuniting Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick after their enormous success in The Producers several years earlier.

In a 1997 interview with The Washington Post, Simon reflected on his success. “I know that I have reached the pinnacle of rewards.

“There’s no more money anyone can pay me that I need.

“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,” he said.

Simon had a rare stumble in the autumn of 2009, however, when a Broadway revival of his Brighton Beach Memoirs closed abruptly after only nine performances because of poor ticket sales.

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Neil Simon, Michael Douglas and Herbert Ross pictured in 1978 (AP)

The bespectacled, mild-looking Simon (described in a New York Times magazine profile as looking like an accountant or librarian who dressed “just this side of drab”) was a relentless writer and re-writer.

“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 in the introduction to one of the many anthologies of his plays.

He was a meticulous jokesmith, peppering his plays, especially the early ones, with comic one-liners and humorous situations that critics said sometimes came at the expense of character and believability.

For much of his career, audiences embraced his work, which often focused on middle-class, urban life, many of the plots drawn from his own personal experience.

“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 told The Paris Review in 1992.

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Neil Simon, centre, his wife Elaine Joyce, left, and Lucie Arnaz pose for photographers (Seth Wenig/AP)

He won a best-play Tony 20 years later for Biloxi Blues.

In 1991, Lost In Yonkers received both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize.

And there was a special achievement Tony, too, in 1975.

Simon’s own life figured most prominently in what became known as his Brighton Beach trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound which many consider his finest works.

In them, Simon’s alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome, makes his way from childhood to the US Army to finally, on the verge of adulthood, a budding career as a writer.

Simon was born Marvin Neil Simon in New York and was raised in the Bronx and Washington Heights.

He was a Depression-era child, his father, Irving, a garment-industry salesman.

He was raised mostly by his strong-willed mother, Mamie, and mentored by his older brother, Danny, who nicknamed his younger sibling, Doc.

Simon attended New York University and the University of Colorado.

After serving in the military in 1945-46, he began writing with his brother for radio in 1948 and then, for television, a period in their lives chronicled in Simon’s 1993 play, Laughter On The 23rd Floor.

The brothers wrote for such classic 1950s television series as Your Show Of Shows, 90 minutes of live, original comedy starring Caesar and Imogene Coca, and later for The Phil Silvers Show, in which the popular comedian portrayed the conniving Army Sergeant Ernie Bilko.

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Neil Simon, pictured in 1964 (Dan Grossi/AP)

Out of his frustration came Come Blow Your Horn, which starred Hal March and Warren Berlinger as two brothers (not unlike Danny and Neil Simon) trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

The comedy ran for more than a year on Broadway.

An audience member is said to have died on opening night.

But it was his second play, Barefoot In The Park, that really put Simon on the map.

Critically well-received, the 1963 comedy, directed by Mike Nichols, concerned the tribulations of a pair of newlyweds, played by Elizabeth Ashley and Robert Redford, who lived on the top floor of a New York block.

Simon cemented that success two years later with The Odd Couple, a comedy about bickering roommates: Oscar, a gruff, slovenly sportswriter, and Felix, a neat, fussy photographer.

Walter Matthau, as Oscar, and Art Carney, as Felix, starred on Broadway, with Matthau and Jack Lemmon playing the roles in a successful movie version.

Jack Klugman and Tony Randall appeared in the TV series, which ran on ABC from 1970-1975.

A female stage version was done on Broadway in 1985 with Rita Moreno as Olive (Oscar) and Sally Struthers as Florence (Felix).

It was revived again as a TV series from 2015-17, starring Matthew Perry.

The play remains one of Simon’s most durable and popular works.

Nathan Lane as Oscar and Matthew Broderick as Felix starred in a revival that was one of the biggest hits of the 2005-2006 Broadway season.

Besides Sweet Charity (1966), which starred Gwen Verdon as a goodhearted dance-hall hostess, and Promises, Promises (1968), based on Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment, Simon wrote the books for several other musicals.

Little Me (1962), adapted from Patrick Dennis’ best-selling spoof of show-biz autobiographies, featured a hardworking Sid Caesar in seven different roles.

They’re Playing Our Song (1979), which had music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, ran for more than two years.

But a musical version of Simon’s movie The Goodbye Girl, starring Martin Short and Bernadette Peters, had only a short run in 1993.

Many of his plays were turned into films as well.

Besides The Odd Couple, he wrote the screenplays for movie versions of Barefoot In The Park, The Sunshine Boys, The Prisoner Of Second Avenue and more.

Simon also wrote original screenplays, the best known being The Goodbye Girl, starring Richard Dreyfuss as a struggling actor, and The Heartbreak Kid, which featured Charles Grodin as a recently married man, lusting to drop his new wife for a blonde goddess played by Cybill Shepherd.

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