Playwright and screenwriter best-known for ‘The Odd Couple’

Neil Simon obituary: Prolific humorist wrote more than 30 plays

Neil Simon

Born: July 4th, 1927

Died: August 26th, 2018

Few things in the irrational world of theatre are as easy to explain as the success of Neil Simon, who has died aged 91. The fact that his 30-odd plays have the highest hit ratio of any American author, that they won four Tony awards, and that half were made into films, all comes down to his brand of equal-opportunity humour.


Simon asks only that his audience should have lived for 20 years or so in something other than a cave. Even his autobiographical Brighton Beach trilogy, an enshrinement of his urban Jewish heritage, never needs his audiences to have shared it or anything like it. This quality brought him decades of success in the theatre industry, time that he needed to develop from a writer whose characters were interesting only for the jokes they spewed to the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Lost in Yonkers (1991). Simon's common touch was coupled with a fantastical inner life, as dramatised in Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983) and a keen observational sense that gave his work a realistic honesty: finding the humour of human existence also meant highlighting the underlying tragedy.

His best moments have layer upon layer of the sweet and sour, as in the opening moments of his 1968 film version, which stars Jack Lemmon as Felix and Walter Matthau as Oscar, of his 1965 play The Odd Couple. The suicidal Felix checks into a seedy hotel to jump out of the window, but the window is stuck, his back is injured as a result, and, in a brief but memorable minute, he is the object of concerned, motherly warmth from an elderly cleaning lady he has never previously met. Underneath the jokes, that's the Simon trademark: workaday people who come out of his native New York City woodwork with anonymous acts of kindness.

Growing up in the Washington Heights district of Manhattan amid the financial worries of the Great Depression, Simon did not recall much laughter in the on-and-off marriage between his father, Irving Simon, a travelling salesman, and mother, Mamie (nee Levy). But the shyness of his years at DeWitt Clinton high school evaporated when he was at the movies, where he laughed so loud at Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton that he was sometimes asked to leave. After a stint in the military and attending the University of Denver, Simon discovered his gift for comedy, and collaborated with his elder brother, Danny, on radio and TV scripts.

Initial break

An early break landed Neil a job as a writer on Sid Caesar 's Your Show of Shows, then a hugely popular TV phenomenon, alongside Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart.

That life, portrayed by Simon in his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993), was hardly something to inspire nostalgia, with prickly, neurotic writers at the mercy of the volatile, hungover Caesar. Simon won Emmy awards for his work for Caesar and for The Phil Silvers Show, as well as extravagant salaries. Nonetheless, he was quietly and arduously working on his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, which required 20 rewrites over three years and, upon opening on Broadway in 1961, was only a moderate hit. Simon even referred to the play as "primitive". But it established him on Broadway, where he was to stay for more than 40 years.

After his first megahit, Barefoot in the Park (1963), with Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley (the 1967 film version starred Redford and Jane Fonda), his life was fodder for plays less often, excepting in some of his more desperate moments. Freed from the confines of himself, Simon developed a versatility and openness that allowed him to keenly dramatise lives that were far away from his own.

During Simon's long peak, which ran roughly from 1965 to 1985, there were flops. But plays such as The Gingerbread Lady, written in 1970 but revised, were harbingers of better works that he would write later.

The central turning point in Simon’s life, both personal and artistic, was the death of his first wife, Joan Baim. She probably would have been his only wife had she not died of cancer in 1973, after 20 years of marriage. Their marital ups and downs no doubt fuelled much of the volatile dialogue in his plays (he described one fight as ending with him being assaulted with a veal chop).

Burgeoning celebrity

Yet, by his account, she could not have been a better spouse for dealing with her husband’s burgeoning celebrity. Simon described one dinner in which he attempted to ask for his freedom, simply because it was the sexually freewheeling 1970s. She took the news calmly and casually and, by the end of the dinner, he had recommitted to their marriage.

Her cancer diagnosis initially put him – not her – in hospital, with an anxiety attack, a less-than-heroic fact that Simon admitted to with his usual frankness in Rewrites: A Memoir (1996). He continued work during this period on his comedy about two ageing, cantankerous vaudevillians, The Sunshine Boys. The 1972 play proved to be one of his most durable hits, with its consistent melding of characters and laugh lines. The long-term effects of his personal traumas, however, were seen later in a series of plays that were box office losers. That ended with his most technically assured and emotionally powerful work up to that time, Chapter Two (1977). It decisively, painfully bought him into his creative middle period.

"Writing, I think, is not always an act of creation," Simon once wrote. "Sometimes I think it's like a poison that inhabits your being and the only way to get rid of it is to have the pen press deeply and quickly on the empty page." In that spirit, he knew Chapter Two would be such an autobiographical account of his grief for Joan and subsequent failed marriage to the actor Marsha Mason that he asked Mason's permission to write it. She said "yes" and even consented to play what was more or less herself in the 1979 film version. They married in 1973 and divorced a decade later.

Clinical depression

Other wives were not so understanding. He married his third wife, Diane Lander, twice (1987-1988 and 1990-1998), the second time with a written agreement that he would not portray her in a play or film.

The late 1990s were not happy for Simon. He suffered from clinical depression and walked out on his marriage to Lander. In a second volume of memoirs, The Play Goes On (1999), he recounts asking for advice from his dead wife, Joan, and it coming back in the form of "Get out, Neil."

In 1999, Simon married the actor Elaine Joyce, and his new play, The Dinner Party, was a moderate hit on Broadway. His last new play on Broadway, Rose's Dilemma, in 2003, ran for roughly two months, and suffered from the public relations debacle of a falling-out between the author and its star, Mary Tyler Moore .

He admitted to missing the days when he had a hit nearly every year, when he was so productive that he did not remember writing entire plays. “But I can never complain about my career in the theatre. I’ve had a great time,” he said. “[Writing] works out all my problems. Even if the play doesn’t deal with what you’re going through in your life, there’s something cathartic about it.”

Simon is survived by Elaine, and by two daughters, Nancy and Ellen, from his first marriage, and a daughter, Bryn, from his third. – Guardian Service