Neil Simon, the American playwright, died today (Aug. 26) at the age of 91.
Early in his career Simon wrote for television, including the comedies Your Show of Shows and The Phil Silvers Show. His first Broadway play, Come Blow Your Horn, which opened in 1961, took three years to write, and 20 drafts to perfect, but he quickly became one of the most prolific and influential playwrights of the era. In the 1960s it was not uncommon for Simon to have several Broadway productions running at the same time, many of which were adapted for television and film.
Simon’s plays, such as Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Lost in Yonkers—for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991—remain in heavy rotation on stages large and small. “Since 1970 almost no day has gone by without a professional production of a Neil Simon comedy playing somewhere in the country,” The New Yorker wrote in a 2010 profile.
He not only owned a theater—the Eugene O’Neill—for a time, the Alvin Theatre was renamed in his honor in 1983. “Mr. Simon ruled Broadway when Broadway was still worth ruling,” The New York Times wrote.
Simon’s plays are known for their rich language and snappy punchlines, though he took issue with the idea that they were comedies, referring to his work as drama with comic moments. “I don’t like telling jokes,” he told The Paris Review in 1992. ”I don’t like to hear someone say to me, ‘Tell him that funny thing you said the other day.’ It’s repeating it. I have no more joy in it. Once it’s said, for me it’s over. The same is true once it’s written—I have no more interest in it.”
Writing about the American family, urban life, and the Jewish American experience, Simon sought relatability. “You’d hear an ‘aah’ from the audience, a sound of ‘My God, that’s me. That’s me, that’s you, that’s Uncle Joe, that’s Pop,’” he told The New Yorker.
Born in the Bronx on July 4, 1927, Simon grew up in a tumultuous household. His parents’ near constant sparring inspired some of his mis-matched protagonists, most memorably as recast in The Odd Couple, as well as the family dynamics in the three plays of his Brighton Beach Memoirs trilogy from the early 1990s. The first 35 pages of that play famously sat in Simon’s pile of unfinished drafts for nine years before he returned to it and finished writing it in the space of six weeks.
“I’ve got infinitely more plays in the drawer than have seen the lights of the stage,” Simon told The Paris Review. “Most of them never come out of the drawer, but occasionally one will and it amazes me how long it has taken to germinate and blossom.”