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Playwright Neil Simon dies at age 91

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon died Saturday night at the age of 91. The cause of death was complications from pneumonia.

Playwright Neil Simon (Photo: Jonathan Exley)

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon died Saturday night at the age of 91.

The cause of death was complications from pneumonia.

Across four decades, Simon wrote more than thirty plays and musicals on Broadway, including comedies “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple” and “Plaza Suite” and those that explored darker themes, including “Lost in Yonkers,” which he won the Pulitzer Prize for in 1991.

Manny Azenberg, who has produced more than 20 of Simon’s plays, called him “a giant” of the industry.

“He leaves a huge theatrical legacy, and he had 22 successes on Broadway,” Azenberg said. “All of that speaks for itself and will probably never be replicated”

Simon often had two or three plays running on Broadway at the same time and in 1966 had four productions, with “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Sweet Charity” and “The Star Spangled Girl.”

Bill Evans, who has been the press agent for Simon since 1976, says he believes the playwright was so prolific because writing allowed him to dig up conflicts from his past in a needed exploration.

Simon grew up in Washington Heights during the Great Depression and later signed up for the Army Air Force Reserve, which led to an assignment at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver in 1945. A few years later, Simon began writing for television, before beginning his theater career.

His work includes the semi-autobiographical trilogy of plays “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”

In person, Simon was often reserved and shy, Evans said, but he amazed during rehearsals and previews, with his willingness to make tweaks to his play and his quick fixes to issues that arose.

“He was willing to change anything he wrote because he heard it in the rehearsal room,” Evans said.

Simon’s plays featured many of Broadway’s leading names including Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Plummer and Gwen Verdon.

Simon worked for 10 years in television, including working as a writer on Sid Cesar’s television series alongside Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and then made his Broadway debut with “Come Blow Your Horn” in 1961. He continued to write original screenplays, including “The Goodbye Girl” and “The Heartbreak Kid,” and saw several of his plays turned into films, including “The Odd Couple” and “The Sunshine Boys.”

He won three Tony Awards over the span of his career and received a special Tony Award in 1975 for extraordinary contributions to the theater. Simon was also the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1995 and the 2006 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

In June 1983, while his play “Brighton Beach Memoirs” was running there, the Alvin Theatre on West 52nd Street was renamed the Neil Simon Theatre.

“He’s going to be part of our culture forever,” Evans said. “It goes beyond Broadway.”

Simon is survived by his wife, Elaine Joyce Simon, daughters, Ellen Simon, Nancy Simon and Bryn Lander Simon, three grandchildren and one great-grandson.