Prolific US playwright Neil Simon dead at 91

Jennie MATTHEW
A legend of American theater, Neil Simon was credited with shaping American humor in the 1960s and 1970s in a vein similar to film director Woody Allen, with a focus on life in the big city and family conflict

Neil Simon, the prolific and Pulitzer Prize-winning US playwright who wrote for stage, television and cinema, and won more Oscar and Tony nominations combined than any other writer, died on Sunday. He was 91.

A legend of American theater, Simon was credited with shaping American humor in the 1960s and 1970s in a vein similar to film director Woody Allen, with a focus on life in the big city and family conflict.

His death, early Sunday in a New York hospital of complications from pneumonia, was announced by his longtime friend Bill Evans.

His wife, daughter and grandson were at his bedside, Evans told AFP. He had represented Simon for three decades from 1976 to 2006.

Simon was the author of critically acclaimed and commercial hits such as "The Odd Couple" (1965) "The Sunshine Boys" (1974) "Barefoot in the Park" (1963) and "Lost in Yonkers" (1990).

Several of his plays went on to become major Hollywood movies, including "The Goodbye Girl" in 1977 that won Richard Dreyfuss an Oscar for best leading actor and "The Odd Couple" in 1968 about two friends sharing an apartment starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

While several of his plays were darker, he was best known as the king of comedy, peppering his plays with witty one-liners.

Much of his work explored the everyday struggles of the middle-classes, or what he called "domestic wars" and inter-family conflict, influenced by his troubled upbringing in the Bronx during the Great Depression in a family where money was scarce.

"He was a writer and an artist who couldn't stop going inside of himself and finding new things. Like any creative artist there was a compulsion to explore and go deeper," Evans told AFP.

"He wrote every single day. He went to his office, a nondescript office and wrote," he added. "He found a connection in all of us."

- 'Slice of Americana' -

Simon first made a name for himself in the early 1960s, starting with "Barefoot in the Park," about a bickering married couple, and "The Odd Couple" credited with capturing the zeitgeist of that decade.

"The phrase 'odd couple' is now used in so many different contexts. It was a privilege knowing him," said Evans.

Simon followed up in the 1980s with trilogy "Brighton Beach Memoirs", "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound" in which the leading character Eugene Jerome is an alter ego for the playwright himself.

The trilogy starred a young Matthew Broderick, now the celebrated stage actor and husband of film star Sarah Jessica Parker, as the leading character in what Evans called a "Slice of Americana."

In 1991, Simon achieved the highest honor in US drama, winning the Pulitzer Prize for "Lost in Yonkers," an autobiographical comedy about a mother and her daughter, which was his last big splash on Broadway.

In 1983 he gained the rare accolade of having a New York stage, the Neil Simon Theatre, named in his honor.

In addition to his Pulitzer, he won a Golden Globe and three Tonys.