Neil Simon, one of the most successful playwrights in Broadway history, has died at the age of 91. According to Broadway World, Simon passed away late Saturday from complications of pneumonia.
Simon was widely regarded as the most beloved playwright of the 20th century. He was simultaneously prolific and critically lauded, authoring more than 30 plays that earned him 17 Tony nominations and three trophies. He also received a Pulitzer Prize and a Golden Globe Award, among many other honors.
Simon’s playwriting led him into television and movie work, and his influence on modern TV comedy in particular is hard to overstate. Simon’s most widely recognized creation was easily The Odd Couple, which told the story of two friends with mismatched personalities but closely entwined lives. The Odd Couple exemplified Simon’s broad, joke-filled, but emotionally grounded take on fast-changing urban life (itself strongly influenced by Hollywood director Billy Wilder).
Simon won his first Tony for The Odd Couple, which debuted on Broadway in 1965. It was quickly turned into a hit 1968 film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, then a multi-Emmy winning TV adaptation from 1970 to 1975. It was remade for TV in 1982 with a largely African-American cast, and yet again in 2015 by Friends star Matthew Perry.
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Perry’s devotion to the show is no surprise. The Odd Couple, and Simon’s broader take on urban life, inspired a flotilla of TV comedies that hinged on fractious but ultimately loving friendships between single adults looking for meaning and connection in the disjointed modern world. Examples range from Three’s Company to Perfect Strangers to the show which made Perry a star. Seinfeld pushed the form deeper into postmodern narcissism, in turn inspiring the likes of Workaholics and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Other highlights of Simon’s output included The Sunshine Boys, a paean to classic vaudeville, and Brighton Beach Memoirs, the start of an autobiographical trilogy about Jewish life in midcentury New York. The second part of that trilogy was adapted into the 1988 Matthew Broderick film Biloxi Blues.
Simon continued working well into his golden years, though with sometimes disappointing results. In 2009, when he was 82, a revival of Brighton Beach closed after just a week, costing producers millions. The New York Times blamed the failure on shifting audience tastes, including towards more sardonic and edgy fare. But even if it eventually evolved beyond him, Simon will remain a bedrock influence on American comedy—and in turn, on how Americans see themselves.