Neil Simon, playwright

Neil Simon
Neil Simon
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The playwright Neil Simon, who has died at 91, was responsible for a remarkable run of Broadway and Hollywood hits which included The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys and Plaza Suite.

A giant of the American theatre throughout the second half of the 20th century, he won three regular Tony Awards, plus one for special achievement, as well as a Pulitzer and the Mark Twain prize for humour.

The actor Robert Redford, who starred in Barefoot in the Park, one of his earliest successes, went so far as to suggest that he was the most successful playwright since Shakespeare.

Born on July 4 1927 in the Bronx, he was the son of a garment salesman, Irving Simon, and his wife, Mamie. His Jewish childhood in the city, and the sometimes storm relationship between his parents, would be a recurring theme in his writing.

Mentored by his older brother, Danny, who called him “Doc” and who went on to a successful writing career of his own, he cut his teeth writing scripts for comedy shows on American radio in the 1940s, but soon gravitated towards the new medium of television. By the middle of the 1950s, he was among the writing team – along with Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart – of Your Show of Shows, a Rolls Royce among variety vehicles, for the comedian Sid Caesar.

He was also on the writing staff of Phil Silvers’ indelible CBS Service comedy, Sergeant Bilko.

But it was the Broadway stage that gave life to his most successful comedies, and nearly all of them spawned profitable movie spin-offs.

The Odd Couple, in which Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau forged one of the screen’s great partnerships, was a monumental hit and went on to a long life as a TV situation comedy.

The show earned Simon the Tony Award for best playwright in 1965.

He recalled for Life magazine: “When I was a kid, I climbed up on a stone ledge to watch an outdoor movie of Charlie Chaplin. I laughed so hard I fell off, cut my head open and was taken to the doctor, bleeding and laughing.

“My idea of the ultimate achievement in a comedy is to make a whole audience fall onto the floor, writhing and laughing so hard that some of them pass out.”