Neil Simon

Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

A Look At The Legacy Of Neil Simon

August 27, 2018 - 7:05 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP) -- The theatre community is remembering the playwright Neil Simon, who died over the weekend at the age of 91.

Simon died in the hospital in Manhattan early Sunday of complications from pneumonia surrounded by family, said Bill Evans, his longtime friend and the Shubert Organization director of media relations.

Mark Harris of New York Magazine joined WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Michael Wallace on Monday to talk about Simon’s writing qualities and defining style.

“His defining style was fast. I mean, he really, in the 1960s and the 1970s with plays like ‘Barefoot in the Park’ and ‘The Odd Couple’ and ‘Plaza Suite,’ honed what we now think of as situation comedy style, like a laugh every 10 or 15 seconds; no scene going on too long without a punchline, and it was usually; his comedies were usually urban, and featuring people who were kind of at the end of their ropes a lot, so that a lot of the comedy in his work was a little bit like, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,’ but not quite that mad,” Harris said.

Starting with "Come Blow Your Horn" in 1961 and continuing into the next century, he rarely stopped working on a new play or musical. His list of credits is staggering.

Simon's stage successes included "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," ''Last of the Red Hot Lovers," ''The Sunshine Boys," ''Plaza Suite," ''Chapter Two," ''Sweet Charity" and "Promises, Promises," but there were other plays and musicals, too, more than 30 in all. Many of his plays were adapted into movies and one, "The Odd Couple," even became a popular television series.

In terms of standouts, Harris said “The Odd Couple” is, of course, a “really cherished play.” But it is far from alone.

“You know, the thing is he did a lot of different things. He won the Pulitzer Prize for ‘Lost in Yonkers.’ He wrote the book for four musicals, including ‘Promises, Promises’ and ‘Sweet Charity.’ He wrote the screenplay for several movies – some based on his own plays, and some original, like ‘The Heartbreak Kid,’” Harris said. “And for a while, he had a new play on Broadway just about every year, and some of them were such big hits that at one point, in 1967, he had four shows running on Broadway at once. That’s almost unimaginable for a playwright now.”

Simon was the recipient of four Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the Kennedy Center honors (1995), four Writers Guild of America Awards, an American Comedy Awards Lifetime Achievement honor and, in 1983, he even had a Broadway theater named after him when the Alvin was rechristened the Neil Simon Theatre.

In 2006, he won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which honors work that draws from the American experience. The previous year had seen a popular revival of "The Odd Couple," reuniting Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick after their enormous success in "The Producers" several years earlier.

Among all of Simon’s characters, the two bickering roommates in “The Odd Couple” have become a defining part of the American lexicon. Oscar Madison is a gruff, slovenly sportswriter, while Felix Ungar – or Unger, as it was spelled in the television rendition – is a neat, fussy photographer.

Walter Matthau, as Oscar, and Art Carney, as Felix, starred on Broadway, with Matthau and Jack Lemmon playing the roles in a successful movie version. Jack Klugman and Tony Randall appeared in the TV series, which ran on ABC from 1970-1975. A female stage version was done on Broadway in 1985 with Rita Moreno as Olive (Oscar) and Sally Struthers as Florence (Felix). It was revived again as a TV series on CBS from 2015-17, starring Matthew Perry as Oscar and Thomas Lennon as Felix.

The play remains one of Simon's most durable and popular works. Lane as Oscar and Broderick as Felix starred in a revival that was one of the biggest hits of the 2005-2006 Broadway season.

Of Felix and Oscar, Harris said of the characters “I think they’re certainly the ones that really endure.”

“I mean, there are the two guys in ‘The Sunshine Boys,’ played in the movie by Walter Matthau and George Burns. But I think when you say, ‘Felix and Oscar,’ you almost don’t need their last names,” Harris said. “You know exactly, in American pop culture, who’s being talked about. So they’re probably the best remembered ones.”

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)