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Prolific Playwright Neil Simon Dies On Sunday At Age 91


I remember in high school and college, I'd see other people reading books. And I was doing this odd thing. I was reading scripts for plays by Neil Simon. I just loved the chance to laugh out loud on, like, every page. The playwright, who died yesterday at age 91, had this effect on theater audiences for decades. Starting in the '60s, his comedies set a new Broadway standard. There was "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot In The Park," "The Sunshine Boys" and so many more. But it actually took Neil Simon a long time to gain critical respect, as NPR's Bob Mondello remembers.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Neil Simon got his start writing jokes for Sid Caesar on TV, so when he turned to the stage, reviewers called him a jokesmith, a quipster, king of the one-liner, never mind that the laughs that, say, Felix and Oscar get in "The Odd Couple" didn't really come from quips.


WALTER MATTHAU: (As Oscar) I don't think that two single men living alone in a big, eight-room apartment should have a cleaner house than my mother.

JACK LEMMON: (As Felix) I didn't say that you have to do it. You don't have to clean up.

MATTHAU: (As Oscar) Well, what you do is worse. You're always in my bathroom hanging up my towels. Whenever I smoke, you follow me around with an ashtray. Last night, I found you in the kitchen washing the floor, shaking your head and moaning, footprints, footprints.

LEMMON: (As Felix) I didn't say they were yours.

MATTHAU: (As Oscar) Well, they were mine, damn it. I have feet and they make prints.

MONDELLO: In this movie version for which he did the adaptation, you can hear Simon's set-them-up-knock-them-down rhythms. He was a master of argument and of the sort of argumentative characters who might well be sitting out front laughing. Thirty hit comedies and musicals in 40 years made him one of the most commercially successful American playwrights ever. But the ease of his success worked against him with critics. He was glib, they said, a joke machine - until he started writing comedies about his own life, which had often been less than happy - the play "Chapter Two," for instance, about a widower dealing with the death of his first wife, written when Simon was doing exactly that, and three plays "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound" about a young man growing up during the Great Depression and becoming a writer, as Simon had. Writing plays, Simon told the Paris Review, is like analysis without going to the analyst.

Finally, after three decades of hit comedies, movies and musicals, Neil Simon received the acclaim that had long eluded him when his play "Lost In Yonkers" earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Writing by that time was getting harder, but he kept at it as long as he could, happiest, he said, when he spent his day with just a typewriter for company. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.