Neil Simon, the playwright whose name was synonymous with Broadway comedy and commercial success in the theater for decades, and who helped redefine popular American humor with an emphasis on the frictions of urban living and the agonizing conflicts of family intimacy, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 91.
His death, at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, was announced by his publicist, Bill Evans. The cause was complications of pneumonia, he said. Mr. Simon was also reported to have had Alzheimer’s disease.
Early in his career, Mr. Simon wrote for television greats, including Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar. Later he wrote for the movies, too. But it was as a playwright that he earned his lasting fame, with a long series of expertly tooled laugh machines that kept his name on Broadway marquees virtually nonstop throughout the late 1960s and ’70s.
Beginning with the breakthrough hits “Barefoot in the Park” (1963) and “The Odd Couple” (1965) and continuing with popular successes like “Plaza Suite” (1968), “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” (1971) and “The Sunshine Boys” (1974), Mr. Simon ruled Broadway when Broadway was still worth ruling.
Although he was nominated for 17 Tony Awards, he won just three: for author of “The Odd Couple,” and twice for best play, for “Biloxi Blues” and “Lost in Yonkers.”
“I know how the public sees me, because people are always coming up to me and saying, ‘Thanks for the good times,’” Mr. Simon told The Times in 1991. “But all the success has demeaned me in a way. Critically, the thinking seems to be that if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good.”
Looking back, Mr. Simon wrote with a still starry-eyed joy of his decision to embark on a playwriting career: “For a man who wants to be his own master, to depend on no one else, to make life conform to his own visions rather than to follow the blueprints of others, playwriting is the perfect occupation. To sit in a room alone for six or seven or 10 hours, sharing the time with characters that you created, is sheer heaven.
“And if not heaven,” that master craftsman of the well-timed joke added, “it’s at least an escape from hell.”