Gentle humor was lifeblood of playwright Neil Simon

FILE- In this April 21, 2008, file photo Neil Simon, center, his wife Elaine Joyce, left, and Lucie Arnaz pose for a picture at the reception for the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's Monte Cristo Award in New York. Simon, a master of comedy whose laugh-filled hits such as "The Odd Couple," "Barefoot in the Park" and his "Brighton Beach" trilogy dominated Broadway for decades, died on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018. He was 91. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK — When master playwright Neil Simon accepted the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2006, he was visibly nervous. But his gentle humor was evident.

“It took me six years to write my first play,” he said, recalling that he found the title for “Come Blow Your Horn” from one of his daughter’s nursery rhyme books. He said it turned out to be “a so-so play” that was turned into “a so-so movie” with Frank Sinatra.

But it was successful enough that Simon considered calling his subsequent works “The Sheep’s in the Meadow” and “The Cow’s in the Corn.”

“For the first time,” he said, “I had money in the bank. Yes, sir, yes sir, three bags full!”

Simon, who died Sunday at 91, was a meticulous joke-smith, peppering his plays, especially the early ones, with one-liners and humorous situations that critics said sometimes came at the expense of character and believability.

No matter. For much of his career, audiences embraced his work, which often focused on middle-class, urban life, many of the plots drawn from his own personal experience. His characters battled depression, alcoholism and loneliness.

Simon’s stage successes included “The Odd Couple,” ”Barefoot in the Park,” the “Brighton Beach” trilogy, “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” ”Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” ”The Sunshine Boys,” ”Plaza Suite,” ”Chapter Two,” ”Sweet Charity” and “Promises, Promises.” Many of his plays were adapted into movies and one, “The Odd Couple,” even became a popular television series.

For seven months in 1967, he had four productions running at the same time on Broadway: “Barefoot in the Park,” ”The Odd Couple,” ”Sweet Charity” and “The Star-Spangled Girl.”

Simon’s ability to recognize life’s little annoyances — too many pillows piled on a sofa, being told as a kid you may not eat any more cookies — connected with audiences. A scene in “The Odd Couple” when Felix Unger passive-aggressively leaves a note on Oscar’s pillow — “We’re all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.” — got huge laughs.

The loss of Simon was especially hard for playwrights and screenwriters. Randi Mayem Singer, who co-penned the film “Mrs. Doubtfire,” mourned Simon as a “truly great American storyteller.”

“If you write comedy, if you write period, you learned something from Neil Simon,” Singer said.

Kristoffer Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, took to Twitter to remember an icon: “In a different life, I would have loved to have been my generation’s Neil Simon. I’m sad that we don’t have that kind of voice.” And “Big Bang Theory” creator Bill Prady wrote that “there is no American comedy writer whose work isn’t influenced by the rhythm and music of Neil Simon’s words.”

Simon was the recipient of four Tony Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the Kennedy Center honors (1995) and, in 1983, he even had a Broadway theater named after him when the Alvin was rechristened the Neil Simon Theatre.

The bespectacled, mild-looking Simon (described in a New York Times magazine profile as looking like an accountant or librarian who dressed “just this side of drab”) was a relentless writer — and rewriter.

“I am most alive and most fulfilled sitting alone in a room, hoping that those words forming on the paper in the Smith-Corona will be the first perfect play ever written in a single draft,” Simon wrote in the introduction to one of the many anthologies of his plays.

Simon’s own life figured most prominently in what became known as his “Brighton Beach” trilogy — “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” ”Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound” — which many consider his finest works. In them, Simon’s alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome, makes his way from childhood to the U.S. Army to finally, on the verge of adulthood, a budding career as a writer.

Simon originally started as a radio and TV writer with his older brother, Danny. Yet Simon grew dissatisfied with television writing and the network restrictions that accompanied it. Out of his frustration came “Come Blow Your Horn,” which centered on two brothers (not unlike Danny and Neil Simon) trying to figure out what to do with their lives. The comedy ran for more than a year on Broadway.