- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The comic mind behind “The Odd Couple,” “The Goodbye Girl” and the autobiographical “Eugene” trilogy is the latest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Celebrated playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon will be the ninth recipient of the comedy statuette come fall, the Kennedy Center announced yesterday.

“Neil Simon, like Mark Twain, has a unique way of exposing the American spirit by drawing on experiences in his own life and creating insightful and touching portraits of the world around him,” said Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman.

The award honors those whose humor has affected society much as Mr. Twain’s wry musings have done for decades.

Mr. Simon, a three-time Tony winner, is the only playwright to have had four Broadway productions running simultaneously, but the scope of his work extends well beyond the stage.

The Bronx, N.Y., native has been breaking up audiences for more than four decades, leaving us with a series of indelible characters who feel like people we know and love, even if they occasionally drive us to distraction.

Like a previous Mark Twain recipient, Carl Reiner, Marvin Neil Simon began his creative life writing gags for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” The stage soon beckoned, and his career took off with 1961’s “Come Blow Your Horn,” which he followed with the smash “Barefoot in the Park.”

Some of Mr. Simon’s best works were inspired by personal highs and lows. “The Odd Couple” grew, in part, out of his brother’s roommate woes. “Chapter Two” proved cathartic following the death of Mr. Simon’s first wife.

He set many of his pieces around his New York environs and leaned heavily on his own upbringing for a trio of hits — “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.” He revisited that autobiographical vein with 1991’s “Lost in Yonkers,” for which he earned a Pulitzer Prize.

Mr. Simon worked nearly as diligently on his film career. Though not every screenplay scored (witness flops such as “The Marrying Man” and “The Slugger’s Wife”), his resume features sleepers (“The Lonely Guy,” “Seems Like Old Times”) and smashes (“The Goodbye Girl,” “The Heartbreak Kid”) alike.

For television audiences, Mr. Simon’s greatest achievement remains “The Odd Couple,” the celebrated series pairing fussbudget Felix Unger (Tony Randall) with the slovenly Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman).

In recent years, Broadway stars including Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick have revisited the “Odd Couple” formula with hilarious results.

The Kennedy Center previously awarded Mr. Simon, 78, with a Kennedy Center Honor, a yearly award recognizing lifetime achievement in the performing arts.

He will receive the Mark Twain Prize Oct. 15 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets for the program go on sale Aug. 11. The event will be broadcast on WETA-TV (Channel 26) this fall at a time and date to be determined.

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