CHICAGO — Sheldon Patinkin, a crucial figure in the development of improvisational comedy in Chicago and a mentor to generations of American and Canadian comedians, as well as aspiring theatrical directors and other theater artists, died Sunday at the age of 79, his close friend Jane Nicholl Sahlins said Sunday.
Patinkin, born in Chicago in 1935, was the longtime chairman of the theater department at Columbia College Chicago and part of the first generation of Chicago improvisers. He was an original member of the Playwrights Theatre Club, the pivotal 1950s group that spawned both the Compass Players and The Second City.
He had a half-century association with Second City, where he remained an artistic consultant and beloved link to the theater’s origination. He also retained associations with many other Chicago theaters, including the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he was an important source of guidance in the early years and where he continued to direct and consult. In the 1970s, Patinkin was a writer-producer for the cult TV show “SCTV.”
In the last few years, he was an ensemble member at the Gift Theatre in Chicago.
“Sheldon taught us how to be an ensemble and how to take care of each other,” said Gift Theatre artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton, who said that he was struggling to go on with a show Sunday afternoon but was doing so because he knew that his mentor would have had it no other way.
“Sheldon,” Thornton said, “belonged to everybody.”
“He was a figure like John Houseman or Kenneth Tynan for the Chicago theater,” said Northlight Theatre artistic director BJ Jones. “He was the chronicler, the adviser. He kept people afloat.”
Many of Patinkin’s old pals, including Ed Asner and Mike Nichols, became rich and famous for their work in film and television — not unlike his cousin, Mandy Patinkin. But Sheldon Patinkin mostly remained in Chicago, dedicating much of his life to the training and teaching of future artists, especially those like the future Broadway directors Anna D. Shapiro and David Cromer who came through Columbia College.
“He was, simply put, the most generous person I ever met,” Cromer said on Sunday.
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But Patinkin also remained deeply connected to the profession. A famously social, emotional and likable personality, he knew well all the giants of improv and comedy, from the late Del Close to the late Bernie Sahlins, his longtime professional partner. Patinkin was a longtime friend of the late Paul Sills. And when Patinkin called the late Second City producer Joyce Sloane “the mother of Chicago theater” in her obituary, he was, in fact, referring to a woman he himself had hired nearly a half century earlier.
“Sheldon was smart, generous and beloved and very direct with me,” said Andrew Alexander, the co-owner of The Second City. Among those who run the illustrious comedy theater on Sunday, the talk was that what vice-president Kelly Leonard and his wife, the Columbia College comedy teacher Anne Libera, called “the Mount Rushmore” of the company were no longer in the house.
“That whole group,” said Alexander, “is now gone.”
For Patinkin had been about as close to the living ground zero of the Chicago comedy theater as it possible for a single individual to be.
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For many in the field, Patinkin (known always as Sheldon and an omnipresent figure in storefronts and comedy clubs until just a few weeks ago) was one of the last living links to the early days of Chicago comedy and theater, the two being inextricably linked.
His books included “Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater” (published in 2000) and a 2008 history of the American musical, wittily titled “No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance.”
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Patinkin was, for decades in Chicago, one of the deepest thinkers about comedy, especially its relationship with the external world and with human emotions. “As Vietnam progressed, it just got harder and harder to do stuff,” Patinkin told the Tribune in 2003, looking back on the early years of Second City. “I remember right after the 1968 Democratic Convention, we did a show called ‘A Plague on Both Your Houses.’ We were all so angry, there was just no way to make it funny.”
That was Patinkin on the history of progressive Chicago comedy. And then there was Patinkin on dramatic theory.
“If I slip on a banana peel,” he once said, grinning, “that’s a comedy. If you slip on it, that’s a tragedy.”
Survivors include a brother, Norm Patinkin.
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