Sheldon Patinkin, major force in Chicago theater, dies at 79

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Sheldon Patinkin, director, teacher and writer, in 2003.

Sheldon Patinkin, a director, teacher and writer who was one of the enduring forces in the development of Chicago theater, died Sunday at the age of 79.

An early fan of improvisational theater, Mr. Patinkin was just 17 when, in 1953, Paul Sills, a fledgling theater director at the University of Chicago, hired him to run the lights for a production of a play by Jean Cocteau that featured Sills himself, Mike Nichols and Joyce Piven. He went on to work with the Playwrights Theatre Club, which in many ways was one of the earliest companies on the Chicago scene, and then worked as a director throughout the early years of the Second City.

Second City CEO Andrew Alexander said in a statement that the company was “heartbroken” to learn of Mr. Patinkin’s death.

“Beginning as a bar manager at the Second City in 1959, Sheldon became our artistic conscience as director and artistic consultant,”Alexander said. “He has worked with Second City casts and directors for the past 55 years; most recently giving notes and consulting on the Second City e.t.c.’s ‘Apes of Wrath.’ His work expanded beyond the Second City and he became a prolific director and educator. He was a beloved mentor to thousands. His legacy is exponential, and we are so proud to have also called him a friend.”

More recently, Mr. Patinkin served as chair of the Theater Department of Columbia College Chicago, artistic director of the Getz Theater of Columbia College, artistic consultant at Steppenwolf Theatre, and co-director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Summer Ensemble Workshops. Beyond Columbia, his more recent directing projects included “The Glass Menagerie” (Gift Theater Company), “South Pacific” (Metropolis Art Center), “Uncle Vanya” (Steppenwolf), and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (Irish Rep and the Galway Festival in Ireland), and “Krapp’s Last Tape” (Buckets of Beckett Festival), both starring John Mahoney. He also oversaw concert stagings of opera scenes and excerpts for the Lyric Opera Center at the Grant Park and Ravinia Festival concerts.

Mr. Patinkin received a Jeff Award for directing his Irving Berlin revue, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and a special Jeff Award for his contribution to Chicago theater. His translation of Brecht’s “The Good Person of Setzuan” was directed by Frank Galati at the Goodman Theatre. His book “The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater” was published by SourceBooks in 2000. “Keeping Up with the Times, or No Legs No Jokes No Chance: A History of the Musical Theatre,” his text book on the history of the American musical, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2007.

During a stint in Toronto in the 1970s, he directed shows at the Second City theater there and helped produce the first season of the acclaimed satire series “SCTV.”

At Second City he was a mentor to many. Alumnus and “Cheers” actor George Wendt wrote Sunday on Facebook that Mr. Patinkin was generous with his “enormous intellect and talent.

Scott Adsit, who went on to Second City’s mainstage and NBC’s “30 Rock,” recalled Sunday that getting a big laugh from Mr. Patinkin “always really felt like an achievement. Every time. He’s one of the few voices always in my head, telling me to enunciate or connect more or simply ‘that was good.’ He’s still giving me notes. He always will.”

Otherfamous friends tweeted their reactions:

He embraced the times of transition at Second City. Onecame in the early ’70s, when a group of performers pegged “The Next Generation” — among them Ramis, Joe Flaherty and John Belushi — created scenes full of younger, looser sensibilities. Then in the mid-’90s, students of different improvisational forms revamped the way that the scenes themselves were strung together.

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•Robert Klein, George Wendt, Dave Thomas,, David Steinberg remember Sheldon Patinkin

“The major times of change in what goes on onstage in Second City have been generational,” Mr. Patinkin told the Sun-Times in 2000. “Our audiences always stayed around the same age — 20 to 45, something like that. We [in charge] were starting to be older than our audiences, and that’s when you have to worry.”

The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Sholom Memorial Park in Arlington Heights. Shiva will be at the home of Norm and Jackie Patinkin, Sheldon’s brother and sister-in-law, at 1060 W. Albion in Rogers Park. It will begin following the funeral, and continue until 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and will go from 11 a.m. through the afternoon on Wednesday.

Contributing: Darel Jevens

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