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

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

Sun-Times library photo

Sheldon Patinkin — a Second City fixture and former chair of Columbia College’s theater department, to name just a couple of his many affiliations — played a key role in the evolution of Chicago’s theater scene. He died Sunday at the age of 79 and is fondly remembered by those whose lives he touched. More than a few of them went on to achieve international fame.

ROBERT KLEIN (standup comedian, films, television)

The first thing I did when I got to the Lincoln Hotel, I said [on the phone to Sheldon], “Am I here?” He said, “Look out the window. Look down.” And then when I walked into [Second City], there he was. He was welcoming from the start.

He was a very good director. He was comforting, and he was incredibly encouraging. He was artistically honest. When he liked something, he liked it. When he didn’t, he tried to work it out. But he had wonderful taste.

Especially in contrast with Paul Sills — I did have the good fortune to work with Paul, more for than with — Sheldon was a much better communicator. Paul could distance himself from the work. A director is a coach, in a sense, and Sheldon was very good at that. He was heart and soul involved in the shows and the hard work. I see him now, sitting cross-legged and putting in the time.

He was an intellectual and a brilliant person, and it seemed to me that he certainly had a knack for truth in acting. He also knew when something worked comedically. We had many conversations. I considered myself a close friend of his when we worked there.

The whole Second City experience was so crucial to my career, and Sheldon was the essential cog of that experience because he was my director for most of my [tenure]. We worked in the trenches and he held it together.

DAVID STEINBERG (Standup comedian, television host, director)

Sheldon was so important to me. I came in at a time when there was a transition from Paul Sills to Sheldon. Del Close was in my company and John Brent and Mina Kolb might have still been there. And I was the kid to that group, basically.

Sheldon came in certainly the second show that I did the first year I was there. But Sheldon was there even when I was working with Paul Sills for a while and was sort of co-directing with Paul. He was a friend, and he was one of the smartest, most knowledgeable people about so many things. I don’t think I’d ever met anyone who just had knowledge at his fingertips to the extent that Sheldon did about everything. And he had a great laugh. When the audience was there and you heard that Sheldon laugh, it was an OK that things were doing well, you were doing great.

He guided me. I really believe that Sheldon was the one who told me to do these sermons and things that I’d never even thought of. I remember the conversation was, “You’ve got such an incredible background in Judaism that you’re not using.” And I was so insulted. I thought, “I’m a hip guy now. I’m onstage. I’m an actor. I’m not doing that stuff from my yeshiva.” I didn’t want to be brought back to that theological background. It didn’t make sense with what we were doing at Second City, which is so cool. And he was exactly right.

He knew all the scenes from everybody else. When you start at Second City you need to inherit scenes and do some of them. And Sheldon knew all those scenes. He knew the words. He knew them from whatever tapes there were at that time. And he guided me all the way through almost all of my Second City years.

Sheldon was a very special person. He was important to everyone he worked with. He guided everyone. He negotiated real political waters. I might have been combative with everyone onstage, but they were serious about their hostilities. He could navigate the personalities. And he knew everything. Really, the most important thing you bring to Second City is information that no one else has, and intelligence that no one else has. My advantage was that theology stuff and other things. And I was a book reader. Sheldon had read everything that I had read. He was a teacher.

He was more of an advocate of mine than anybody else. When I started out I didn’t even know I needed an advocate, because I could hear the laughs and would feel I was doing well. But he was the guide.

Photo credit: Chicago Sun-Times

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DAVE THOMAS (SCTV, films)

Sheldon hired me for the Second City stage show [in Toronto], and he probably, more than anyone else, is responsible for me getting into Second City and consequently SCTV. And I told him that I will be eternally grateful to him for that opportunity, because I was not an easy guy to hire.

The five days I auditioned with the cast — Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, guys who even at the beginning of their careers were legends — I was terrified. Then I started to settle in and get comfortable. And Sheldon mentored me during that time. He understood how frightened I was. He had figured it out and he kind of confronted me with that, and I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And so he worked around that and spent a lot of time helping me and kind of tutoring me.

And when I started SCTV, he helped me there, too. He played a much more significant role in the first two years of SCTV than most people know, including being in the room and participating in the conception of the idea of a little television station. But also in working with the actors. I was the least experienced of all of them. I had the least stage time. The only way I was able to distinguish myself was as a writer. But in the acting area, where I was vulnerable and not really experienced, Sheldon helped me a lot with extra time watching me rehearse some of my pieces, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. He was a teacher. He was this generous, giving soul who spent time with needy, neurotic actors and guided them through their awkward and dysfunctional personality problems to find a way to use your dysfunctional problems in playing that role. “Go with the fear,” he would say.

He was a generous laugh. When he thought something was funny, or when he saw the germ of something that was funny, he would help you bring it out. That’s what a teacher does.

GEORGE WENDT (Norm Peterson on “Cheers,” Broadway, film)

When I first met Sheldon, I was in the touring company at Second City and really feeling a bit out of place. I was just, like, a goof-off who studied with Jo Forsberg and somehow landed in the company.

He had a knack for validating one’s particular contributions or talents. I think his contribution to Second City was enormous and seminal. He was with Second City until his very last breath. But his broader impact was Chicago theater in general. When you see a ripe piece of fruit, you can say, “Oh, wow. That’s a special thing. That’s John Belushi. That’s Eugene Levy.” But Sheldon had a knack for taking the rawest Columbia College kids and the raggedy-ass theater company storefronts and workshop students through decades and decades and finding the grain. Everyone can recognize a ripe piece of fruit, but Sheldon could see a pile of s— and recognize that it might nurture the earth and that somewhere in there was a seed that might be germinated and sprout a nice plant which would eventually flower and bear a beautiful, ripe piece of fruit.

He wouldn’t necessarily guide a person every step of the way. But he just had the eye or the nose to find what was distinctive about each and every person who crossed his path. He just intuited it through his talent and gave notes based on that. Even though 99 percent of the work he saw was absolute dreck, he could still find something to build on.

He disdained shtick. He would call you on it. But he had a great sense of humor and a great sense of what is funny. Of course if Marty Short’s got his hair a foot [high], prancing around onstage, audiences would be literally peeing their pants. And Sheldon, I’m sure, was among them.

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