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Chicago actor-writer Richard Fire dead at 69

Actor Richard Fire’s blazing performances ignited Chicago’s theater scene in the 1970s, and his writing created a film dubbed one of the most harrowing in the history of cinema, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”

He was a star of the theater department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when he was recruited by founder Stuart Gordon to join Chicago’s Organic Theater Company.

Not only was the Organic a springboard for actors Andre De Shields, Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna and Meshach Taylor, it also delivered on its mission to produce the “bold.”

Mr. Fire appeared in its 1971 hit “Warp,” billed as “The World’s First Science Fiction Epic Adventure Play in Serial Form.” Mr. Fire starred in the Organic’s 1977 premiere of “Bleacher Bums” and in 1982’s “E/R Emergency Room,” which broke Organic box-office records. Also in 1982, he adapted “Dr. Rat,” a production about lab animals rising up against oppression.

Mr. Fire, 69, died July 8 in his native New Jersey after a brief illness.

Though he had moved from theater into working at a family business, his death was felt keenly by other alums of the Organic, which has lost four early members in a year. Taylor died in June of 2014, followed by actor Tom Towles, who starred in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” and Roberta Custer, the sun worshiper in “Bleacher Bums,” co-written by Mr. Fire and Organic’s other actors.

“We had about seven actors at a time. That’s [the deaths] like half the company,” said Gordon, a writer, director and producer who directed the horror cult classic “Re-Animator.” “It’s hard for us all to fathom it. All four of them were all so amazingly talented and good friends. We stayed together and in touch with each other.”

Mr. Fire had a quicksilver quality that enabled him to write, play music, perform physical feats and switch characters, Gordon said.

“In one of our plays, he did a seduction scene in which he played the saxophone when he chased around this young lady . . . he had never played the saxophone before.” And, “They ended up bouncing on the trampoline together while he was playing the saxophone. He played a robot in [1977’s] ‘Sirens of Titan’ and did the whole performance sitting on one of those bouncy balls and bouncing around.”

His dark charisma in the company’s 1971 production of “Poe” was “part of the reason I wanted to join the Organic,” Mantegna said. “He ran the gamut of being able to play all kinds of roles, from lovable, to the guy you love to hate.”

“It was astounding how good he was in ‘Poe,’ ’’ said Keith Szarabajka, a former Organic co-star who is now the interim artistic director of the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Los Angeles.

“He was one of the people who was at the lead [in] the first great theater company of the Chicago theater renaissance,” said Albert Williams, a theater instructor at Columbia College Chicago. “Before Steppenwolf, before Remains, there was Organic.”

Gordon was an undergrad when he was electrified by Mr. Fire’s performance as Marat in “Marat/Sade” at the University of Wisconsin.

Though he was about 21 at the time, “Richard just burned,” said “Warp” co-writer Lenny Kleinfeld, author of “Some Dead Genius.” ”Richard was never afraid to go to dark places. His Marat was like a living black hole.”

After Gordon left the company in 1985, Mr. Fire served as artistic director and co-wrote the screenplay for the 1986 film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” inspired by the confessions of Henry Lee Lucas. Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called it “a docudrama of chilling horror.” It starred Michael Rooker of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Towles as his remorseless sidekick.

It was Rooker’s first movie role. He was struck by Mr. Fire’s drive to create more than a slasher film.

“He was always trying to make sure we had the best working environment, and it got him in trouble one night” as they were shooting in Bucktown, Rooker said. “He yelled at some of the people in the neighborhood to keep it down.”

Thirty minutes later, “Maybe 14 guys come strolling down the alley and wanted to know who the big mouth was telling them they gotta be quiet in their own neighborhood, and everybody pointed to Richard,” Rooker said. “They decided to let us know he’s probably not going to live through this experience.”

Suddenly, one of them recognized Rooker, who went to Wells High School, and, referring to him by his old nickname, asked, “Animal, is that you?”

“I said, basically, ‘Can you kill him later?’ ” Rooker said. “They basically became our security. So they were out there telling everybody to be quiet.”

“Great guy, great sense of humor,” Rooker said.

“I developed a very, very sardonic Chicago sense of humor because of those guys, too,” he said of Mr. Fire and the film’s co-author and director, John McNaughton. In the beginning, “We were reading each other right away, and that’s the reason I got the role.”

McNaughton credited Mr. Fire’s writing with elevating “Henry” from a B movie.

“I just remember Richard looking over [the screenplay] and saying, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ ” said McNaughton, whose latest film is “The Harvest,” with Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton and Peter Fonda.

He had an ear for off-kilter, natural dialogue, McNaughton said, urging him, “Never go for the obvious — always go for the original.”

Mr. Fire also started the Organic Greenhouse, Gordon said, which helped new playwrights and actors get workshop productions.

He is survived by his wife Dosia, their son Adam and a brother, Robert. Services have been held.