Noah Gregoropoulos, influential Chicago improv performer and teacher, dies at 63

“No one was smarter, funnier and no one loved improvisation more,” said Oscar-winning writer-director Adam McKay. “No one.”

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Actor and teacher Noah Gregoropoulos is seen in a recent publicity photo.

Linda Orr

Noah Gregoropoulos, an influential actor and teacher who helped build the skills of generations of Chicago improvisers, has died at 63.

He died of cancer Friday morning at his Lake View home, said his longtime friend and employer, iO Theater co-founder Charna Halpern.

Over more than three decades, Gregoropoulos instructed, directed and performed with hundreds of aspiring improvisers, including such future stars as Rachel Dratch, David Koechner and Tim Meadows.

Adam McKay, the Oscar-winning writer-director of “Anchorman,” “The Big Short” and “Don’t Look Up,” said Saturday, “I had the joy of being directed by Noah and working with him as a fellow performer. No one was smarter, funnier and no one loved improvisation more. No one. This is a big loss.”

Chicago’s improv houses were lavish with accolades for Gregoropoulos. He was “always challenging us to be smarter, to be more passionate, to practice patience in our art,” tweeted iO, his artistic home base.

“A legendary teacher of improv and coach,” tweeted The Second City. “Improvisational theater has lost a giant,” said CIC Theatre.

As a performer, Gregoropoulos brought his droll intelligence to hundreds of Chicago shows, as a member of the iO team Carl and the Passions, as a regular at its “Armando Diaz Experience” shows and in the cast of the groundbreaking 1990s show “Jazz Freddy.”

He also was a de facto artistic director at iO, teaching its top-level improv class and helping Halpern arrange teams and shows.

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Noah Gregoropoulos (top right, in red) poses in 1992 with the cast of “Jazz Freddy,” which also included Brian Stack (right, in brown jacket) and future “Saturday Night Live” performers David Koechner and Rachel Dratch.

Suzie McKee Gardner

Halpern said Friday that, after the 1999 death of Del Close, Gregoropoulos “really helped take his place” as an artistic visionary for the theater.

“Late Show With Stephen Colbert” writer Brian Stack, a former iO student and performer, said his friend and frequent castmate Gregoropoulos “had a gift for making people better and inspiring them to do better work than they thought they could do.”

Stack recalled a night when he performed with a team Gregoropoulos was coaching. The audience responded well, but “afterward Noah was like, ‘I hope you’re proud of yourselves.’ He knew we were going for easy laughs that night. I was like, ‘Oh, he’s right.’ We weren’t really pushing ourselves. We were falling back on our bag of tricks. And he made us better by making us strive for more, to go for the right kind of laughs.”

Gregoropoulos also taught improv at DePaul University’s Theatre School as an adjunct faculty member from 2012 to 2020.

He was a principled teacher who focused on the artistry of long-form improv, rather than the humor, said Chicago improviser Paul Grondy, another friend who often shared stages with Gregoropoulos. “He had a very slow and thoughtful approach to scene work, never wanted to go for a joke,” Grondy said.

Gregoropoulos demonstrated his convictions in a 2000 Sun-Times story about improv suggestions, addressing some performers’ complaints about audience members yelling out would-be funny ideas like “proctologist.”

“If you’re irritated by the suggestion because you’ve gotten it too much, you’re a lazy improviser and you’re probably an idiot,” he said. “What you should be doing is getting a book about proctology and — before the next time you get the suggestion proctology — knowing more about proctology than anyone in the room, and playing the most knowledgeable, incredibly competent proctologist anyone ever saw. Then you’re doing your job.”

While he dabbled in big-time entertainment on occasion — writing for ABC’s sitcom “Dharma and Greg” for a season, and turning up on TBS’ “My Boys” and FX’s “Fargo” — Gregoropoulos largely focused his efforts on Chicago.

“He always had a lot of artistic integrity about the work,” Stack said. “Sometimes it’s hard for people like that to compromise and do things they don’t feel good about, or they don’t have their heart in fully. I think Noah was able to do the work he really wanted to do in Chicago and I’m really happy that he was able to do that. There are certain realities of the showbiz world where people aren’t always doing the work that they’re proud of. But I can’t think of anything that I saw Noah do that he would have been ashamed to show people.”

At Second City he directed the theater’s first long-form improv show, “Lois Kaz,” in 1994 and a 1998 revue at the e.t.c. theater called “If The White House Is A-Rockin’, Don’t Come A-Knockin’.”

A New England native who graduated from Northwestern University, Gregoropoulos fell in with ImprovOlympic — as it was then called — during its formative years in the mid-1980s.

He made good choices while improvising but initially spoke so softly that audiences couldn’t hear him. Halpern removed him from the lineup but said he’d be welcome back once he had the confidence to speak up, and in a few weeks Gregoropoulos announced, “I’m ready to be heard.”

Over the years he developed a reputation for taking his improv scenes to dark places. “No one would play with the realm of the macabre like Noah could,” Grondy said. “No one could turn the dark side of humanity into humor like Noah could.”

His cutting wit spilled offstage too, into his social circles. “He would give his friends good-natured insults that were almost Dorothy Parker-like in their laser wit,” Stack said. “It was always funny.”

But his true nature was far warmer.

“A lot of times people who didn’t know Noah really well would be intimidated by him,” Stack added. “He could have sort of a curmudgeonly, disgruntled sort of exterior, but he was a real sweet guy under all that, a very kindhearted guy, a very generous guy.”

Survivors include Gregoropoulos’ wife, Linda Orr, a fellow improv performer, as well as his brother Steven Gregoropoulos of Los Angeles and sister Vilma Gregoropoulos of North Stonington, Connecticut. Friends have created a GoFundMe page for sharing money and stories with his widow.

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