Vortex artistic director Robert Coles told Playbill On-Line that members of a theatre company renting the Meisner for a show discovered Mr. Lizzul's body and contacted the authorities, but he could not be revived. No foul play was suspected; Mr. Lizzul had been feeling unwell in recent days, Coles said.
Coles and friends had to search for next of kin by making calls to the Bronx — where Mr. Lizzul was born and raised — using his mother's maiden name as a clue. A surviving uncle, Mario Finizio, was found. Mr. Lizzul's parents predeceased him.
Mr. Lizzul, whose pals called him "Tony," was 48 and first became connected to Vortex when Coles cast him in a play in 1993. He dropped out of a show in the Bronx to appear in Coles' William and Ronald Get a Semi-Nude Massage, one of many memorably-titled Vortex plays in which Mr. Lizzul would appear over the next 10 years. By 1994 he was the troupe's managing director.
Coles characterized Vortex plays as "comedies that had serious things to say about gay men." Since 1993, playwright-director Coles wrote characters with the imperious and funny Mr. Lizzul in mind.
A critic once called Mr. Lizzul "the Charles Nelson Reilly for the next millennium." "He was a very vibrant presence" in an Off-Off-Broadway world where it is hard to get noticed — or notices, Coles said. In 20 years of popular and unpopular plays by the Vortex, major papers like The New York Times have never paid a call, Coles said.
For actors like Mr. Lizzul, life could be hardscrabble, but the opportunity to create work seemed sustenance enough. His full-time job was managing and casting for Vortex and renting out the Meisner, though he did not get paid for his work. "A living wage" is not a term always used in Off-Off-Broadway.
Over the years Mr. Lizzul had "survival jobs" beyond the theatre, Coles said. He lived on the Upper West Side, apparently without health insurance.
Coles had seen Mr. Lizzul in a play in 1992 and asked him to read for a new play of his. But Mr. Lizzul was already cast in a show by the Belmont Italian American Theatre in the Bronx. Coles convinced him to quit the show, and a playwright found a muse.
Among plays by Coles that Mr. Lizzul appeared in were Alone With Robby, When Fat Women Ruled the Earth, the revival of Cute Boys in Their Underpants and its sequel, Cute Boys in Their Underpants Vs. The Evil Trolls, in which Mr. Lizzul played Zolnar, Prince of the Troll People, an evil being who lured handsome men to their doom by opening up a theatrical agency.
Mr. Lizzul was bigger than life, Coles said. "Tony was a star to people who came here," the writer explained. "He projected enormous dignity on stage, but also an enormous vulnerability at the same time. He was a tremendously hilarious comic actor, but he was drawn to parts that had an emotional connection."
Mr. Lizzul's credits also included Les; Allen, Naked; Nude Boys Prancing About; A Different Man; Have It All and Stephanie Correa's Tarts (also known as Off-Stage Voices), in which (at least Off-Off Broadway) men played women who were cast in a summer stock version of Troilus and Cressida — it was set in a dressing room and Mr. Lizzul played a character named Diana.
A recent Vortex program bio indicates appearances in past productions of The Threepenny Opera, It's Only a Play, I Am a Camera, Angel Street, Loot, Richard III, Trouble in Mind, A Doll's House, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Cherry Orchard. Coles said Mr. Lizzul adored Chekhov.
Mr. Lizzul studied acting with his heroine, Stella Adler, and received a bachelor's degree from New York University.
Mr. Lizzul's last appearance was in June-July 2003's Young and Beautiful, or Hello, I'm Old, for the Vortex, about a man who ran a theatre company and faced midlife crisis.
"The play was about mortality," Coles said. "At the end of the first act there was a young actor who dies out of the blue. At the beginning of act two is a memorial service."
The same podium from which Mr. Lizzul delivered a eulogy in the play will be used at a celebration of Mr. Lizzul's life at 4 PM April 3 at the Meisner, 164 Eleventh Ave., between 22nd and 23rd streets. Mr. Lizzul's ashes will likely be kept at the theatre, where he belongs, Coles said.