Howard Kissel, New York Theatre Critic, Dies at 69

By Robert Simonson
25 Feb 2012

Howard Kissel
Howard Kissel
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Howard Kissel, a critic who covered New York's theatre scene for nearly four decades, died Feb. 24. He was 69.

For half of Mr. Kissel's long career, his primary perch was The Daily News, where he worked for 20 years, most of them as the chief theatre critic. Though not regarded as a literary stylist, he was respected by his colleagues for his erudition and thoughtfulness.

Howard Kissel was born in Milwaukee in 1942 to Mr. and Mrs. Leo Kissel. His father was the news editor of the Milwaukee Sentinal. He studied comparative literature at Columbia University and journalism at Northwestern.

Mr. Kissel's first important journalism post was as the arts editor of Women's Wear Daily, where he began work in 1974. That same year, he married Christine Mary Buck. He left WWD in 1986 for The Daily News, where he remained a theatre critic until 1997, when incoming editor Pete Hamill replaced him with Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole.



In 2001, after O'Toole left the paper, Mr. Kissel resumed writing theatre reviews at the News. Mr. Kissel accepted a buyout from The Daily News in 2008, but continued as a contributor to The Daily News' online blog known as "The Cultural Tourist." After he lost that forum in 2010, he began publishing reviews on the Huffington Post.

During his career, Mr. Kissel served as chairman of both the New York Film Critics Circle and the New York Drama Critics Circle. In 1994, he sat on the drama jury for the Pulitzer Prize.

As an author, he was best known for "The Abominable Showman," an unauthorized biography of the producer David Merrick. He also wrote "The Art of Acting," based on the acting technique lectures of Stella Adler; "Words with Music," an update of Lehman Engel's 1971 work; and, most recently, "New York Theater Walks," self-guided tours of theatre-related New York, all published by Applause.

Mr. Kissel was a singular presence at any theatre opening. With his wild mane of wavy, uncombed white hair, large glasses and hawkish nose, he looked like a cross between Oscar Wilde and Tiny Tim. And though always dressed in a jacket and tie, they were invariably rumpled. Woody Allen thought Mr. Kissel had enough of the look of a character actor about him that he cast him as his agent in the 1980 film "Stardust Memories."

After the reviewer criticized an unflattering dress actress Patti LuPone wore in a cabaret act, an irate reader wrote a letter to the News saying, "Anyone who looks like an unmade bed every day has no right to criticize the way anybody else looks."

Patti LuPone herself didn't seem to have harbored any hard feelings. After Mr. Kissel published a positive review of LuPone's performance in Master Class, the actress, encountering the critic in Times Square, kissed him on the lips. Like a good reporter, Mr. Kissel wrote up the event in the News.

"I feel no compunctions about declaring that kissing critics should be encouraged," he said. "We live in times when all power relationships are being revised. Only by throwing off traditional restraints can we find healthier, more meaningful roles to play. We hear all this blather about encouraging 'dialogue' between adversaries. In this area, there has been all too much talk. It's time for something more imaginative. Patti has set an important precedent."

He is survived by his sister, Anne Kissel Elliot, of Palm Beach, FL, and Judy Kissel, of Coral Springs, FL.