Sheldon Patinkin, Force in Shaping Chicago Theatre Scene, Dies at 79

Obituaries   Sheldon Patinkin, Force in Shaping Chicago Theatre Scene, Dies at 79
Sheldon Patinkin, who was a driving force in Chicago theatre, as a director, teacher and mentor, died Sept. 21. The cause was a heart attack, which he suffered three days prior. He was 79.
Sheldon Patinkin
Sheldon Patinkin

A native of Chicago, Mr. Patinkin devoted his career to the city and its cultural life. Beginning in the early '60s, he served as a director at Second City, the improvisational theatre company that has produced some of the most inventive and famous comedians and comic actors in the United States. Many alumni went on to be featured players in "Saturday Night Live" and from there became movie stars. Among the graduates who worked with Mr. Patinkin are John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, Mike Nichols, Barbara Harris, Alan Arkin, Del Close, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, George Wendt, Shelley Long and Elaine May.

He spent nearly three decades (1980-2009) as chairman of the theatre department at Columbia College Chicago, and helped form the acting school at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He discovered Steppenwolf in the 1970s, when the company was still performing in a basement in Highland Park, and directed many early productions for them, including Uncle Vanya, Waiting for Lefty and Death of a Salesman. The latter, in 1980, starred John Mahoney, Terry Kinney and John Malkovich, all then unknown.

He was born Sheldon Arthur Patinkin in Chicago on Aug. 27, 1935. He earned a master’s degree in English at the University of Chicago when he was only 19. A talented pianist, he nonetheless was drawn to the theatre. He soon became a member of the Playwrights Club in Hyde Park, one of the several theatre groups in the 1950s that would eventually feed into Second City. In 1960, he was hired by Bernard Sahlins as general manager of Second City.

Among his other directing credits were productions of The Glass Menagerie, South Pacific, Long Day's Journey into Night and Krapp's Last Tape. His adaptation of The Good Woman of Setzuan was staged by Frank Galati at the Goodman Theatre. His revue, Puttin' on the Ritz: An Irving Berlin American Songbook, won Joseph Jefferson Awards for Best Revue and Best Director. Additionally, he was given a special Joseph Jefferson Award for Service to the Chicago Theater Community in 1991, and the Illinois Association's 1992 Outstanding Contribution Award.

Mr. Patinkin wrote two books: "Second City: Backstage at the World's Greatest Comedy Theater," published by Sourcebooks in 2000; and "No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance," published by Northwestern University Press in 2008. He is survived by a brother and a sister. The actor Mandy Patinkin was a distant cousin.

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