Comedy institution launched dozens of careers

Paul Sills, one of the founders of the Second City improv comedy group, died Monday. He was 80.

Sills died at his home in Baileys Harbor, Wis., of complications from pneumonia, said his daughter, Aretha Amelia Sills.

The troupe, which has turned out some of America’s best-known comedians, said in a statement on its Web site Monday that “the influence of Paul Sills on the American Theatre can not be exaggerated.”

Sills helped found the comedy institution in 1959, along with its precursor “The Compass Players.” Second City helped launch the careers of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert and Mike Myers.

“Somehow he ended up making the careers of dozens and hundreds of other people,” said Jeffrey Sweet, who interviewed Sills in his book “Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of The Second City and The Compass Players.” “Not a year has gone by that somebody coming out of (Second City) hasn’t achieved major stardom.”

Sheldon Patinkin, a friend of Sills’ since 1951 and chair of the theater department at Columbia University in Chicago, said memorials for Sills are planned in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Wisconsin.

Second City celebrates its 50th anni next year with stages in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Las Vegas and Canada and has a reputation for training actors who go on to NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and Hollywood.

Sills was inspired by his late mother, Viola Spolin, who created hundreds of improvisational games used to train generations of actors. Sills followed in her footsteps and was known as a guru of improvisation.

He also created the New Actors Workshop in New York in 1987 along with director Mike Nichols and colleague George Morrison.

Sills also is known for creating the popular Story Theatre format in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which focused on characters narrating their own stories. His play, “Story Theatre,” was nominated for a Tony Award in 1971 and he published a book in 2000, “Paul Sills’ Story Theater: Four Shows.”

“It was always this vision that he had that he was trying to reach for,” Sweet said. “He’s probably the most influential person in the theater that general people don’t know about.”

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