Tamara Wilcox-Smith, dubbed “The First Lady of Improv” by the New York press, died Jan. 30 of heart failure in Los Angeles. She was 57.
After a start as a costume designer for San Francisco theater, Wilcox-Smith’s career began taking shape in the mid-1960s while studying improv with Del Close. She became a member of his legendary improv company, the Committee, as well as a member of the experimental theater company the Wing. After seeing her perform, Robert Altman cast her as one of the nurses in the film “MASH.”
Wilcox-Smith moved to New York and became a guest director at the Loft Theater, along with Alan Alda, Peter Boyle and Elaine May. She began teaching improv and developed her own company, Interplay, an award-winning group whose original cast members included Jerry Seinfeld and Allyce Beaseley.
In 1984, after having taught and directed improv theater and comedy workshops across the country for 15 years, Wilcox-Smith founded and became artistic director of the National Improvisational Theatre in New York City. Graduates of NIT include many acclaimed comedians, actors, directors and writers, including Seinfeld, Beaseley, Rita Rudner, Griffin Dunne, Rich Hall and Sasha Mitchell. She also taught workshops in Los Angeles, where her graduates include Jenna Elfman, Isaac Hayes, Kelly Preston and Kate Vernon.
Through NIT, Wilcox-Smith’s improvisational curriculum was extended to the community, reaching thousands of handicapped, special education and English as a second language students in the New York City schools.
She also established a program at New York’s Professional Performing Arts School as well as programs for Paul Newman’s Hole In The Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut and at the O’Neill Theatre Festival.
Wilcox-Smith’s film acting credits include “Pontiac Moon,” directed by Peter Medak; “Bad,” directed by Paul Morrissey; and “Rivals,” directed by Krishna Shah. She was also a produced playwright and a published author of children’s books.
Wilcox-Smith is survived by her husband, two sons and one grandson.
The family requests donations in Wilcox-Smith’s name be made to the Renaissance Academy, 4490 Cornishon, La Canada, CA 91011, where her improvisational curriculum is being taught.