×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Groundlings Founder Gary Austin Dies at 75

Gary Austin, the founder of the influential improvisational theater troupe The Groundlings, died on Saturday at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles following a long illness. He was 75.

Austin had been battling cancer for several years, but remained active teaching and performing. His daughter, Audrey Moore, told Variety the Austin was surrounded by family members and friends who were serenading him.

Austin was a widely admired improvisational teacher of thousands of students, along with being a writer, director, and musical performer. His improvisational teaching technique involved creating scenes based on arbitrary suggestions with performers then committing to agreement on the premise of the story — no matter how far-fetched — and then performing to reflect the truth of the scene and characters.

His students included “Saturday Night Live” cast members Laraine Newman, Phil Hartman and Chris Kattan, Mindy Sterling, Helen Hunt, Paul Reubens, Jennifer Gray, Paul Feig and Helen Slater. Hunt acknowledged Austin during her acceptance speech after winning the best actress Academy Award in 1998 for “As Good as It Gets,” saying, “I would like to thank my acting teachers — Lurene Tuttle, Gordon Hunt, Larry Moss, Gary Austin — for giving me a way to learn about myself and the world and a way to express myself.” His other students included Oscar nominees Lindsay Crouse and Pat Morita.

Austin, a native of Oklahoma, earned a degree in theater arts at San Francisco State in 1964 and broke into show business by becoming a stage manager for the improvisational comedy group The Committee. He started working with Second City’s Del Close to develop characters, improvised with the Comedy Store Players, and performed stand-up.

In 1972, he formed the Gary Austin Workshops, which began to perform at various venues in Hollywood. He founded The Groundlings in 1974, which moved into its current Melrose Avenue headquarters in 1975. Austin directed portions of Lily Tomlin’s Emmy-winning comedy special that year for producer Lorne Michaels, who asked him subsequently to come to New York to direct the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” but Austin opted to remain in Los Angeles to work with The Groundlings.

Reubens created his signature Pee-wee Herman character at the Groundlings in 1978, wearing a too-small gray suit that Austin used when he was auditioning for nerdy characters.

Austin left The Groundlings in 1979 due to creative differences, but returned to direct shows in 1990 and on several other occasions. He also wrote and performed two solo shows, “Church” and “Oil,” and had been recording an album of his songs with his wife, Wenndy McKenzie, and Matt Cartsonis.

Aside from McKenzie and Moore, Austin is survived by a sister, two brothers, a grandson, and three great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made at https://www.youcaring.com/garyaustin-787562

Tributes began to appear on Saturday night. The Groundings Instagram page posted the messages “A vision, an inspiration, a father to us all, thank you. #RIPGaryAustin” and “RIP Mr. Gary Austin, the founder of The Groundlings Theatre. Our deepest condolences to his loved ones. Thank you for giving us a dream, a voice, a legacy and a family. You will be missed.”

Actress Wendi McLendon-Covey wrote, “RIP Gary Austin, founder of the @groundlings ! But kudos on a life well-lived!”

Newman tweeted, “The first director of The Groundlings, Gary Austin, has passed away. No words.”

Kattan, whose father Kip King was an original member of The Groundlings, tweeted a tribute: “I don’t know what my dad or I would have ever become without you. So grateful for your teachings. RIP #GaryAustin”

 

More TV

  • TV News Roundup: 'Million Dollar Mile'

    TV News Roundup: 'Million Dollar Mile' Debuts Exclusive First Look

    In today’s roundup, “Million Dollar Mile” releases an exclusive clip and CBS announces premiere dates for three shows.  DATES CBS has announced premiere dates for one new series and two returning series. The new action adventure series “Blood and Treasure” will debut with a two-hour episode Tuesday, May 21 at 9 p.m. right after the [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Agents Accuse Writers Guild of Threatening to Throw 'Industry Into Chaos'

    UPDATE – The dealmakers appear to be getting nowhere. Negotiators for Hollywood agents and the Writers Guild of America have achieved little progress at their seventh session on Tuesday, with a chaotic scenario looming on April 7. “When Guild leadership is ready to move on from their declared threatening phase, we stand ready to work [...]

  • Jussie Smollett Empire

    Assessing 'Empire' Options After Jussie Smollett Charges Dropped

    The shocking Jussie Smollett saga took another twist on Tuesday after prosecutors announced they have dropped all charges against the “Empire” star. Smollett had been indicted on 16 counts of filing a false police report, but now that those counts have all disappeared, studio 20th Century Fox finds itself in a sticky situation as to [...]

  • Jussie Smollett

    Jussie Smollett's Legal Drama Eclipses the Rest of His Story (Column)

    Like so many other stories these days, the Jussie Smollett legal saga seemed governed not by coherent logic, but by chaos, and, in its absence of narrative, invites any observer to find in it the story they prefer hearing. Smollett, the “Empire” star who had been in legal jeopardy due to allegations of staging a [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild Plans for Agency Pact Expiration: 'There Will Be Difficult Moments'

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America have sent members contingency plans for the possible expiration of its agency franchise agreement on April 7 — and admitted that it may be a rocky road. Members received the letter Tuesday from the guild’s negotiating committee as the WGA and agents were about the hold their seventh [...]

  • univision-dish blackout

    Univision, Dish Network Reach Carriage Deal After Nine-Month Blackout

    Univision and satcaster Dish Network have reached a carriage agreement after a nine-month blackout that marked one of the longest standoffs between a major programmer and distributor. Univision channels went dark on Dish Network’s satellite and streaming platforms on June 30. The sides were at odds over carriage fees that have become increasingly contentious for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content