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Richmond Shepard, Celebrated as ‘The World’s Oldest Mime,’ Dies at 90

Richmond Shepard, one of America’s foremost practitioners and proponents of the art of mime, died in Manhattan July 2 at age 90.

Shepard’s family announced his passing with an unusual request: “In lieu of flowers, Richmond has requested a moment of noise.”

Although he was most famous as a mime — and received fresh notoriety three years ago when he was featured in an online New Yorker video, “The World’s Oldest Mime” — Shepard was also a well-known personality in the bicoastal theater communities as a director, critic and theater operator, with small stages that bore his name in both L.A. and New York.

Shepard was the author of “Mime: The Technique of Silence,” a 1970 book considered an essential text for anyone looking to take up the craft. His early television work included appearances on “The Today Show” and talk shows with Merv Griffin, Steve Allen and Dinah Shore. His spots on episodic TV —sometimes in whiteface, sometimes not — included “The FBI,” “That Girl,” “Kojak,” “The Jeffersons,” “T.J. Hooker” … and “Ally McBeal,” the show that made a household name of one of his four daughters, singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard.

For all of the success he had giving audiences the silent treatment, Shepard had plenty of speaking roles in his career, on- and off-screen. In Los Angeles in the 1970s, he opened some of the equity-waiver theaters that became Hollywood’s Theatre Row before moving to New York in the late ’80s and becoming even more involved in the community of small theaters there. He founded an improv comedy troupe, Noo Yawk Tawk, which ran for several years at the Village Gate, and he became a drama critic for WNEW and Theatre Insider. Shepard opened an off-Broadway theater, the Writer Act Repertoire, and the long-running space that bore his name, the Richmond Shepard Theatre, in the 2000s and 2010s.

“Who would have thought that at this advanced age I would still be smearing white makeup on my face? I didn’t expect this,” he said in a 2009 documentary short about his career, “A Mime’s Life.” “I thought being a mime was my entrance into show business through the side door, or the back door.”

“There’s only one thing that pays less than mime,” Shepard quipped in a 2016 interview. “That’s poetry.” At the time, Shepard was continuing to headline his autobiographical show “You Wanna Be a What?!? (A Musical Memoir in Mime)” — with a title taken from his mother’s response when he announced his ultimate career path — at Don’t Tell Mama in New York.

Shepard was born in Brooklyn in 1929. “He took pride in being asked to leave Emory University for his social justice organizing in the 1940s,” his family said. With a PhD in communications, Shepard taught at Rutgers, USC, St. John’s and Cal State L.A. as well as his decades of private classes. Among the actors he coached were Lily Tomlin and Dick Van Dyke, whose 1980s sitcom he appeared on.

Raised Jewish, Shepard was reported by his family to have embraced Subud, an Indonesian-based spiritual movement, as his religious practice. He is survived by daughters Armina Hansen, Vonda Shepard, Brianna Shepard and Luana Carroll as well as four grandchildren.

 

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