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Richard Schaal dies at 86; character actor was a Second City pioneer

Comedic actor Richard 'Dick' Schaal, a Second City pioneer, dies at 86

Actor Richard "Dick" Schaal, a pioneer at the Second City comedy theater in Chicago and a familiar face from character roles on movies and television, including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda," has died. He was 86.

Schaal died Tuesday at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement home in Woodland Hills, said his daughter, actress Wendy Schaal. The cause was not disclosed.

Born in Chicago in 1928, Schaal (pronounced SHAWL) was in the second cast of Second City, beginning in 1962. At the famed theater, he was known, in sketch-comedy parlance, as a "space man." In other words, whereas the fledgling company had more than its share of University of Chicago graduates prized for their wit and verbosity, Schaal not only had a more blue-collar sensibility but was also the rare but crucial guy who could physically enliven the scenes.

"Using mime, Dick could place 40 objects within a scene, remember where they all were, and then modify them," said Jeffrey Sweet, who wrote extensively about Schaal in "Something Wonderful Right Away," a history of the early years of Second City. "He was a great genius at that. You'd swear he could actually see the objects."

"His whole body was an instrument," Wendy Schaal said. "He was the one who really took off on working in the space. That was where the work could make the visible invisible. In his workshops, he would teach performers to explore what would happen to their body when handling objects."

Schaal was an intimate of the early developers of modern sketch comedy and improvisation, especially Paul Sills and Sills' mother, Viola Spolin. At Second City, he performed alongside such masters of the form as Del Close and Avery Schreiber. Schaal was, in many ways, the first performer to fall into what would become a regular Second City type: the regular Chicago guy, a role later filled by such performers as John Belushi and George Wendt.

Initially, Schaal had run his own construction company in Chicago. After finding himself in the audience for the first show at Second City, he founded his own rival comedy-improv company in the backroom of a restaurant in Chicago Heights. Bernie Sahlins, Sheldon Patinkin and Sills of the Second City troupe came to see the show. Sensing that Schaal had something they needed, they hired him for the second revue at Second City.

He did not stay long in Chicago. After a year or so, he made his way to New York, where he found work in improvisational theater and met actress Valerie Harper, who would become his second wife. They divorced in 1978, and he later married a third time.

Schaal had regular guest-starring roles on 1960s and '70s television, including "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "That Girl" and "The Bob Newhart Show."

He also appeared on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which featured Harper as Rhoda, and two of that show's spinoffs, "Rhoda" and "Phyllis."

His notable film appearances include "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" (1966) and "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1972).

His daughter survives him.

cjones5@tribune.com
Twitter: @ChrisJonesTrib

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