Gary Austin, the founder of the influential improvisational theater group the Groundlings, died Saturday, April 1, 2017, according to multiple news sources. He was 75.
The cause of death was cancer, said Vanessa Richardson, a spokeswoman for his family.
The Groundlings changed the shape of American comedy in the 1970s and launched the careers of many notable performers including Will Ferrell, Melissa McCarthy, Lisa Kudrow, and Phil Hartman.
Austin, who was born Oct. 18, 1941, in Duncan, Oklahoma, received his bachelor’s degree in theater from San Francisco State University in 1964. He was a performer in the San Francisco improvisation group the Committee.
Austin moved to Los Angeles and started the Gary Austin Workshops for actors. He then decided the players in his workshop should perform in public, and he launched the Groundlings in 1974. He served as the troupe’s artistic director.
The Groundlings’ cutting-edge comedy began to create a buzz in Hollywood and was noticed by many in the entertainment industry. Lorne Michaels attended many of the early performances by the group. He asked Austin to come to New York City and direct the cast of his new late-night comedy skit show, “Saturday Night Live.” Austin declined, however, because he wanted to continue his work with the Groundlings.
Groundlings member Laraine Newman was chosen for the first cast of SNL.
“The Groundlings has meant everything to my career,” Newman told the Los Angeles Times. “The relationship between the Groundlings and ‘Saturday Night Live’ was so entwined, I believe, because the emphasis on character-driven scenes are the most enduring ones for ‘SNL,’ and characters are emblematic of the Groundlings’ style.”
Many memorable characters were created through the Groundlings. Paul Reuben’s Pee-wee Herman, Cassandra Peterson’s sexy vampire host Elvira, and the annoyingly enthusiastic cheerleaders that Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri played in skits. The cheerleaders became popular when both actors played the characters on “Saturday Night Live.”
Austin stepped down as artistic director of the Groundlings in 1979. He would return to the improv group periodically to teach, and he also ran his own workshops.
Actors took to social media to pay tribute to Austin.
The Groundlings Theater: “A vision, an inspiration, a father to us all, thank you.”
Wendi McLenon-Covey: “RIP Gary Austin, founder of the groundlings! But kudos on a life well-lived!”
Chris Kattan: “I don’t know what my dad or I would have ever become without you. So grateful for your teachings.”
Jon Lovitz: “The founder of the Groundlings, the LA improv troupe where I & so many others on SNL, started their career, has passed. RIP Gary Austin.”
Austin’s survivors include his wife, Wendy McKenzie, and a daughter, Audrey Moore.