Gary Austin, who created and led one of improvisational theater’s most influential troupes, the Groundlings, died Saturday at the age of 75 of cancer.
Austin was a writer, director, and musical performer whose students comprised a virtual Who’s Who of modern comedy, including many cast members of Saturday Night Live.
As Deadline Hollywood reported,
“As the group’s artistic director, performer and teacher of improv skills, Austin would help shape modern comedy, introducing to the world such performers as SNL‘s Newman, Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens (who, with Hartman by his side, developed his Pee-wee Herman character as Groundlings). Later Austin students included Paul Feig, Lisa Kudrow, Helen Hunt, Jennifer Gray, Mindy Sterling, Loretta DeVine, Daphne Zuniga, Helen Slater, Lindsay Crouse and Robert David Hall.”
Born in Oklahoma, Austin graduated from San Francisco State in 1964 earning a degree in theater arts. He was a stage manager and actor with the San Francisco-based improvisational comedy troupe The Committee. He later moved to Los Angeles joining the Comedy Store.
In 1972, Austin founded the Gary Austin Workshops where performers could practice improv, and two years later, the Groundlings. The group gained such a following that SNL producer Lorne Michaels recruited him to move to New York to direct the cast of that groundbreaking show. But Austin declined, choosing to stay in Los Angeles.
Austin left the Groundlings in 1979, although he continued his teaching at the Gary Austin Workshops.
“I learned about acting by watching evangelists,” Austin told an interviewer in 2015 describing his experience growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas.
“I wanted to be three things as a kid. I wanted to be a preacher, I wanted to be a singing cowboy and I wanted to play centerfield for the Boston Red Sox. What do those three things have in common? They’re all in front of audiences.”
Austin is survived by his wife, Wendy McKenzie; his daughter, Audrey Moore; a sister; two brothers; a grandson; and three grandchildren.