Second City founder Paul Sills dead at 80

Paul Sills, one of the founders of the improvisational comedy group The Second City, which has turned out some of North America’s best-known comedians, died Monday.

CHICAGO — Paul Sills, one of the founders of the improvisational comedy group The Second City, which has turned out some of North America’s best-known comedians, died Monday. He was 80.

Sills died at his home in Baileys Harbor, Wis., of complications from pneumonia, said his daughter, Aretha Amelia Sills.

The troupe said in a statement on its website Monday that “the influence of Paul Sills on the American Theatre can not be exaggerated.”

Sills helped found the comedy institution in 1959, along with its precursor The Compass Players. Second City helped launch the careers of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Stephen Colbert and Mike Myers.

“Somehow he ended up making the careers of dozens and hundreds of other people,” said Jeffrey Sweet, who interviewed Sills in his book Something Wonderful Right Away: An Oral History of The Second City and The Compass Players. “Not a year has gone by that somebody coming out of (Second City) hasn’t achieved major stardom.”

Even though Sills was not looking for commercial or financial success, Sweet said, he found it in Second City. The group celebrates its 50th anniversary next year with stages in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Las Vegas and Canada and has a reputation for training actors who go on to NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and Hollywood.

“I don’t think he even particularly wanted it to happen,” Sweet said. “He was never interested in product. He was always interested in the journey.”

Sills was inspired by his late mother, Viola Spolin, who created hundreds of improvisational games used to train generations of actors. Sills followed in her footsteps and was known as a guru of improvisation.

He also created the New Actors Workshop in New York in 1987 along with director Mike Nichols and colleague George Morrison.

Sills’ play, “Story Theatre,” was nominated for a Tony Award in 1971 and he published a book in 2000, Paul Sills’ Story Theater: Four Shows.

“It was always this vision that he had that he was trying to reach for,” Sweet said. “He’s probably the most influential person in the theatre that people don’t know about.”