The Chicago Tribune is reporting the death of Bernard “Bernie” Sahlins, best known as one of the co-founders (along with director Paul Sills and actor-turned-filmmaker Howard Alk) of The Second City, the improvisational-comedy theater that became a launching pad for star comedians, and whose influence changed the face of comedy and American acting. Although Sills generally gets the lion’s share of the credit for shaping the theater’s voice, Sahlins was equally legendary for his eye for talent, and for the sharp business sense that made Second City such a success. Sahlins is said to have died “peacefully” according to his wife, at the age of 90.
Sahlins was already a seasoned producer on the Chicago theatre scene when The Second City opened in December of 1959. He’d worked with Sills as co-founder of the University of Chicago-based Compass Players and at the Playwrights Theater Club in the early ‘50s. Then, in the fall of 1956, he mounted a number of productions at the city’s downtown Studebaker Theater, including the Chicago premiere of Waiting For Godot. That experiment ended after a year, when investors decided they’d thrown enough money down a black hole. Sahlins would later claim that he’d concluded that he’d been “burned enough times” in the theater when he and his partners came up with the idea for The Second City, and that—rather than start a theatrical revolution—they were just looking to “found a coffee house where we idlers… could loll around and put the world in its proper place.”
In its first year, The Second City provided a home for such performers as Barbara Harris, Severn Darden, Eugene Troobnick, Roger Bowen, Sheldon Patinkin, and Andrew Duncan. They were eventually joined by the likes of Alan Arkin, Melinda Dillon, Avery Schreiber, Zohra Lampert, Hamilton Camp, Joan Rivers, Dick Schaal, Richard Libertini, Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Peter Boyle, and other heroes of character-based comedy. Although many of these actors used the theater as a launching pad for careers in movies and television, The Second City really cemented its reputation as a breeding ground for stars after Saturday Night Live was launched in 1975. Many of the performers who would make a splash on that show—from John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and Bill Murray to Chris Farley and Tim Meadows—counted as Sahlins discoveries. Never one to be thrilled about having scouted talent for other producers, Sahlins was said to have sometimes “joked” about banning SNL producer Lorne Michaels from the premises.
In 1973, Sahlins launched a Canadian branch of the Second City Theatre in Toronto. Part of the fruit of that endeavor was the other great late-night sketch show of its day, SCTV, on which Sahlins was credited (along with Toronto stage show producer Andrew Alexander) as co-producer. Much of the original core SCTV cast—Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis—again consisted of veterans of the Chicago company.
The sound commercial instincts and businessman’s ruthlessness that helped keep his theater in the black on its way to becoming an institution sometimes caused ugly disagreements between Sahlins and some of his more celebrated colleagues. He had a falling-out with the legendary Chicago improv guru Del Close over the nature of improvisational theater itself. Close maintained it was a “pure” art form and that its ephemeral nature was to be cherished; Sahlins saw improv as the basis from which something scripted and repeatable might be created. The two finally made up when Close was on his deathbed, with Sahlins conceding that Close had been right all along—with the tacit understanding, however, that after Close’s death Sahlins would go back to saying he’d been nuts.
A more serious argument developed between Sahlins and Mike Nichols and Elaine May, after Nichols and May had success in New York doing material they’d developed with the Compass Players. In a dispute that would anticipate later arguments over “intellectual property,” Sahlins claimed the material belonged to the company, even though Nichols and May had created it themselves. Years later, Nichols would say, “For Bernie Sahlins to sign people to years of servitude and then keep the material that they developed is monstrous to me—monstrous! You can’t do it. It’s against any union that ever existed to protect people, except that nobody tried to protect people who were improvising.”
In 1984, Sahlins sold The Second City to Andrew Alexander. Two years later, he co-founded the International Theatre Festival of Chicago. He also continued to direct, published adaptations of The Marriage Of Figaro and Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman, and wrote an autobiography, Days And Nights At The Second City, in 2002.