The Groundlings founder Gary Austin has died at the age of 75, following a battle with cancer. His legendary improv troupe memorialized him on Facebook, posting: “Thank you for giving us a dream, a voice, a legacy and a family. You will be missed.”
Austin established The Groundlings in Los Angeles in 1974. That enterprise yielded comedy stars ranging from Laraine Newman—Lorne Michaels caught on early, and recruited her and others over the years for SNL—to Melissa McCarthy. Paul Reubens was also an early member. In a tribute on his website, the man best known as Pee-wee Herman, explained how Austin was instrumental in helping create the famous character. “My Pee-wee suit was originally his,” he wrote. “He loaned me a custom-made suit the first time I performed as Pee-wee Herman, and I kept it.” He went on to call Austin “my teacher, mentor and friend,” and added: “He was talented and kind– and what originally drew me to the group of performers he’d assembled, was the same combination Gary himself had: everybody was talented, but also nice.“
Austin was originally born in Oklahoma, but, according to The New York Times, also spent his childhood in Texas and California. He attended San Francisco State University, and while in that city he became a member of improv group The Committee. Though he left his gig as artistic director of The Groundlings in 1979, he continued to teach throughout his life, via his Gary Austin Workshops and elsewhere. As his students racked up television and film credits—Helen Hunt even thanked him in her Oscar acceptance speech—his résumé in that arena remained relatively short. Perhaps his best known screen work is as director of the Lily Tomlin variety special Lily.
Austin is survived by his wife, daughter, sister, two brothers, a grandson, and three great-grandchildren.