Comedic actor Richard Schaal has died at the age of 86. Schaal was a product of Chicago improvisational theater, most famously Second City, where he established himself as a gifted mime and a versatile performer with a strong physical presence. But he had a special flair for playing characters whose brain waves moved at their own sweet pace, such as the bodyguard to the President of the United States (played by John Ritter) in the 1979 comedy Americathon.
Writing in The New Yorker, Veronica Geng was mostly dismissive of the movie, which is set in a futuristic America where things have gotten so bad that the federal government holds a telethon to get itself out of debt. Still, she did single out Schaal for his knack at projecting “uncomprehending menace.” Ritter’s President Chet Roosevelt is supposed to be such a dimwit that American leadership can’t possibly get any worse; in the film’s closing moments, Schaal’s character is seen being sworn in as his replacement. It’s the best joke in the movie.
A Chicago native, Schaal fell into the burgeoning local theater scene around 1960, after his first marriage had ended. He decided to break up the construction company he’d started, sell “the buildings and property and equipment I had,” and spend a year getting his head together. As Schaal recounted in Something Wonderful Right Away, Jeffrey Sweet’s oral history of The Second City, “I met a guy who had gone to Northwestern University with me 10 years before. He was now the head of a drama group at Northwestern’s downtown campus. He asked me to design and build the set for a show for them, which I did. Then he asked me if I wanted to be in the next show and I said, ‘I don’t care. OK. I have nothing to do.’”
Schaal enjoyed the experience so much that, after checking out a performance by The Second City troupe, he was inspired to hire a group of writers and actors to start his own theatrical revue in the “Mardi Gras room” of a Chicago Heights restaurant. According to Schaal, the show was scripted and choreographed, but “because I was so busy producing, I never really learned the material but kind of improvised my way through performances.” He proved adept enough at it that the three kings of Second City—Paul Sills, Bernie Sahlins, and Sheldon Patinkin—saw the show and drafted him into their organization. Schaal carved out a niche for himself in the early days of the company as their go-to blue collar “Chicago guy” until 1962, when he left for New York.
In New York, Schaal appeared on such TV series as East Side/ West Side and The Dick Van Dyke Show, and onstage in such roles as the demented hippie minister in Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders. He also continued to act and give workshops with improvisational companies, including The Second City’s New York branch, where he met Valerie Harper. Schaal and Harper, who were married in 1964, worked together onstage with The Second City in New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto, and later appeared together in Paul Sills’ Story Theatre. In 1969, Schaal played the central role in Jim Henson’s experimental TV special The Cube.
In 1970, Harper was cast as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Schaal became something of a rotating company player on the slate of sitcoms produced by MTM Productions. Between 1970 and 1975, he made five guest appearances on Mary Tyler Moore, including one as the much-talked-about but seldom seen Chuckles the Clown, and three guest shots on The Bob Newhart Show. He also had recurring roles on the spinoff shows Rhoda and Phyllis, and directed an episode of the latter. (The marriage ended in 1979.)
Schaal also appeared in the movies The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), and Steelyard Blues (1973) and the 1974 TV movie Thursday’s Game, and had regular roles in the short-lived TV series Almost Grown and Just Our Luck. He stopped acting in movies and TV after 1990, but continued to work in improvisational theater. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 Chicago Improv Fest.
He is also the father of actress Wendy Schaal from American Dad, who announced his death to the Chicago Tribune.