Dick Latessa, who won the 2003 Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for playing Harvey Fierstein's onstage husband in the original cast of Hairspray, died December 19 at age 87, according to Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman.
The Ohio native made his Broadway debut in the 1968 musical The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N and enjoyed a 50-year acting career, appearing most recently on Broadway in the 2012 comedy The Lyons, playing an elderly man who refuses to die.
Along the way Latessa worked with many of the top songwriters of the late 20th century. He created such memorable roles as Will Rogers’ crusty dad in Cy Coleman’s The Will Rogers Follies, Avram Cohen in Charles Strouse’s Rags, the title character in Jones & Schmidt’s Off-Broadway musical Philemon (for which he won an Obie Award), and the original Major Domo in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies.
He played Herr Schultz in the 1999 revival of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret, and Dr. Dreyfuss in the 2010 revival of Burt Bacharach’s Promises, Promises.
But it was his performance as the suave, unflappable Wilbur Turnblad in Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman's Hairspray that earned him his Tony Award, plus Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards. Latessa and Fierstein stopped the show nightly with their soft-shoe duet, “You're Timeless to Me.”
Fierstein tweeted his farewell:
https://t.co/pl9NrvXGoy We lost the 1 & only Dick Latessa & my heart is broken. Still, for 1,000 performances I had the best partner ever.— Harvey Fierstein (@HarveyFierstein) December 20, 2016
Though Latessa’s role was taken by Martin Short in the recent TV Hairspray Live!, the creative team acknowledged Latessa in an Easter Egg. One of the storefronts in the set is called “Crazy Dickie’s,” which Fierstein said in a post at the time “is my tip of the hat to Dick Latessa who played my husband on Broadway and won a Tony for putting up with me.”
Latessa contributed an essay to the 2006 Playbill Books publication, The Alchemy of Theatre, Essays on Theatre and the Art of Collaboration. His essay, “The Art of the Second Banana,” explained his success at collaborating with stars as a supporting player:
I’m a very willing collaborator. That’s because I went into the business not knowing anything about it, so I asked everyone to help me. In return I tried to give them what they needed. Without realizing it, I had stumbled on the formula for collaboration.
The star is the person you hope is going to sell the tickets. My job is to help that star be a star. I don’t go in there thinking I’m going to grab everything I can. I’m going to help that person be the best they can be.
With a few exceptions like the musical Philemon and Neil Simon’s play I Ought To Be in Pictures, I’m generally cast as the second banana. I’ve carried shows. I am capable of it. I don’t have any doubts about myself. But when you are working with somebody else and you are playing opposite a person like Elaine Stritch or Harvey Fierstein, your role changes. There’s an art to being a really good second banana. One of the reasons I get hired is because I’m able to let them have the spotlight—but at the same time I never let my character fade into the background. I hold my own.
I try to enhance what the star is doing, which at the same time bringing something unique to my role. In Hairspray I would show Harvey affection. I’d touch him. Hold him. Everybody said that the minute I walked on stage, they could tell that Harvey and I were in love. It provided the emotional foundation of the show. Edna and Tracy could go out and do all the great things they did because the audience knew they felt that no matter what the world threw at them, they were loved at home. That was my contribution.
The star is like the bricks in the wall, and the supporting player is like the concrete. Nobody calls it a concrete wall; they call it a brick wall. People admire the bricks, not the concrete, but the job of the concrete is to hold the bricks together and support them.
I was not there to compete with Harvey. I was there to enhance Harvey’s performance and consequently my own. If you are doing that for the star, you are going to come off great. That’s collaborating. It’s hard to learn but very important.