Updated: April 14, 2014 10:58AM
Fred Kaz, whose 8 ½ fingers twinkled across the keyboard for 25 years at Second City, guiding young actors by coaxing laughs and salvaging underdone sketches, died Wednesday of lung cancer. He was 80.
Mr. Kaz had been in hospice care in California’s San Pedro harbor on his boat, the Cadenza, a musical term for “a technically brilliant sometimes improvised solo passage,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The boat was a retirement gift from Second City.
The bearded Mr. Kaz was the epitome of hipster cool. At the comedy revue, where he was musical director from the early 1960s to 1989, he slouched over his piano with a cigarette dangling insouciantly from his mouth.
He might have seemed to just be noodling around the ivories, but he worked in puns and jokes through his choice of music. A sketch about a psychiatrist might have included a snippet or two of “You Go to My Head.”
“He was very, very smart, he was very talented, and you know he was missing 1½ fingers,” said Second City artistic consultant Sheldon Patinkin, from “a machine accident when he was working in Indiana supporting his family.”
“Just simply, he was a pillar of the early years of Second City,” said actor Alan Arkin. “He’s a genius; just a genius. Some of my favorite memories of [his] music are after the shows. We would hang around and he’d just play for an hour, two hours and it was some of the most extraordinarily played music I’ve ever heard. . . . It seems to me he should have been a world-renowned jazz pianist or composer, but he seemed to relish his work at Second City.”
Arkin, who starred in the 2012 film “Argo,” was awed by Mr. Kaz’s virtuosity. He scored Arkin’s 1971 film, “Little Murders.” “There was a passion and an energy about his playing and a richness that I’ve almost never heard anywhere else. . . . [T]he passion and energy was like Beethoven and the multiple voices, the multiple simultaneous voices, were like Bach.”
Although he was missing most of two fingers on his left hand, “He played as if he had 15 fingers,” Arkin said.
Second City alum George Wendt, who went on to star in the NBC hit “Cheers,” recalled how Mr. Kaz’s hipster patois initially left him mystified. “My first couple of years working with him, I had no idea what he was saying,” Wendt said. “He’d start mumbling, like bebop jazz talk. I didn’t want to look, like, uncool, so I would say ‘Got it, right, Fred.’”
But Mr. Kaz needed no translation when he expertly helped Wendt, Tim Kazurinsky and Bruce Jarchow craft a classic Western sketch. The three actors wanted to show how boring it could be on the range, so they came up with a sketch with three cowboys loping across the landscape for what seemed an eternity. “So Fred started this loping cowboy ‘do-do-DO-do-do’ and we just started riding,” Wendt said.
When Mr. Kaz sped the piano up, they followed his lead. They galloped. When he slowed down, they ambled. “We thought ‘let’s not talk until they stop laughing,’ ” Wendt said, “and they never stopped laughing.”
“He is the best 8 ½-fingered piano player the planet ever created,” said Kazurinsky.
“I wish I had a dollar for every time I did a scene and I thought ‘Golly, I was clever last night,’ ’’ Kazurinsky said, “and then I looked at the tape, and realized Fred had led me there musically.”
Mr. Kaz, who grew up in the DePaul neighborhood, was a talented jazz pianist long before he joined the comedy revue. He played at the Gate of Horn and other city nightclubs and jazz festivals on bills with Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Oscar Peterson, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. He even played accompaniment for silent movies at film festivals.
At Second City, he also accompanied Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, Bill Murray, David Steinberg and Betty Thomas.
In a 2008 interview with Sun-Times reporter Mike Thomas, Belushi recalled how Mr. Kaz could make or break a scene. It was late on a Friday night. Some members of the troupe had been drinking and were horsing around instead of engaging with the audience. Every time Belushi was onstage, Mr. Kaz “pulled his hands off the piano. And I got a third of my usual laughs. A third!” Belushi exclaimed. “And I went on my knees and begged him to forgive me, and he didn’t forgive me until Sunday. I stewed another two nights without the piano, me trying to squeeze these laughs without his help.”
“He was like the sixth or seventh man, depending on the size of the cast,” said Second City CEO Andrew Alexander. “He influenced the work dramatically on how to play out a scene . . . he was the foundation of how music was integrated into Second City.’’
The late Bernie Sahlins, a Second City founder, likened his work to that of being a director.
“His contribution is unobtrusive, but if he were missing, it would certainly be less of a show,” Sun-Times critic Glenna Syse said in a review of a 1986 show. Mr. Kaz’s puckish sense of humor is evident on a video tribute he sent to Second City on its 50th anniversary. “I used to work at Second City but I’m almost completely recovered!” he said, with a fake twitch.
In the tribute, he reeled off tongue-in-cheek assessments of Second City alums, including, “Bill Murray was just a bar singer and a balloon popper, and that’s all he’ll ever be.”
He liked landing lake trout and salmon, smoking them and bringing them in for the troupe to enjoy, Wendt said.
And Mr. Kaz loved being on the Cadenza with his wife, Helen. “I have birds, sea creatures, and good air,” he told a 2009 crowd at California’s Fanatic Salon. In a 22-mile trip near Catalina Island, he said, “We saw several pods of dolphins, a humpback whale and her calf; two great white sharks, a huge ocean sunfish and a fin whale.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Kaz is survived by his daughter, Ellen; his sons, Martin and Ron, and his older brother, Norman.
Contributing: Mike Thomas