Dick Latessa, the veteran song-and-dance man who stole hearts as Wilbur Turnblad in the original Broadway production of Hairspray, has died. His death at 87 was announced by the Broadway League’s Tony Awards web site.
“He owned the part. He was the real thing — a generous, big-hearted artist whose talent and professionalism were a model for making a full life in the theater. — ‘Hairspray’ producer Margo Lion
Audiences will fondly remember Latessa’s Wilbur cutting a rug with his wife Edna, played by Harvey Fierstein, in the 2003 Tony Award-winning musical. The show was based on the John Waters film about the desegregation of a Baltimore rock’n’roll TV dance series in the early 1960s. Singing “You’re Timeless To Me” late in the show, Latessa and Fierstein turned frumpiness and vaudeville-style riffing (“You’re like a stinky old cheese babe / just gettin’ riper with age”) into a sweetly romantic pas de deux. Latessa was rewarded with his first and only Tony Award, for best featured performance by an actor in a musical. He was 74.
“The day we read the first act of Hairspray for the first time, Dick was with us,” Margo Lion, who produced the show, told Deadline. “He owned the part from that day forward. He was the real thing — a triple threat as a performer with perfect timing and always on time. A generous, big-hearted artist whose talent and professionalism were a model for making a full life in the theater.”
A Cleveland native, Latessa was a regular on New York stages, appearing opposite Keith Carradine in Tommy Tune’s production of The Will Rogers Follies, and in revivals of such popular musicals as Damn Yankees and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, among many others. He was a replacement for Herr Schultz in the 1998 Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Cabaret which starred Alan Cumming as The Emcee. Latessa made his Broadway debut in the role of Giovanni Pastora in the 1968 musical, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, a flop.
In the 1970s, Latessa had roles in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and, later, in Rags. More recently he appeared in the New York City Center “Encores!” revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Music in the Air, and in a Broadway revival of Promises, Promises with Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes. His last show was a 2012 Broadway transfer of the Vineyard Theatre production of Nicky Silver’s The Lyons, with Linda Lavin.
Open-faced and quick with a smile, Latessa was loved by the companies he worked with, always appearing to relish being part of a team putting on a show that would give pleasure to hundreds of people. He never lost that spirit.
Said Fierstein on Facebook:
“I’ve never had an acting partner quite like Dick Latessa. Whenever one of the kids in the show had a problem we’d send them up to Dick’s room for a lesson on how to be a pro and keep their heads on straight in our crazy business. I loved and adored him and, no insult to any other actor opposite whom I performed HAIRSPRAY, there was no one like Latessa. He was so filled with love and mutual respect… Well, have a look at this version of the song and note what he did 45 seconds into this tape. That kiss on my shoulder, a detail most of the audience would never notice, gave me the courage and chutzpah to sing and dance on a Broadway stage with abandon. Oh, Dick, there was only one you and I’ll be forever grateful that I got you all to myself for nearly a thousand performances.
Sincerest condolences to Jonathan, Shirley and his beloved daughters.
Dick Latessa… You are timeless to me!”