Remembering Richard Schaal

Of course, to remember Richard “Dick” Schaal (1928-2014) you’d have to register who he was. I recall him well from the MTM shows of the ’70s, a comic actor with rugged good looks, marvelous deadpan delivery, and a working class, blue collar demeanor not unlike that of Kenneth Mars (when he wasn’t doing dialects). Schaal was in five episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-73), three of of The Bob Newhart Show (1972-74), three of Rhoda (1974-76), and no less than 23 of Phyllis (1975-76), one of which he directed. Not coincidentally, between 1964 and 1978, he was married to Rhoda star Valerie Harper.

Interestingly, though, in the early days of their relationship Harper was not the successful one; Schaal was. Schaal remains something of a legend in the Second City/ improv universe. He was a Chicago local, the son of a machinist and a telephone operator. He had been a construction worker as a young man, before he saw early Second City performances and got hooked, studying at the feet of Paul Sills and Viola Spolin, and working alongside the likes of Del Close and Avery Schreiber. His hard-hat demeanor made him a valuable and castable asset in years when most of those who went into the field were college grads and theatre types. He was also renowned for his skills as a pantomime (i.e., he had a sort of genius for establishing the reality of invisible, imagined objects in improv sketches). After Chicago, he moved to New York, where he worked with people like Barbara Harris and Bob Dishy, and met Harper. In 1964 he got his first TV credits and married Harper.

By 1966, things were really moving in Schaal’s career. His early credits include episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl, I Dream of Jeannie, and Love American Style; Jim Henson’s The Cube (1969); and movies like The Russians are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966); The Virgin President (1969), Slaughterhouse Five (1972), Steelyard Blues (1973); and A Knife for the Ladies (1974).

After the break with Harper in 1978, he was in Americathon (1979); The Hollywood Knights (1980); O’Hara’s Wife (1982, with Ed Asner); and Once Bitten (1985); had a recurring role on Trapper John MD (1981-85), and regular roles on the short-lived shows Just Our Luck (1983) with Richard Gilliland and T.K. Carter, and Almost Grown (1988-89) with Tim Daly.

Schaal retired from screen acting in 1990 to focus on teaching. By then, his daughter Wendy Schaal (b. 1954) had picked up the baton. In addition to scores of guest shots on major TV shows, she has also been a regular, semi-regular, or recurring character on such shows as It’s a Living, Fantasy Island, AfterMASH, Nearly Departed, and Good Grief. She has provided the voice of Francine on American Dad since 2005.