Dick Latessa, Winner of a Tony for ‘Hairspray,’ Dies at 87


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Dick Latessa, right, and Harvey Fierstein, as Wilbur and Edna Turnblad in the musical “Hairspray” in 2002.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Dick Latessa, whose long New York stage career started in the 1960s and culminated in 2003 with a Tony Award for playing the adoring husband Wilbur Turnblad in the hit musical comedy “Hairspray,” died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

A daughter, Gabrielle Latessa Ortiz, said the cause was heart failure.

Mr. Latessa brought warmth and believability to Wilbur, whose wife, Edna, was played in drag by Harvey Fierstein. In their showstopping number, “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” Mr. Latessa looked besotted as he wrapped his arms tightly around Mr. Fierstein’s considerable waist and sang:

You’re like a stinky old cheese, babe,
Just gettin’ riper with age.
You’re like a fatal disease, babe,
But there’s no cure
So let this fever rage.

“Hairspray,” based on the John Waters movie of the same name, follows Tracy Turnblad, the plus-size daughter of Edna and Wilbur, as she pursues racial equality on a local dance show in early-1960s Baltimore.

In an interview on the “Today” show, Mr. Latessa said, “I think we have the best time of any couple on Broadway.”

On Facebook on Tuesday, Mr. Fierstein wrote: “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 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.”

Mr. Latessa was a versatile fit onstage, capable of drama, comedy, and song and dance. He appeared in 18 Broadway shows, including “Follies,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Damn Yankees,” “I Ought to Be in Pictures,” “Cabaret” and “Promises, Promises.” His “Hairspray” performance won him the Tony for best featured actor in a musical.

In his final show, “The Lyons,” by Nicky Silver, he played Ben Lyons, a dying man in a dysfunctional family. In a review of the play during its 2011 Off Broadway run, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that the character was “embodied with warming anger and irritability by Mr. Latessa.” Mr. Latessa continued in the role when “The Lyons” moved to Broadway in 2012.

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Mr. Latessa, right, in the film “The Last New Yorker,” with Dominic Chianese.

Credit
Harvey Wang/Brink Films

Richard Robert Latessa was born on Sept. 15, 1929, in Cleveland, the sixth of seven children of Donato Latessa, a shoemaker, and the former Delia Campolietti, a homemaker. He was inspired by watching the film “The Red Shoes” to take dance lessons, but did not have a career in the arts in mind. To earn money, he drove a truck, among other jobs, while dancing for fun.

When, in his late 20s, he saw a musical production at the Karamu House theater in Cleveland, he was inspired to ask for an audition. He met his future wife, Shirley Stollman, at the theater when they were cast in a play as a married couple.

Mr. Latessa left Ohio for New York in 1959 to pursue his acting career, and made his Broadway debut at 38 in “The Education of Hyman Kaplan,” a musical comedy, based on Leo Rosten’s book, about an immigrant studying English in New York.

In addition to Ms. Ortiz, he is survived by his partner, Jonathan Hilton; his wife, a writer from whom he was separated; two other daughters, Rachel Toomey and Gina Latessa; a sister, Antoinette Linden; two brothers, Donald Latessa and Gerald Latessa; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Latessa also worked in television on shows like “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order” and “The Sopranos,” and in films including “Stigmata” and “The Last New Yorker.”

In an essay in the book “The Alchemy of Theatre” (2006), a Playbill publication, Mr. Latessa called himself a “willing collaborator” who knew nothing about acting when he started and readily sought out the help of others. He viewed himself, he said, as a second banana who could carry a show if required, but who had been surrounded by enough stars to recognize his role.

“I try to enhance what the star is doing,” he wrote, “while 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 onstage, they could tell that Harvey and I were in love. It provided the emotional foundation of the show.”

Correction: December 21, 2016

An earlier version of this obituary, using information from Mr. Latessa’s family, omitted the name of a survivor and misstated his marital history. He is survived by his partner, Jonathan Hilton; he and his wife, Shirley, were separated.

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