By day he was a sardonic and droll journalist. By night, Irv Letofsky indulged his love for theater, satire and performance. Letofsky, 76, who died of cancer Sunday at home in Los Angeles, enjoyed a long career with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minneapolis Tribune, Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter.
Articulate as a reporter and critic, he was incisive and imaginative as an editor, guiding the Times' entertainment coverage during a golden age in the 1980s.
But it was a cherished sidelight that become a lifelong love. In the early 1960s, Letofsky teamed up with Dudley Riggs and a few other raconteurs to launch the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. He fueled the comedy troupe as a writer and director throughout the decade, slipping away after he finished his newspaper duties.
"Irv was more important in this city than people think," said Pat Proft, a film writer and director who lives in Wayzata. "If you think of early theater and satire in this town, he was the guy. He was basically the artistic director, writing and directing and picking stuff. By the time I left the Workshop, I pretty much knew what I was doing and where I was going."
Tom Sherohman was Proft's buddy from Columbia Heights when they began with Letofsky at the Workshop.
"He really was the most important mentor I ever had," said Sherohman, who has worked in Twin Cities theater for more than 40 years. "I know that Pat and I have often said that we don't know that we would ever have had careers without him."
A native of Fargo, N.D., Letofsky graduated from the University of North Dakota and started his journalism career as sports editor of the Bismarck, N.D., Tribune in 1957. The next year, he became a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he met fellow writer Dan Sullivan. Kindred spirits, they indulged their creative interests in 1961 when Riggs decided he'd like to offer entertainment at his coffeehouse on E. Hennepin Avenue. Letofsky and Sullivan, who had moved to the Minneapolis Tribune by then, wrote satirical revues commenting on politics and social issues.
"He was so obstreperous," said Sullivan. "When he interviewed for the job at the Tribune, the managing editor, Daryle Feldmeir, asked him what he'd like to be doing in five years and he said, 'Well, I'd like to have your job.' He was a very droll guy."
Sullivan left the Tribune in 1964, but Letofsky stayed as an assistant city editor and continued to write and direct at the Workshop.
"If it hadn't been for Irv's organizing ability, and if he hadn't given me the hint of going to the workshop, a lot of things wouldn't have happened for me," said Sullivan, who became theater critic at the Los Angeles Times and was instrumental in luring Letofsky there in 1976.
Letofsky edited the Times' Calendar section, leading an aggressive stable of writers who covered the entertainment industry. They included Peter Boyer, who later wrote for the New Yorker; Pat Broeske, whose book on Howard Hughes inspired the movie "The Aviator," and Dennis McDougal, author of a Jack Nicholson biography, who called Letofsky the "best editor I ever had."
"He thought of angles I never thought of," said writer Deborah Caulfield Rybak, who worked for Letofsky, and more recently for the Star Tribune. "He would polish the writer's voice and made us all sound amazing."
Letofsky left the Times in 1991 and wrote TV criticism for the Hollywood Reporter. He also was executive producer for the 2003 cable documentary "All the Presidents' Movies," which looked at what movies were screened at the White House over the past century.
"He kept working to the end," said his wife, Brian Ann Letofsky. "He even reviewed a show from his hospital bed at Cedars Sinai. And had laid out another book he was going to do on the trial of Al Capone."
She met her husband after he gave her a bad review for a performance at the Crawford Livingston Theatre in St. Paul in 1972.
"I told him he was going to pay for that review and he spent 30 years paying for it," she joked of their marriage. "Part of what made him so remarkable was that he was always learning, and he always accepted people just as they are. He would encourage them toward their potential and envision things about people that they didn't see themselves."
Letofsky also is survived by children Laurie and Cara of Minneapolis; P.J., of Los Angeles, and Polly, of Denver; brothers, Dave, of Las Vegas and Larry, of San Francisco and his mother, Jennie, who is 105 and lives in San Francisco.
A service is scheduled for Friday in Los Angeles. Brian Ann Letofsky said a celebration of Irv's life will take place in spring -- possibly near his April birthday -- in Minneapolis.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299