Cynthia Szigeti, Groundlings Improv Teacher and 'Seinfeld' Actress, Dies at 66

Courtesy Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher
Cynthia Szigeti

She schooled Lisa Kudrow, Conan O’Brien, Will Forte and Joel McHale and also appeared in 'National Lampoon's European Vacation.'

Cynthia Szigeti, a comic actress, Groundlings alum and acting teacher who taught the art of improv to the likes of Lisa Kudrow, Conan O’Brien and Will Forte, has died. She was 66.

Szigeti, who played Jerry's former high-school girlfriend on an episode of Seinfeld and the mother of the brainy family that battled the Griswolds on a game show in National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985), died Aug. 10 at her home in Los Angeles, her family announced.

Szigeti had a long battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, her former student Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher, founder of Actors Comedy Studio in L.A., told The Hollywood Reporter.

After attending Fairfax High School and graduating from UCLA with a master's in acting, Szigeti was hired as a waitress at the Pitchell Players improv club on Melrose Avenue. That prompted her to sign up for improv classes for $45 a month at The Groundlings; she eventually auditioned and was accepted into the legendary comedy troupe.

Later, Szigeti left to work at The Comedy Store, teaming with Robin Williams, Taylor Negron and Martin Short as part of The Comedy Store Players. “At the Groundlings it was all about wigs, rehearsals and costumes. At the Store, it was immediate, topical and edgy,” she noted in a 2009 interview.

Szigeti returned to The Groundlings in the 1980s to run the school as well as to direct and train teachers. She then started the school at The Acme Comedy Theatre and taught at Keep It Real Acting. Along the way, she also schooled such actors as Adam Carolla, Joel McHale, Cheri Oteri and Julia Sweeney.

In a 2012 interview with the Archive of American Television, Kudrow said that meeting Szigeti after she decided to try to become an actress was "the best thing that happened, on so many levels," to her.

"She spoke to me in a way that no on else could have," she said. "I wasn't going to be OK with a touchy, feely, everyone sort of moan, crazy acting exercise thing. She was, 'There's no time in improv to work up to an emotion! You guys just need to have it [immediately]! It's all pretend anyway!'"

"She was definitely intimidating, unapologetic, shockingly intelligent, generous, joyful and demanding," Rohrbacher wrote in a tribute to Szigeti that was published by Backstage. "She would tell stories that included names like Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, Martin Short, Robert Redford and Helen Mirren. If you studied with her, your life was changed, and it was that simple."

In the season-three Seinfeld episode "The Library," Szigeti played Sherry Becker, whom Jerry tracks down because he needs an alibi for a New York Public Library book that he apparently never returned.

Szigeti also portrayed an "Incest Group Leader" on a 2000 episode of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm and appeared on other sitcoms including WKRP in Cincinnati, Married … With Children, Gimme a Break!, Who's the Boss?, Empty Nest, Norm and The King of Queens.

Her film résumé included I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1977), You Light Up My Life (1977), The Gong Show Movie (1980), Repo Man (1984), The Wrong Guys (1988) and Up Close & Personal (1996).

Survivors include her niece Samantha and sister-in-law Melinda.

Donations in her memory can be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.