Thursday, May 25, 2017

Del Close: In the midst of tragedy, the possibility of laughter

"Slaughter of the Innocents," The Vatican Museum

     Last week I went to the opening of the American Writers Museum, which I appreciated more than expected. They have a Hall of Fame, of sorts, of Chicago writers, cleverly presented on moveable banners so they can add and subtract as circumstances dictate. I noticed—with a mix of satisfaction and unease—that I had met a full half dozen of the iconic writers showcased: Mike Royko, Ann Landers, Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Roger Ebert and Del Close. Quite a lot really. I hadn't thought of Close in a while—I spoke with him at the wake Bill Murray threw at his hospital the night before Close killed himself, and saw him on the stage as Polonius in Robert Falls' "Hamlet." I glanced at the obituary I wrote for Close in 1999, and thought it might be suitable for this grim, terror-tainted week. We should not of course laugh at the individual victims of specific tragedies. But certainly must laugh at the general tragedy of the human condition, one where insane religious fanatics commit atrocities against children, trying to lure good people into accepting the hatreds which so define and limit their lives. We are supposed to be terrified—I would say being bitterly amused at the ultimate futility of their efforts might be a far more valid reaction.
Del Close

     In the famous Second City comedy sketch taking place at the funeral of a man who died by jamming his head into a gallon can of baked beans, that detail—to make the cause of death a big can of Van Camp's pork and beans—was provided by Del Close, whose morbid, risky brand of dark comedy formed generations of American comedians.
     Mr. Close—teacher, actor, director, pagan, junkie, occasional lunatic and fierce iconoclastic spirit behind Chicago's beloved comedy troupe, as well as friend and mentor to its biggest stars—died of complications from emphysema Thursday at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He was 64.
     "There is something irresistibly funny about a funeral," he once said. "More basically, I think the point is that beyond the deepest tragedy, there is laughter. Even in the midst of tragedy, there is always the possibility for it."
     Mr. Close acted not only in troupe comedy but in serious dramas. He was acclaimed as Polonius in the Robert Falls' landmark "Hamlet" at Wisdom Bridge and appeared in several motion pictures, including "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
     His death came the day after about 50 of his friends feted Mr. Close as he sat in a wheelchair in a basement room of the hospital.
     He was "an amazingly intricate human being," said Second City producer Kelly Leonard. "Notoriously prickly, tremendously warm and very funny," he specialized in humor that's "dark and subversive," Leonard said.
     Mr. Close grew up in Manhattan, Kan. He was a second cousin of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ike once showed up at a Close family Thanksgiving in the years before he became president. Mr. Close ran away from home as a teenager, getting his first taste of show business as an assistant in a cheesy bit of vaudeville called Dr. Dracula's Tomb of Terror.
     He attended Kansas State College on a bass drum scholarship and was a classmate of James Dean's. He auditioned in 1957 for the St. Louis branch of the Compass Players, the precursor of Second City.
     Mr. Close was part of the original St. Louis cast, performing in the Crystal Palace. The cast moved to Chicago to become Second City, but Mr. Close went to New York, becoming a stand-up comic in the company of people such as Lenny Bruce. After taking in a Bruce show with Second City founding director Paul Sills, Sills reportedly said to Mr. Close, "If you can ever find out what Lenny is taking, by all means do it."
     What Bruce was taking was heroin, and Mr. Close followed Sills' advice to a fault. He not only became a heroin addict; he was proud of it.
     "He relished his narcotic past," Bob Woodward wrote of Mr. Close. "He wore his track marks from the needles like a badge of honor."
     Mr. Close appeared off-Broadway in a musical, "The Nervous Set," in 1959. But an arrest for marijuana possession cost Mr. Close his cabaret card, and, unable to perform in New York nightclubs, he returned to Chicago, where he joined Second City, sharing directing duties with Bernie Sahlins.
     Mr. Close began performing in the cast of Second City in 1962. It was not a placid relationship, and Mr. Close was plagued by his drinking, drug addiction and emotional problems, which sometimes required institutionalization.
     "Sheldon Patinkin, who wasn't yet the Second City director, used to pick me up at the loony bin and drive me to the theater, where I'd do my thing. Then he'd drive me back to the loony bin where I'd spend another day," he said in 1972. Sahlins said that he, too, used to pick Mr. Close up at a mental hospital so he could perform.
     Mr. Close was fired in 1965. "I deserved it," he later said. "I was always getting loaded, quite frankly."
     He moved to San Francisco, where he took small acting roles. He appeared in "Beware the Blob," being eaten along with Burgess Meredith, and in episodes of "Get Smart" and "My Mother the Car."
     Mr. Close hung out with the Grateful Dead. He ran the light shows at 1967 concerts as the group's "optical percussionist."
     He returned to Chicago in 1972 and directed Second City reviews consistently for the next decade, becoming close with stars such as John Belushi, whose talent he nurtured and formed.
     "He was particularly good with the new generation of Vietnam rebels—John Belushi, Harold Ramis, those people," Sahlins said. "He was a rebel, definitely a product of what we used to call the hippie generation. . . . He had an unusual capacity for leading young people, not always down the straight path. He was an inspiring director and teacher, even if sometimes the content was not acceptable."
     Belushi was particularly affected by Mr. Close, both professionally and personally.
     "I like the man's style," Belushi said of his mentor in 1978. "He can create with you, unlike so many other directors. He can motivate people. He's been my biggest influence in comedy."
     Mr. Close's first-floor Wells Street apartment, across from Second City, was also a convenient spot for Belushi, himself an addict, to shoot up. It was only after Belushi's death by drug overdose in 1982 that Mr. Close was able to shake his drug habit.
     He was let go, again, from Second City in 1983, and took his comedy workshops to CrossCurrents, then to the fledging ImprovOlympic, where he helped develop its signature piece, "The Harold," a framework combining audience suggestions into skits that end up working together.
     Mr. Close returned to Second City in 1988 to direct "The Gods Must Be Lazy," bringing in his ImprovOlympic standouts Chris Farley, Tim Meadows and Joel Murray. Critics credit Second City's current renaissance to the mid-'90s import of Mr. Close's acolytes from ImprovOlympic.
     He won three Jeff awards, a Chalmers award for directing Toronto's Second City, and a Charlie award for lifetime achievement from the American Association of Comedy Artists.
     "It's a grim business, this being funny," he said in 1975. "Every time you come up with a strong satiric idea, the world tops it. None of our reactionary military characters in the past decade could top the real-life line that came out of Vietnam: 'We had to destroy the village in order to save it.' "

                         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 5, 1999


  1. You are undoubtly the best obit writer I have ever read. Every one of your obits give the reader a true sense of who was lost, rather than just the highlights of career or family or press. Those left behind might well beg your attention when their loved one is to be memorialized.

  2. Yes. Revealing but kind. A departure from the cynical Italian maxim "Only saints die," meaning you practically have to be Hitler to have your faults enummerated in an obit.

    History is, of course, full of creative drumkards, addicts and scamps. Although only De Quincy turned his addiction into a good book, many of his contemporaries would be judged dope fiends by today's standards. And going further back one can cite thieves, rapists and murderers who left behind enduring works.

    "We had to destroy the village in order to save it," was attributed to an unnamed Army officer in Vietnam, but expressions of the same sentiment go back at least to Tacitus: Solitudinus facient pacem appellant."


    1. Oh, I'm sure we can think of good books mined out of addiction beyond "Confessions of an Opium Eater." How about "Under the Volcano?" How about "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"? "How about "Infinite Jest." A few others come to mind.

    2. I guess I was stuck in the Victorian era. Authors became more forthcoming about their bad habits in the 20th Century.


  3. I'm not sure why you failed to mention his IO partner, Charna Halpern.

    1. It might have been our style at the time not to mention partners who were not in fact married.

    2. Or it could have been I wrote this on the fly and couldn't reach her, or didn't know about their close collaboration. It is an oversight.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.