Friends and Coconspirators Recall the Crazed Career of an Improv Olympian 

I. Second City

Martin De Maat (director of the Second City Training Center): I met and talked to Del when I was a little boy. I was, what, four? I was at a Second City show. I remember my feet were dangling in the chair. And after the show I said to him, "I thought you were very funny in the show tonight." And Del said, "I hate children."

Larry Hankin (actor, former member of Second City and the Committee): I first met Del at Second City in a class. I joined Second City in 1960. The first thing we did was take classes with Viola Spolin. I didn't like Viola because she was intelligent, smart, and wanted to teach me stuff. Del hated her too. We'd sit in the back of the class. Oh, man, fuckin' bullshit.

Avery Schreiber (comedian, former member of Second City and the Committee): For years Del would knock Spolin. About five years ago he called to tell me he had reread Spolin and everything he had developed in his intensive workshops was in her book.

Alan Myerson (director and founder of the Committee): Del and I met in 1961. I was hired to start a second company at Second City when Paul Sills took the first company to Broadway. Del was in that new company. He was exceedingly bright, very determined, very opinionated. He was very antiauthoritative. He was a pain in the ass.

Larry Hankin: Me and him did one improv that stayed with me the rest of my life. It was called "Something Just Happened." What you had to do is stand onstage and something major has happened. And the two of you agree to what has happened. And all you do is stand onstage. No talking. Just stand there and think about what happened. And what the class has to do is guess what happened by your body language. What Del did was just stand there. It was his thing that had happened. And I was a friend of his. He stood and stared, and I just stood and stared, and that was it. And what happened--and this is true--his father invited him into the kitchen to watch something. Del sat at the kitchen table and watched his dad while his father stood at the kitchen sink and drank a glass full of battery acid and committed suicide in front of him. The improv was he had just come over and told me about it. He said he was like six or seven when that happened.

Avery Schreiber: Del played a game called Gotcha at Second City. Someone pretended to shoot you and wherever you were you had to die the most dramatic death. Once we were at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia when someone shot him. Del staggered to the ground and as he fell he shouted, "You stinking commies!" The most amazing death he ever did was backstage at the Establishment in London. There was a huge spiral staircase backstage that led to the offices upstairs, and someone shot Del at the top of the stairs. He fell down the stairs--he tumbled and rolled, tumbled and rolled, tumbled and rolled to the bottom of the stairs.

Larry Hankin: The first thing that's pointed out whenever you join an organization is who's your boss and who does drugs. Del was introduced to me as a major user.

Sheldon Patinkin (Columbia College theater department chair, former Second City director): I'm not trying to be pejorative about his occasional mental problems. He would get crazy every once in a while. There was a point where Del was in a sanitarium with a doctor who was using LSD as part of his therapy. He was eventually stripped of his rights to be a doctor. Every night I would pick Del up at the sanitarium, check him out, drive him to Second City, he'd do the show, and then I'd drive him back and check him in. He once told me he'd taken some LSD under doctor's supervision and had fantasized that he was being devoured bit by bit by the spider king, starting with his toes. By the way he was talking about it, he seemed to have enjoyed the experience.

II. The Committee, California, and the 1960s

Sheldon Patinkin: Del was in the company when I first came to direct at Second City. But he wasn't there long. He wasn't in very good shape physically or mentally, and soon after I took over he left Chicago and went to San Francisco.

Alan Myerson: I invited Del to join the Committee. Del was a bright guy. Even though we had our differences, I had always had enormous respect for him and his skill. Besides, his best friend, John Brent, was working for the Committee already. You also have to remember this was the 60s. Peace, love, and rock 'n' roll. The Committee was more political than Second City.

Avery Schreiber: At the Second City we used to flirt with the left. The Committee was left-wing. . . . TOCSIN, the right-wing group, had us listed as possible commies.

Alan Myerson: We also had a far more experimental approach to improvising and improvisational theater.

Larry Hankin: I had a large apartment in one of those gingerbread houses, a railroad apartment with high ceilings, bare minimum of furniture. This was in North Beach. Del moved into my place while I was moving out. I had a hammock stretched across my bedroom so I could sleep in bed or hang in the hammock. And Del loved swinging there too. So one day I came home, and there's nobody home, and I notice these black dots across the ceiling. Just way too high to reach. Dots across the ceiling. I didn't mention it to Del. The next day there were some more. This went on for a week. Little, tiny black dots, like somebody was squirting ink up there. Finally one day I came home and the bathroom door was locked. I pounded on the door and no one answered. "Del, are you in there?" I was worried he'd OD'd, but I couldn't get in. Finally I just gave up. I didn't want to break the door down. I went into the living room, and ten minutes later the bathroom door opened, and out comes Del covered in sweat. The first thing I said was, "Del, what the fuck are these dots up here? And what were you doing in the bathroom?" He said, "I thought you were the police and I was hiding under the bathtub," which was possible because it was one of those ball-and-claw bathtubs. And I said, "What about these dots." He said, "Oh, I've been shooting up. So I've been cleaning out my needle with my blood as I swing. I squirt it up." Those dots were blackened blood.

Avery Schreiber: His idea was that his body was a wonderful toy and he could put any kind of chemical into it. I once had to take him to the hospital when he accidentally shot up developing fluid.

Howard Hesseman (actor, Committee member): To say that Del was imaginative sort of gives short shrift to the man. You know, Del was really urging you to try anything and just, you know, in a safe space, in a rehearsal space...abandon all of the rules and notions of safety that you had...trying to find something a little deeper, a little spontaneous.

Larry Hankin: Del had a nightclub act he would do on his off nights. And there was one night he turned the universe inside out. He was up onstage, talking about how he found out why you can never find a beer-can opener but you can always find wire hangers. He proposed that beer-can openers are the larval stage of wire hangers. From there he said something about opening up a cut in his body, opening it up, and turning his body inside out. What he found there was the inside of the universe. He had turned everything inside out.

Howard Hesseman: Del was really big on trust exercises, because trust is so implicit in improvisational work. You know, two players, one closes his eyes, the other takes the blind player by the hand, [and] you run full speed. It sounds fascinating, but nowhere near as terrifying as it actually is. . . . If you're playing the game properly, it's just as terrifying for the guide as it is for the blind person, because you realize you have an enormous responsibility in caring for that person. The Committee stage in San Francisco had the usual set doors and curtains, similar to Second City. Behind it, there was a ladder and a little balcony above the stage, a platform above the stage. There was a ladder up, and you could get up on this platform just behind the doors. Del was demonstrating an exercise in trust to the new workshop group in San Francisco, and climbed up to this deck...which was probably about seven, eight feet above the stage. And Del had a propensity for speaking really quickly, and sometimes in rather bizarre imagery, and not always intelligibly either. And so he had everybody kind of lined up, grouped down below, and he made his dive, and they weren't really ready. Apparently they didn't really believe him, or he hadn't made it absolutely clear that he was about to dive at this moment. But he swanned off this platform, and they didn't quite break his fall, and he broke his arm. He hit the floor and broke his arm. So being Del, in an attempt not to spook them...here was an opportunity to get them to really understand the notion of trust and caring for one another on a personal level. He climbed the ladder and dove again, the second time failing to adequately prepare them [laughs]... they missed him again. I mean, in this case, Del had all the trust--he just wasn't quite getting it through to the other people.

Peter Bonerz (actor, Committee member): We actually did work on a play together. I think for a while he did a part in MacBird! [Barbara Garson's political satire, casting Lyndon Johnson as Macbeth]. We were sitting in the makeup room, and he and another actor started doing Gilbert and Sullivan, and I was amazed that he was able to sing multiples of Gilbert and Sullivan music. I don't know where he got it. . . . I only recall he and another actor--the other actor was an old thespian--and they were both singing the wedding song, I think, from The Mikado. And he knew it word for word, harmonies and everything.

Howard Hesseman: I'm hard-pressed to remember reading tension in Del; it manifested itself in a different way through this guy. . . . Why was he chewing on that cigarette all the time? . . . Why were his glasses wrapped with black electrical tape to hold them together? Why was he vibrating like a pulsating hamster most of the time? You know, the guy was so filled with energy and rage, and he was intelligent enough to have plenty of reasons to be enraged with life. And yet, at the same time, I'm not sure that anyone would characterize Del as a tense person. God knows he was, certainly. His rage was chemically fueled, or there was a chemical additive to the rage for many years. But then there were many years there of sobriety when he still seemed, you know, just as eager to press on into the unknown somehow.

Susan Messing (member of the Annoyance Theatre and Second City): I met a woman in LA, a very strange woman, who said the first time she met Del she walked into a room and a woman was lying down and Del was pushing a lightbulb into her. And he was like, "Hi." I met Del and said, "Del, I met a woman in LA, and she said you put a lightbulb in someone's vagina." And he went, "Oh, ho-ho-ho, electricity." I'm glad I didn't meet Del in the 60s, because I probably would have been one of those chicks he was inserting lightbulbs into.

Wavy Gravy (hippie clown, Committee member, Ben & Jerry's flavor): Del and I did a show called "Lysergic A-Go-Go" at the Aeronautic Museum. Del was doing a light show. I don't remember what I did. But Del had a gallon of his favorite Amoco in the refrigerator--he was [the fire-eater] Asrad the Incombustible, you know. Later on we were living in the same house when Del was in on the Acid Test. He would do the rigging and he was the only one allowed not to take acid. He was just on speed. I woke up one morning, and there were 40 people in my kitchen making breakfast. The Merry Pranksters were staying with us. And [singer] Tiny Tim said to me in a puzzled voice, "Mr. Neal Cassady is looking for some grass--there is a whole lawn of it out front."

III. The Harold

Avery Schreiber: Del started doing the Harold [improvisational games abandoning the traditional sketch format in favor of longer, multiple scenes] in the 60s in San Francisco. [Jack] Burns and I were performing as a team then. And I saw he did this nonstop improvised thing that had my mind blown.

Alan Myerson: Allaudin [Bill] Mathieu was leading a workshop, I was leading a workshop, and Del was leading a workshop. The three of us arrived independently at what became called the Harold. Mathieu [the former musical director of Second City] named it, very much in the spirit of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, where someone points to George's hair and asks him, "What do you call that?" And he says, "Arthur."

Larry Hankin: I went to San Francisco to watch the Harold and I thought it was the stupidest fucking thing I'd ever heard of. I'm more of an improvisation classicist. Give me a who, a what, and a where. But I didn't know--he was perfecting it.

Avery Schreiber: We did a show at a university, and they gave us a very big paycheck. I asked Del, "Why don't you open for us? Why don't you come with us?" "I don't think so," he said, "I'm not ready." "Come on, you can split the thousand we are getting." They opened for us, and after their performance Burns and I had to wait for four standing ovations before we went out.

Alan Myerson: The Harold was a staple form for us. When Del left, he carried it with him--and made it his life's work.

IV. Second City, Again

Joyce Sloane (former Second City producer): I ran into Del in California, and he was living with a terrific girl. And I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "Not much." And I said, "Why don't you come to Chicago to direct." You know LA--you can get lost there.

Judy Belushi Pisano (widow of John Belushi): I found Del a little frightening. He definitely was a man's man. He didn't put a lot of attention or focus on women unless he was trying to get something out of them. But I've always felt that the Second City training John got was very rigorous and would be considered the equivalent of a college education. And a lot of that has to do with the experience of working with Del.

Dave Thomas (actor, former member of Toronto Second City): Del fired me once because I wouldn't do what he said. He wanted me and Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short to act out a scene with him where I was to play the doctor to tell him that his father had died from drinking sulfuric acid. And, in fact, that is how his father died. I refused to do that. And Del came back, "Theater is not a democracy. I'm the director--you must do what I say." I said, "Look, I'm here to do comedy. I'm not here to do some screwed-up therapy bullshit that you might be into. I'm not bringing my baggage to this stage from my own personal life, and I refuse to accept it from your life." And he said, "You're fired." And I said, "OK." And I left. Andrew Alexander, who ran Second City in Toronto, called me and said, "Are you coming in tonight?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Uh, OK, good-bye." And I came in and I felt very bad in terms of how this affected Del and his authority. And I gave him a ride home. And he said, in typical Del style, "You remind me a lot of myself. If some director had asked me to do that bullshit I wouldn't have done it either."

Judy Belushi Pisano: Do I think Del influenced John's drug use? Certainly he was open about his drug use, and I think it did affect him--that it could somehow make you more creative. I believe that's dangerous.

Joyce Sloane: One day Del came up to the offices to get money to pick up a prescription. I said fine, and ten minutes later he calls me. "You better call the paramedics, I've tried it [suicide] again." So I called the paramedics, and the ambulance came quickly. He was concerned what hospital they would take him to. He wanted to go to Northwestern, and they weren't taking him there. Can you imagine having the presence of mind to argue about where the paramedics are going to take you? He turned to me and said, "My respiration should stop at any minute now." And they took him away. And the next day I got to the Second City and was told he had disconnected all his leads and walked away from the hospital. And sure enough, he showed up at the theater. We packed him up again and took him back to the hospital. The next day he called. "You have to let me go. They have only one TV here and they won't let me watch WTTW." So I got him a television. Then he called and said, "You always wanted me to write. This would be a good time to write." So a couple of guys went to Sears to get him a typewriter and paper, and I sent it over to him. Then he called. He couldn't write because they were playing basketball under his window. The next thing he's at the theater, still wearing his hospital ID bracelet, typewriter under his arm. Finally it got to be too much for Bernie to handle.

Bernie Sahlins (Second City cofounder): His habits began to be destructive. He was drinking. And was getting more and more unreliable.

Joyce Sloane: We had incidents and drama you wouldn't believe. There's a famous story of Del going after Andrew Alexander with a broken bottle. Second City is still barred from the Tower Inn on Church Street in Toronto--Del put kitty litter in all of the toilets and stuffed up the whole system. And then there was witchcraft in his classes. Evoking the devil. That got to be too much.

V. ImprovOlympic

Charna Halpern (ImprovOlympic producer): David Shepherd and I founded the ImprovOlympic, and after David left I was looking for someone to teach classes. I heard that Del had left Second City, and it turned out he was waiting at CrossCurrents to talk about renting space to teach classes at the same time I was sitting in the lobby. I asked him if he would teach one class. I was going to pay him $200 and some pot. He said, "Can I do anything I want?" I said, "Sure." He said, "Can I invoke demons?" I said, "Yeah."

Howard Hesseman: I know that Del has been straight for quite some time--I didn't even know when it had happened. But I still have somewhere in my archives a photo of John Brent [Close's partner on the comedy record How to Speak Hip] with his distinctive printing on it, captioned "how I kicked dope and gained 40 ugly pounds." Every time I saw Del in the last 20 years or so, every time he would pop up in a movie, I was amazed by the physical change, by how much weight he had put on. Because when I knew him, he was rail thin and could clear any swimming pool in a matter of seconds. You know, this was one of the most track-marked, pincushioned bodies I've seen in my life.

Joyce Sloane: Charna Halpern has been wonderful keeping Del together. And what they have done together has been great because he got that laboratory--he got to do his work and create.

Charna Halpern: Soon after we began to work together and I was still getting to know him, I was lying in bed, and I saw Del in front of me clear as day. I just saw him. I got scared and opened my eyes. I closed them again, and I saw him again. I said, "Is that really you?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Is this my imagination?" "No." "If it's really you, come to the theater tomorrow morning." The next morning Del walks into CrossCurrents and he's just standing there in the hallway looking at me. We sat down. So I said, "Did you visit me last night?" And he went, "No, but you visited me." "I don't know what you are talking about." And he growled at me, "Let me give you a piece of advice--something a wise man said to me--if you don't know what you are doing, don't fuck with it!"

Pat Finn (actor): I came out of Marquette with Chris Farley, and Chris and I were like, "We gotta do comedy." So we signed up to take classes at Second City. We go to a show, and after the show we see Joel Murray. I grew up in Wilmette, and I knew the Murrays. My mom went to church with their mom. And my older brother knew Joel Murray. Chris said to me, "You know Joel--you gotta talk to him." So I ran into him, and we started talking. And I said, "We want to get into comedy." And he said, "It's pretty simple. You want to take classes here at Second City, and you want to get with Del Close at the ImprovOlympic--that's about the best comedy you'll do in your life."

Matt Walsh (Upright Citizens Brigade): I remember my first class with Del. Here was this old character who was my dad's age, which really blew my mind to meet someone my dad's age who was out there and as artistically bold as he was. He would come in and literally tell stories that had us on the edge of our seats. He lived a life we were fascinated by and did the things we all hoped to do. I don't even think we did anything in that first class.

Craig Cackowski (member of Second City E.T.C.): He was a voracious reader. Loved to talk. Talk about everything. Very up on everything in the world. People talked about a Del class that consisted of Del talking for two and a half hours.

Matt Walsh He could be amazingly harsh, like insanely cruel to the point where it wasn't offensive--it was just bizarre. But when he was excited about stuff he was amazing. He'd seen a lot of improv so he could be very biting. "Well, I've seen that about 2,000 times." He was always looking for something that was not rote.

Craig Cackowski One thing Del was good at was calling out the bullshit in your work. The very first scene I did I started yelling, and he interrupted the scene, saying, "All right, stop--you're in no position to make that kind of emotional choice at the top of the scene." Getting reamed by Del felt awful at first but good later on. It's like a good burn. Because you knew he cared enough.

Matt Walsh There was a joke floating around ImprovOlympic that the way to do Del is mention an obscure celebrity, like Shields and Yarnell, and then a drug, like crystal meth or heroin, and a location, and a year. And that's a Del story. "I remember shooting junk with Shields and Yarnell back in '74."

Craig Cackowski: To play the Del game, you get a suggestion about a drug, a celebrity, and a location...like, "I was mainlining with Willie Tyler and Lester in Las Vegas." The thing is he'd actually met all those people.

Michael Maggio (associate artistic director, Goodman Theatre): He loved to regale us with various tales of his past. I remember one day we were in rehearsal with [playwright] Keith Reddin, and Del started by saying, "Back when I was in LA shooting speed . . ." And Keith went, "You were in Speed with Keanu Reeves?" Del said, "No, I was actually shooting speed."

VI. The Final Days

Larry Coven (former member of Second City): Del had taken every drug known to man. I don't believe any of them had done him any harm except the alcohol and cigarettes. He was famous for teaching a workshop, pushing up his glasses, and saying, "I've got to feed my cat." Everyone knew that meant he had to go get a drink.

Larry Hankin: The last time I saw Del I was in Chicago doing my play [Roadrash Jones and Other Stories]. We went for a walk. He was doing a show at the Goodman [All the Rage] at the time. We started walking, and I looked around, and he was way back. He was just standing there. I said, "What's wrong?" And he said, "Well, I can't overexert myself because I can't breathe. So I have to walk very slow."

Michael Maggio: He was struggling a little at the time he did All the Rage. Every ounce of his energy went into the show. I'm sure no one in the audience had any idea he was struggling. But having had lung disease myself, I could sympathize. I would see him stopping on the bridge from Michigan to the Goodman. He'd be standing there looking out at the railroad tracks, and I knew what he was doing. Just catching his breath.

Larry Hankin: He was really sick for two years. It was kind of sad because he didn't look old. But I had to treat him like he was 90. Walk a little, stop, walk a little, stop.

Susan Messing: We were at the Annoyance last year, and we were watching the Upright Citizens Brigade. And I said, "Del, why don't you come up into the loft? You'll have a really great seat." He took a look at those ten steps up to the loft, and he said no. Only ten steps. But that was too much. The past winter was very difficult for him. . . . It was impossible for him to go outside. He couldn't breathe with his emphysema.

Charna Halpern: Del called me on Friday and said, "I don't think I can make class on Saturday unless you take me there." His health insurance was going to kick in Monday, and he said he should probably go to the hospital then. I said, "Are you sure?" He said, "Yes. In fact, I am quite enjoying things. I'm having lovely hallucinations." I said, "Del, we have to take you to the hospital."

Susan Messing: On Saturday they jammed a respirator down his throat because he didn't wake up at 6 AM. And then he woke up and he was terrified. He started writing notes--"Death is not the enemy, doctors are."

Charna Halpern: On Tuesday they had a reality check with me and Del. Someone with the hospital asked, "Del, let's all get on the same page--do you think you're dying? Yes. OK, good. Do you think you're dying in six months? No. Do you think it'll be soon?" He said yes. She said, "OK, what do you want to do in the next two days?" I wanted to give him a birthday party. He said, "Yeah, I want a birthday party." And I called Bill Murray. And people came.

Harold Ramis: I got there, and Del was in his wheelchair being videotaped by Comedy Central. As I understand it, he was giving final instructions to the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Matt Walsh: Matt Besser said we should record him. Because we had played around with the idea that Del was our benefactor for a long time. We got Comedy Central's OK getting a film crew and getting him to ramble about conspiracies and our mission as the Upright Citizens Brigade. And eventually we are going to go through it to find a way to use it.

Charna Halpern: When the people came, Del lit up. And there were people looking at me cockeyed. "I thought you said he was dying." Even the Sun-Times guy [Neil Steinberg] said, "I thought you said he was grave." I said, "He's dying--I swear to God." And he had cake, he had chicken, he had crab, he had a white chocolate martini.

Bernie Sahlins: The wake was weird. First, there was the druid ceremony.

Susan Messing: They didn't seem like his friends. They seemed like Wiccans R Us, like Wiccan 101. Del just wanted their presence there.

Bernie Sahlins: Then the fact that the corpse was alive at his own wake. But it was one of the loveliest farewells.

Charna Halpern: After the party, we put Del in his room, and I went home to sleep. About three in the morning, Del calls from the hospital. And he says, "I'm very scared. You have to come over. I have to talk to you." I ran there, and he says, "I think I'm having paranoid delusions, but I'm not sure. I want to tell you what's going on, and you tell me what you think, OK? Steven Spielberg is shooting an underground movie here, kind of like Dune underwater. Nobody knows about it, but I found out. So he's gonna get me. Those Comedy Central cameras you saw at the party tonight--they're not really Comedy Central. You were conned. They took me to the bathroom, and I looked. I have these marks all over my body. They are man-made." They are the shooting-up marks he had made. He says, "Dean Koontz is in on this. There are time-traveling Nazis who are taking you and me and Larry Coven back to the 30s, where I have to play a fascist dictator who orders Larry to kill you and dissect you. But I'm not going to let that happen. I'm just going to play the part. What do you think?"

Larry Hankin: I called him around six on Thursday, and his producer answered the phone, and she said, "Well, he's busy now." Then [former Second City director] Ed Greenberg got on the line: "Well, he's busy right now." And then I heard Del shout, "Who is it?" [Halpern] said, "Larry Hankin." He said, "Hey, Larry, I'm a little busy right now. But everything is great, and thanks a lot." I'd sent him an E-mail. Then Ed got on the line and said, "He's taken a shot of morphine. He's in the middle of that." I asked him, "What's the prognosis?" And he said, "Last night, which was the party, he was great. Now it's the next day, and frankly he just wants to get out of here."

Charna Halpern: The next day he said, "Oh, I can't take it. I'm uncomfortable. I want the morphine as promised." They came in and they shot him up with a dosage of morphine they would normally give a person, and of course he felt nothing. So they gave him a second shot. And he felt nothing. And they were like, "Jesus Christ!" And they put him on the morphine drip, and they had to raise the dosage six times. And finally he went, "Thank God." And he closed his eyes. It was just what he wanted. He wanted to fly high. By six o'clock he just stopped breathing.

Susan Messing: He was a 20-year member of the Hemlock Society. And he told me Saturday he was ready to go. That he had tempted fate in the past. And he was dying. And he was totally cool with dying. He just wanted to make sure he was comfortable.

Charna Halpern: Del willed his skull to the Goodman to be Yorick in the next production of Hamlet. Del wanted the last laugh on all of us.

Alan Myerson: I think Del was born an experimenter. That was one of the wonderful and remarkable aspects of him as a person. His rigorous and omnipresent desire to experiment and push things. To probe how and why things worked. He was an enormously curious guy.

Harold Ramis: Del's dream was always to do a fully improvised show. Bernie's thing was that improvisation was what you used to get to a show.

Bernie Sahlins: The last thing he said to me . . . I took his hand, and I even kissed him, and he said to me, "It's an art form." I said, "For today, Del, it's an art form."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Del Close by Randy Tunnell/ 1988 photos (5) copyright 1999 R.E. Potter III; Close, right, with Fred Kaz and Bernie Sahlins, early 70s uncredited photo; 1982 photo by Rob Ziebel.

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