“Fiction is a bridge to the truth that journalism can’t reach.” —Hunter S.Thompson
I met Del Close only once before he died. It was in 1997, during a drinking binge at the Old Towne Ale House in Chicago. Close was holding court at his usual table near the back, surrounded by a group of grizzled regulars and admirers. I had heard about his reputation as a local legend, mostly from friends who had taken acting workshops with him at the Second City. But to finally set eyes on him in the flesh, with his long white wizard’s beard and menacing baritone growl, he seemed like a caricature of himself, almost impossibly larger than life.
As he was known to do during these late night soirees, Close was entertaining the crowd with stories from his colorful past. He told of his experiences in a traveling midnight spook show called “Dr. Dracula’s Den Of Living Nightmares,” which he joined during the early 50s after dropping out of college. His duties, he said, involved running through the pitch-black theater and tossing handfuls of cooked spaghetti onto the unsuspecting audience while calling out, “A plague of worms shall descend upon you!” Several audience members fainted, and at least one, he told us with maniacal glee, “shat himself.”
His account took an even more bizarre turn when he described the company’s brief stay in Wichita, Kansas. It was there, he said, that he visited the Dianetics Institute for a personal auditing session with founder L. Ron Hubbard, who at the time was still a struggling science fiction author. Close was a fan of Hubbard’s novels, and the two men formed a fast friendship.
At some point during their meeting, Hubbard admitted to Close that he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep his Dianetics operation afloat, as he was barely able to afford the property taxes. “Well,” Close purportedly told him. “If you’re worried about taxes, you should just turn Scientology into a religion. That’d solve your problem.”
The small crowd burst into laughter and wild applause, though most of them had heard this particular nugget dozens of times before. But as a newbie to Close’s odd brand of storytelling, the whole thing struck me as a little fishy. Was he suggesting that his flippant comment – if it indeed happened as he described it – was in some way responsible for the entire Scientology phenomenon? It seemed, well, far-fetched.
I grilled Close for details, looking for a crack in his story, or at least some sign of whether he actually believed it. Surely it was just an exaggeration, I said. A funny little tall-tale that wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. He just stroked his beard and smiled at me, amused by my interrogation but refusing to provide specifics. I felt like an overly precocious child, demanding that a parent cough up indisputable proof that Santa Claus did indeed exist.
“Just because it didn’t happen,” he finally said, casually lighting up yet another cigarette, “doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
If the name Del Close doesn’t sound familiar, you’re far from alone. Bill Murray once called him “the most famous man in comedy that nobody has ever heard of.” Although he remains largely unknown in the mainstream, Close is widely considered to be one of the most influential figures in the history of American comedy. During his 40-year career, he co-founded such seminal theaters as the Second City and the Committee, where he single-handedly transformed improvisation into a valid art form. He discovered and nurtured generations of comedians, like John Belushi, Chris Farley, Bill Murray, John Candy, Harold Ramis, Mike Myers, and countless others. His imprint can be found on SCTV and Saturday Night Live, and he has contributed in some way to every medium of entertainment, from Hollywood to rock n’ roll, from standup comedy to musical theater.
But the real legacy of Del Close can’t be found on his resume. The stories that get retold about him have less to do with his professional career as a director and teacher than the strange details of his private life. His fondness for drugs, for instance, has taken on near mythological proportions. Close was a notorious junkie, developing an addiction to alcohol, pot, cocaine, LSD, heroin, amphetamines, and more controlled substances than have ever been consumed by one man. As Bob Woodward wrote of him in Wired, the controversial biography of John Belushi, Close “wore his track marks from the needles like a badge of honor.”
But drugs were only one small part of the Close mythos. His life was often stranger than fiction, with stories ranging from the weird to the outrageous to the utterly unbelievable. He claimed to have spent his teenage years working for a circus as a fire-eater (calling himself Azrad the Incombustible) and a target for a knife thrower. He produced light shows at Grateful Dead concerts, where he was billed as the “optical percussionist,” and later joined Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. He cavorted in New York with Lenny Bruce and James Dean, hosted family dinners with Dwight D. Eisenhower, and shared drugs with Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy. In one of his more infamous tales, he told of his supposed participation in dream experiments for the Air Force. When he left abruptly, he received dozens of letters from the government, containing only the cryptic demand, “You owe us two more dreams.”
Since his death in 1999, Close’s stories have become a permanent fixture in improv mythology. Not surprisingly, there have been numerous attempts to document his life. There’ve been at least two films, including PBS’s The Legend of Del Close (2000) and The Delmonic Interviews, a feature-length documentary that’s played at festivals around the country (most recently at the San Francisco Improv Fest in 2004). Bring Me the Head of Del Close, a stage show that consisted solely of Chicago performers telling stories about Close, had a short run at The Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company in late 2004. At least three books are in the works, including the just-published memoir Guru: My Days With Del Close by Jeff Griggs (Ivan R. Dee, 2005). Charna Halpern, Close’s partner and co-founder of the ImprovOlympic Theater in Chicago, is currently writing a screenplay about Close’s life. And most famously, there’s Wasteland, the short-lived DC comic book that Close co-wrote and considered to be his only true autobiography.
It’s not difficult to understand the posthumous feeding frenzy for Close’s life story. It is, after all, filled with the type of madcap yarns that make most writers start salivating like Pavlov Dogs. So when I got the call from an editor at Chicago, asking if I’d be interested in writing a lengthy profile of Close for the magazine, I nearly wept out of joy. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘is the story I’ve been waiting my whole life to write. It’s got everything; drugs, illicit behavior, celebrity guest stars. I’ll get a Pulitzer for sure.’
Less than a month later, after I had submitted my lovingly crafted draft, I received the first of many panicky phone calls from the managing editor.
“The fact-checkers are going crazy,” the editor stammered. “They want your head on a platter!”
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“What isn’t the problem?” She shouted back. “This article has demonic invocations, several suicide attempts, people jamming heroin needles into their eyes, and more felonies than I can count. Do you actually have confirmation on any of this?”
“Uh…” I checked my notes. Though I had plenty of sources, most of them were, let’s say, unreliable. They were former hippies, reformed junkies and criminals, and actors prone to believe anything that Close had told them. Few of the stories, if any, were first-person accounts. Not exactly the airtight fact checking that my editor was hoping for.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” the editor howled. “I mean, what’s with the story about Close stealing an opium pipe from an Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Is that for real?”
“I assume so.”
“You assume so? Did anybody actually witness him doing it?”
Actually, now that she mentioned it, no, they hadn’t. I’d heard the story from Michael Gellman, a director from Second City who had studied with Close during the late 70s. His account of the “opium pipe caper” was so entertaining that I hadn’t bothered to wonder if it might not be true.
“Jesus Christ, Spitznagel, this piece is littered with potential libel landmines. You’re going to have to throw the entire thing out and start from scratch. And this time, stick with the facts.”
The facts. Hmmm. To be fair, it was a perfectly reasonable request. But when it came to Del Close, the facts were nebulous at best. How exactly was I supposed to write truthfully about a man whose entire life seemed to be one big fabrication, or at the very least an exaggeration? It was a daunting task, and by conventional journalistic standards, damn near impossible.
Was Close an inspired genius with a penchant for crazy misadventures? Was he just a raving madman who had carefully constructed his own mythology? Or did the truth lie somewhere in between?
Let’s start with what we actually know to be true:
Close was born on March 9, 1934, in Manhattan, Kansas, the only child of a jeweler and housewife. He attended Manhattan High School, where he was known by the nickname “Pickle” and was active in drama productions. Even as a teenager, he displayed a dark sense of humor. Archives of the Manhattan Mercury newspaper reveal that Close pulled off several elaborate pranks, including staging a fake car accident and shooting. A 1950 high school yearbook features a picture of Close holding a gun and preparing to, as the caption explains, “annihilate the cat that disrupted the T-Teen Play.”
After running away from home to join several touring shows, he eventually ended up in St. Louis in 1957, where he became a member of the Compass Players, an improv theater that was a direct precursor to the Second City. When the Compass folded in 1958, Close moved on to New York City to pursue a career as a standup comic. He performed alongside Lenny Bruce, and recorded two comedy albums, How to Speak Hip and The Do-It-Yourself Psychoanalysis Kit. He also dabbled in theater, appearing in a 1959 Off-Broadway musical about beatniks called The Nervous Set, where he played a yogi with a fondness for sexual experimentation.
On the advice of his friend and fellow improviser Severn Darden, Close moved to Chicago in 1960 to join the newly formed Second City Theater, performing with a cast that included Joan Rivers and Avery Schreiber. During his time there, he developed a taste for drugs, and on several occasions consumed a near lethal overdose, which some of his peers speculate was intentional.
Sheldon Patinkin, a former director for Second City, says that Close’s suicide attempts became such a problem that the producers decided to admit him into a psychiatric clinic. “After he’d been there for a few weeks, the doctor said it would be okay for Del to start doing the show again,” says Patinkin. “It was my job to pick him up, sign him out, bring him to the theater, and then drive him back into the sanitarium after the performance. It didn’t really help him that much. He was taking LSD prescribed by his analyst, who eventually lost his medical license. I had to come over to Del’s apartment once and sit with him because he thought he was being devoured, inch-by-inch, by the Spider King. He was pretty disturbed by that.”
After being fired by the Second City in 1965, he traveled to San Francisco, where he briefly worked at the Committee Theater, a North Beach improv troupe. He collaborated with Hugh Romney (better known as “Wavy Gravy”) on several projects, including a 1965 light show called “Lysergic A-Go-Go” at the Aeronautic Museum. He also participated in the “Acid Tests” – group LSD experiments sponsored by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters – where Close provided the psychedelic lighting. To subsidize his income, he commuted to Los Angeles to work in television, winning small roles in My Mother the Car, Get Smart, and the Diver Dan children’s series (as the villainous Baron Barracuda).
Wavy Gravy, who shared an apartment with Close in San Francisco, recalls returning home to find Close passed out on the floor from an apparent overdose. “There was a chart laying on his chest,” he says. “It was a list of different drugs, and he had checked them all. I was sure that he had OD’d, so I called up (Committee member) John Brent. I asked Brent what to do, and he told me to throw the I-Ching on his chest. Sure enough, he started breathing again.”
Close returned to Chicago in 1973, where he was rehired by the Second City, this time as a director. It was during this period that Close trained such future comedy stars as Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Betty Thomas, George Wendt, and John Candy. But it was John Belushi who was most influenced by Close’s self-destructive nature. Close introduced Belushi to harder drugs like heroin, and the two became inseparable, frequently disappearing for days at a time in Close’s small apartment across the street from the theater.
In 1978, Close admitted himself into the Schick Shadel Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, and after a two-week treatment of aversion therapy, he was finally able to beat his alcoholism. But even sobriety did not tame Close’s worst instincts. As Close said in an interview with the now defunct Chicago Theatre Monthly, “I’m never going to give up marijuana. I take hallucinogenics maybe three or four times a year. But those are health drugs. Those are the things that are actively good for you.”
In 1982, just a few days shy of Close’s birthday, John Belushi died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel. Close was devastated by Belushi’s death, and sank into a deep depression. He continued to direct at the Second City, and was even briefly employed as an acting coach for Saturday Night Live (where he was credited as the “House Metaphysician”), but his passion for the work had dissipated with the loss of Belushi.
Rather than turn to counseling, Close found renewed inspiration in unlikely places. He immersed himself in the occult teachings of author Aleister Crowley and became the Warlock at a local Wiccan coven. Close was so enamored by his new spiritual beliefs that he began drawing on Wiccan rituals for his improv workshops at the Second City.
Close introduced his students to an exercise called the Invocation. Rather than inhabiting a character, he told them, they simply needed to invoke their qualities, conjuring up classical archetypes from mythology. In some invocations, students would take an ordinary object and find the “Chaotic Magik” within it, first by directly addressing the object and then, finally, becoming that object.
“You could invoke a demon if you wanted to,” says Jonathan Pitts, who studied with Del during this period. “But it was mostly harmless stuff. It sounds a lot worse than it was. Word started to spread about the workshops and it got blown out of proportion. There were a few students who got a little frightened by it. Del loved that he was getting this sinister reputation. He loved that everybody was so freaked out by it. His intentions were good, but if he managed to scare a few people along the way, all the better.”
Feeling that he had limited freedom at the Second City, Close began teaching workshops at art galleries and any space he could afford to rent. While teaching at Crosscurrents in 1983, he met a young producer named Charna Halpern, who had recently opened a new theater called ImprovOlympic with Second City co-founder David Shepherd.
“I asked (Close) if he would teach one class for me,” says Halpern. “I offered to pay him $200 and some pot. He said, ‘Can I do anything I want?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Can I invoke demons?’ I said, ‘Sure, whatever.’ I fell in love with him that minute. When rumors started getting around that we were working together, people would come up to me and say, ‘Stay away from that man! He’s the devil!'”
What began as a friendship soon evolved into a flourishing business partnership. In a matter of years, ImprovOlympic became one of the most prominent training grounds for improvisers, launching the careers of Andy Dick, Chris Farley, Andy Richter, and Mike Myers. Though hardly a household name, Close was now considered a cult icon in improv circles. His newfound fame brought him small roles in films like The Untouchables and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off. And in 1994, he co-authored (with Halpern and writer Kim Johnson) Truth In Comedy, an improv training manual that is still considered the bible of long-form improvisation.
In addition to teaching, he also directed the occasional show at ImprovOlympic, most of which explored his favorite subject: death. In a 1989 show called The Horror, Close pushed his actors to create improvisations that inspired more terror than laughter. “The whole point was to horrify the audience,” says Matt Besser, a co-star of Comedy Central’s Upright Citizen’s Brigade who performed in The Horror. “Not in a silly, goofy way, or a ‘we’re going to tell a ghost story’ way, but to truly horrify and desensitize the audience. We would take a tragic story from the day’s newspaper and improvise around it. It had absolutely nothing to do with comedy. We all committed to it and tried our best, and it was horrifying. Out of the twenty shows we did, the audience walked out of roughly half of them. And Del loved it. He just delighted in having this sort of power over an audience.”
During much of the late 90s, Close’s health began to deteriorate, and he was eventually diagnosed with emphysema in early 1999. When it became apparent that his time was running out, Close decided to host a final party, which he called a “Living Wake.” The event was attended by hundreds of his celebrity friends, and hosted by Bill Murray, the self-appointed Master of Ceremonies. Close was also visited by members of a Wiccan coven, who performed a blessing ceremony that nearly ignited Close’s oxygen supply. For his last meal, Close was served a chocolate martini, his first taste of alcohol is almost 20 years. The next morning, Close requested a lethal dose of morphine and died shortly after sharing his final words: “I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.”
He bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theater, on the condition that it be used in a production of Hamlet. As for the rest of him, Close’s ashes are kept in a book-shaped urn at the ImprovOlympic, on display in the upstairs theater that still bears his name.
All told, it’s not too shabby of a story. There’s certainly enough there to fill a proper magazine profile. The problem is, the deeper you dig into Close’s life, the more hidden gems you uncover. It seems like everyone who so much as crossed paths with Close has a tale to share, each more astonishing and implausible than the next. And once you get a taste of them, it’s difficult to make do with just the facts.
There’s an old joke about Close that many of his former students still like to tell. To create your own Del Close story, just randomly combine an obscure celebrity, an illegal drug, and a year. For instance, “I was doing crystal meth with Larry Hagman back in ’74…” It’s actually quite a fun little game. Try it a few times, and you might just stumble across something that could’ve come straight from Close’s mouth.
But the joke, as ridiculous as it might be, points to a genuine problem with most of the stories surrounding Close. At times, his life seemed like something out of Mad-Libs. For every anecdote involving, say, his onetime girlfriend Elaine May, there are dozens of similar stories featuring a rotating cast of famous friends and cohorts. Did Close dig up a child’s skull in Martin Short’s backyard, or was it while traveling with a Shakespearean theater company in West Virginia? When he went roller-skating through the sewers with an acetylene torch taped to his head, shooting at rats while conversing with LSD-induced hallucinations, was he accompanied by Wavy Gravy or Timothy Leary? And did it take place in Chicago or San Francisco? Ask three different people, and each one is liable to give you a different version.
And then there are the tales that, while remaining somewhat consistent, seem to have been invented out of thin air. Like this one: When Close was living in San Francisco, he once disappeared for several weeks without a trace. His fellow actors at the Committee Theater became concerned, and went to his apartment to check on him. After knocking at the door, they heard Close yell out, “Go Away, I’m busy!” Fearing that he may have overdosed yet again, they broke inside and found Close dressed in a Spider-Man costume, suspended six feet in the air and tangled in a thick web of ropes. “Look,” he told them. “I’m just trying to work some things out.”
A great little yarn, to be sure. But as often as it’s been repeated, nobody seems to have the foggiest idea which Committee actors were actually involved. Most heard the story from a friend of a friend of a friend, which, like any urban legend, makes it all the more suspicious. There are a few who swear that Close himself was the first to tell it, which only lends further credence to the theory that Close was the sole architect of his own myth.
If nothing else, Close certainly delighted in retelling his stories. In fact, he was the first to attempt documenting them for prosperity. In 1987, he collaborated with artist and writer John Ostrander on a comic book series for DC called Wasteland. Although intended as a mix of fact and fiction, most issues featured at least one autobiographical tale from Close’s life. The supporting players (all supposedly based on real people) included a motley crew of voodoo priests, gun-wielding rednecks, undercover CIA agents, and drug-fueled crooks and transients. Even Ostrander, who formed a lifelong friendship with Close, was unsure what stories might be true and what were just creative embellishments. Close seemed equally unclear, and often ended each comic with the disclaimer, “This story is maybe 75% true.”
“Del was a man who worked from behind masks, in both his creative and his personal life,” says Ostrander. “The facts just weren’t that important to him. He would say that if reality doesn’t fit, then you should change it. You alter the facts to get to the truth of what a story was about.”
Which is all well and fine if the story is meant as fiction. But when it comes to writing about your own life, the truth is a trickier thing to ignore. There is, of course, the possibility that Close’s life happened exactly as he described it. But there’s ample evidence that this was not the case. One need only look at how the stories have changed and evolved over the years, as Close constantly revised them, added new characters, fine-tuned the laugh lines, and punched up the endings. The stories may not have originated as fiction, but after he had tinkered with them and reworked them, tweaking them into a more dramatic shape, they might as well have been.
Close did such an excellent job at rewriting his life that he left his biographers little choice but to follow his lead. Whatever truth there was to his stories is now hopelessly muddled in exaggerations. And what’s more, the new and improved versions are, in some ways, better than the truth. Close was a gifted storyteller, and he knew how to keep an audience captivated. Even the most ethical journalist couldn’t resist getting swept up in Close’s fantasies. Who wouldn’t want to believe that his life really was as colorful and action-packed as he claimed? True or not, it just made good copy.
As I worked on my profile of Close, I began to feel that I had been inadvertently cast as Close’s co-conspirator. I wasn’t writing an objective account of his life, but piecing together the stories that he had already polished and preapproved. It was like I’d been given the task of finishing a dead author’s unfinished manuscript.
Stranger still, now that the fiction light had been switched on in my brain, I was no longer interested in separating the truth from the fabrications. If his life really was just a work of fiction, then surely there must be some sort of thematic thruline. And sure enough, as I began to gather more pieces of the puzzle, a larger narrative began to take shape.
Of all Close’s stories, the one that defined him the most was his father’s suicide. Actor Larry Hankin, who studied with Close at the Second City during the early 60s, remembers Close’s chilling account of the events surrounding his father’s death.
“His father called him into the kitchen,” Hankin says. “And he said, ‘I want you to see something, son.’ There was some clear liquid in a glass on the table, what he assumed was water, and his father drank it. He later learned it was battery acid. Del was only between 10 and 14 years old at the time.”
Over the years, the details of his story began to change, and several friends have heard wildly different variations. Some say that Close’s father drank sulfuric acid, while others claim that he died from consuming Drano. A few insist that Close witnessed the suicide in the family kitchen, while some believe that Close was not in the same room. Close’s age at the time of his father’s suicide is also open to debate, with different versions having him at anywhere between six and seventeen years old.
It’s almost impossible to confirm exactly what may have happened. According to a Kansas state law, only family members and legal representatives are given access to death certificates. But some clues can be found in an obituary published in the Manhattan Mercury. Close’s father, also named Del, passed away on December 16, 1954 after being found unconscious in his jewelry store. Although the specific nature of his suicide is not provided, the report does mention that the cause of death was “self-inflicted.” There’s no indication that his son witnessed the suicide. In fact, it’s noted that the 20-year old Close had been living in New York and only arrived later that morning to be at his father’s bedside.
Even if Close was not entirely truthful about the facts surrounding his father’s death, it’s clear that the memory had a profound impact on him. “When Del was approaching fifty, his dad was on his mind a lot,” says David Pasquesi, a Chicago actor who worked with Close at the Second City. “His father died at that age, and it was like he was thinking, ‘Well, that’s what the Close men do when we reach fifty. We die.’ It was something that, in a strange way, he was kind of anticipating.”
Close’s thoughts of death may have grown stronger as he reached middle age, but it was by no means the first time that he had grappled with mortality. In a Second City scene from the 60s called “Family Reunion,” Close turned to his own father’s death for inspiration. “I was essentially playing my father,” he said in Something Wonderful Right Away, a 1978 book that chronicled the early years of the Second City. “(It) was rather emotionally wearing because my father was a suicide. He would come alive inside of me and it was rather frightening.”
Close once claimed that he and fellow Second City performer Severn Darden spent their free time competing in murder contests, each trying to outdo the other with more outlandish and complex plots for their own deaths. When the Second City traveled to London in 1962, right in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Close devised a new game called “Gotcha” to help his company cope with their anxiety. Players were allowed to point a finger at any performer, at any time, and pretend to shoot them. The “victim” was then obligated to fall in as dramatic a fashion as possible. Avery Schreiber, who spoke with a local theater weekly shortly before his death, said that Close was by far the favorite victim, never failing to deliver the most enthusiastic death scenes.
“(He was) shot in the dressing room of the Establishment nightclub (where Second City was performing),” Schreiber said. “He tumbled down eight flights of the circular stairway to the backstage area without stopping. A stuntman if there ever was one.”
Close’s infatuation with death and suicide only became stronger when he met Belushi, and he used the young comic to bring many of his darker ideas to the stage. In one scene, Belushi played a taxidermist who brings his fiancee home to meet his parents, who are both dead and stuffed. In another, Belushi performed a character based on Close who predicts his own death. “And by then the needle will be in my arm and I’ll be six feet underground,” Belushi announced to the audience. “And there’ll be nothing you can do to stop it.”
As Close soon discovered, not everybody at the Second City was quite so willing to help him exorcise his personal demons. Dave Thomas, best known for his Bob McKenzie character on the Emmy-winning SCTV series, remembers clashing with Close over a scene involving suicide.
“We were in rehearsals for a new show,” says Thomas. “He got on stage and told me to play a doctor who had just informed him that his father had died from drinking sulfuric acid. And then he said, ‘Incidentally, my father did die from drinking sulfuric acid.’ I refused to do it and Del got pissed. He said, ‘Theater is not a democracy,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, well it’s also not some psychotherapy session for you to work out all the sick shit from your personal life.’ He fired me on the spot.”
Close’s father, particularly his violent death, continued to be a recurring motif in his work throughout the 80s and 90s. At the Second City and ImprovOlympic, he often encouraged his actors to use the story in their improvisations. And though he never dealt directly with his father’s suicide in his Wasteland comics, there were several tales that clearly drew on it as a thematic device. In the first issue, a group of characters experiment with a new drug called “foo goo” which causes an instantaneous death. “The only sure thing,” one of the characters says, “is that one taste will kill you.”
Some of his students suspect that Close’s dark sensibilities had less to do with comedy and more with his need for a creative catharsis. “Del always said that it was an actor’s responsibility to relive our worst nightmares for the amusement of an audience,” says Tim Kazurinsky, who studied with Close at the Second City. “Art didn’t imitate life. For him, art and life were one and the same.”
“When he was at the Committee Theater, he painted ‘Follow the Fear’ on the back wall in big, block letters,” says actor and Close student Bret Scott. “He wanted actors to look out over the audience and see those words while they were improvising. That was pretty much his philosophy in a nutshell. If there’s something that makes you uncomfortable, something that scares you, then that’s the direction you should be going. Fear and truth are inextricably intertwined.”
Close’s interest in suicide was by no means restricted to the stage alone. While at the Second City, his attempts at taking his own life were a regular occurrence. “He once came to me and said he needed money for a prescription,” says Second City producer emeritus Joyce Sloan. “About a half hour later, he called me and said, ‘I tried it again,’ meaning suicide. I called the paramedics and as they were taking him into the ambulance, he said to me, ‘My respiration should stop at any moment now.’ He knew the routine at that point. They took him to a psychiatric hospital, and later the next day he walked out against his doctor’s orders. We found him at the theater, still wearing his hospital ID bracelet.”
So far, it’s all rather straightforward. Close was fascinated with suicide because of his father’s death, and attempted to recreate it in his personal and professional life. But things got slightly more interesting from there. As I continued to interview his friends and colleagues, I began hearing wild rumors involving his final days. There were occasional references to “The Big Suicide,” though nobody would elaborate on exactly what this meant.
One of the producers at the Second City told me that I should be asking more questions about his Living Wake, insinuating that there was more to it than met the eye.
“Let’s just say that I’ve heard things,” he said. “I’m not sure if there’s anything to it, but some people think he was hoping for a pretty dramatic exit.”
He suggested that I contact Tim O’Malley, a former Second City actor and, like Close, a recovering alcoholic. O’Malley was more than happy to share his theory. Close, he said, was taking a big chance with the martini he requested for his Living Wake. Because of the aversion therapy that Close underwent during the late 70s, there was a possibility that drinking alcohol, even a single sip from a martini, would have been enough to kill him.
“I think that’s what he wanted,” O’Malley says. “I never spoke with him about it, but I know he was very interested in orchestrating the exact timing of his death. It just seems to make sense.”
Dave Wick, an admission counselor at Schick Hospital, calls this theory nonsense. “There’s not even a chance,” he says. “After taking our treatment, patients have a negative response to alcohol, but they wouldn’t become ill if they took a drink. They may throw up, but even that is extremely rare. And there’s no way that it would have caused Del any physical harm.”
Though medically impossible, it’s still open to speculation what Close’s intentions might have been. Though most of Close’s colleagues hotly deny the rumor, some are willing to concede (off the record) that it certainly sounds like something Close might do. As O’Malley points out, “If you know anything about Del, it’s not completely off the wall. Just because it couldn’t happen doesn’t mean he didn’t hope for it.”
Though it’s unclear if Close actually intended to kill himself, the rumor has been repeated often within improv circles, evolving into another “Del Close Myth,” as unbelievable and yet revealing as any of Close’s most far-fetched stories. From a purely hypothetical standpoint, it’s difficult to miss the similarities between Close’s supposed final suicide and his own father’s suicide. All of the same elements were there: a father figure, a gathering of children (his students), and a sudden death after drinking a toxic liquid. For a man who had spent so much of his life trying to make sense of his father’s actions, there was an almost arguable logic to it. How better to understand that moment than to recreate it? To truly experience it?
When I turned in my latest draft of the Del Close profile to Chicago magazine, I wasn’t at all surprised by the editor’s reaction.
“Is this some kind of joke? You expect us to run an article about a suicide conspiracy that pretty much everybody agrees never happened? Have you lost your mind?”
“But don’t you get it?” I argued. “This isn’t about what happened or didn’t happen. It’s about a man who created his own mythology. The fact that the martini didn’t actually kill him is beside the point. His entire life was an invention. He constructed it like a play, and this is the perfect third act. Thematically, it just makes sense.”
“Then write a stinkin’ play,” she barked back. “We’re only interested in the facts. Give me something I can actually use, or we’re gonna pull the story.”
I eventually caved, and the profile, a radically altered version of my original draft, was published in late 2002. It covered all the bases of his career, but the meat of his story was gone. There was some grumbling from the Chicago improv community that I had focused too heavily on the darker aspects of his personality. As I soon learned, most of Close’s would-be biographers despise each other with a venomous passion. Though the plays and the films and the books all include their fair share of bizarre anecdotes, the differences between them have been enough to form bitter rivalries. Those who’ve tried to document his life have a blind belief in the stories that Close choose to share with them, and an inherent distrust of anything that contradicts their version of his life. They believe that they alone know the true Close, and anything that strays too far from their accepted notions of him to be nothing short of heresy.
But in the end, I wasn’t all that concerned with how the Chicago article was received. The real torment was realizing that I had all of these great stories and nowhere to put them. I could, as my editor suggested, just turn them into fiction, but then they would have lost some element of truth. If I tried to write the profile again, with all of the wild stories and exaggerated myths intact, there isn’t a respectable magazine that would touch it.
I sometimes imagine that this is exactly what Close intended. I picture him laughing at me, somewhere beyond the grave, delighted that another foolish writer had fallen into his trap. He knew all along that these stories were too irresistible to ignore. But when you reached for them, you were pulled into a journalistic limbo, straddling that fine line between truth and fiction. A better writer than I could have easily wasted his entire life trying to make sense of them, to determine with absolute certainty what might be true and what was just a figment of Close’s active imagination.
I’ve long since given up any hope of writing the definitive Del Close biography. But the stories stay with me, like constant companions. If nothing else, they make perfect fodder for bar conversations. When I’m out drinking with friends, I’ll share a Del Close tale or two, and they never fail to get an enthusiastic response. Occasionally, somebody will scoff at my story, dismissing it as another urban myth, too ridiculous to be believed.
“Well,” I’ll say with a smile, “just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the September 2007 issue of The Believer Magazine.)