Del Close is perhaps the least famous of the great comedy maestros of the latter half of the 20th century. The performers he worked with, directed, or taught at the Compass Players in Saint Louis, the Committee in San Francisco, and Second City and the ImprovOlympic in Chicago constitute a who’s who—Elaine May, Mike Nichols, Shelly Berman, Fred Willard, Joe Flaherty, John Belushi, John Candy, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Vince Vaughn, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert, to name only a handful. But his ultimate legacy might be theoretical: Close led the movement to reinvent improvisation and establish it as an art form.
Self-destructive and often suicidal, Close nevertheless lived almost to the age of 65, when emphysema did him in. As he lay on his deathbed in a Chicago hospital in 1999, his friends flew in from around the country to throw him one last birthday party. One of those friends, Kim “Howard” Johnson, has recently published The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close (Chicago Review Press); this is an excerpt:
Saturday, February 27, 1999, was supposed to be a typical day for Del Close. He was in the middle of an eight-week session with his most advanced class, working on a brand-new form of improvisation set in a funeral home. He called it the Wake.
But Del called Charna Halpern, his partner at ImprovOlympic, to say that he was hallucinating and it might be best if she drove him to class. She said he should go to the hospital. “No, no,” Del told her. “I don’t mind the colors. It’s fine. I have a class to teach.” Del had emphysema, and Charna said that if he was hallucinating his brain was probably not getting enough oxygen. She stood firm: he could either go peacefully or be carried by some of the biggest improvisers in the theater. He finally relented, and Charna drove him to Illinois Masonic Hospital.
Del was immediately put on inhalation therapy and his color came back. “Oh, thank you honey, you saved my life,” he told Charna. She left after dinner and told him she’d pick him up in the morning. But overnight Del took a turn for the worse. Charna got a call from the hospital at 5 AM and rushed to his side.
“I saw him strapped down to his bed with the tube down his throat,” Charna would say later. “The only movement was his hands to the wrist and a slight ability to nod with his head. He was crying.” The tube felt like a claw inside his body. He stared at her, pleading.
She remembered a conversation in which he’d insisted that he never wanted to be in a situation like this; even if she had to sneak in heroin, he’d said, she could not let him die this way. “You want this out now?” she asked, and he nodded yes. She ran to get the doctor. Do you understood that you will die if you are taken off the ventilator? he asked Del. Del nodded. Do you want that? He nodded again. The doctor said the inhalation therapists would be there in 20 minutes. He told Del and Charna to say their good-byes.
She cried, kissing Del on the forehead and cheek, and told him how he had changed her life. He motioned for a pen and began scrawling notes on whatever scraps of paper they could find:
DEATH IS NOT THE ENEMY
I DONT WANT TO DIE THEIR WAY
WE DON’T PUT TUBES DOWN OTHERS’ THROATS
CAN I HAVE SOME PAIN MEDICINE
WHERE ARE MY PAGAN CHANTS?
NOW YOU CAN GET A BOYFRIEND LIKE ME BUT YOUNGER
When the therapists arrived they were reluctant to act. SHE IS MY CUSTODIAL CARE GIVER, Del wrote. They had to comply.
DID THEY TURN OFF THE OXYGEN? wrote Del.
Charna said they had.
IS THE OXYGEN OFF? he wrote again.
To the therapists’ astonishment, Del was still breathing. They took the tube out of his throat. Del began to choke and spit up.
“How dare you rob me of my right to die with dignity!” he shouted.
He demanded his breakfast.
On Monday morning Charna began calling Del’s friends. When I arrived, a handful of students were milling around the hospital lobby. As I stepped off the elevator near Del’s room, their numbers grew thicker. Most had visited with him briefly and now they lingered in the background, not wanting to leave. Del was dressed in crisp new red-and-white-striped pajamas, a sharp contrast to his usual torn, dirty T-shirts. I had to listen carefully, because his voice was muffled by an oxygen mask that sat in the thick of his full gray beard. He was in a reflective mood, mellow and forgiving.
But when Barbara Harris, who went back with Del to Second City’s infancy in the early 60s, decided to play nurse and began puttering around his room, Del whispered to Charna, “Would you get her out of here? All this solicitude is getting me down!” So she turned to Harris and said, “You’ve been an angel, but I think you’re getting tired. You’ve got to preserve your own health. Let me take you home.” She drove Harris to her home on the Gold Coast, dropped her off, and turned around to face rush-hour traffic. It took her almost two hours to return to the hospital. When she got back to Del’s room, Harris was there fidgeting. Harris told her: “I couldn’t let my being tired get in the way of where I was supposed to be. I’d feel too guilty.” She’d taken the train.
Some students from Texas had made a pilgrimage to see him, but Del didn’t recognize them. One had a bouquet of flowers in his hand. “I have emphysema—what do I need flowers for? Get ’em out!” said Del.
He was bemused by the nurses who attempted to draw blood but couldn’t find an uncollapsed vein. “Sorry! I got there first!” he told them.
On Tuesday Charna asked a hospital representative, Dr. Julie Goldstein, whether she could throw Del a party on his birthday, March 9. Goldstein delivered what she called a “reality check”: not likely he’d be alive then. So the party was scheduled for the next day, Wednesday, March 3. Charna’s first call was to Bill Murray, who insisted on picking up the tab. In addition, he hired a saxophone player from the Green Mill. Nothing but the best for Uncle Del, he decreed.
On Tuesday I helped Del field a steady stream of phone calls. I answered a call from Andrew Alexander, Second City’s executive producer, and passed the phone to Del. They spoke for a couple minutes, and as Del gave me back the handset he managed a guffaw. “I was right!” he bellowed, his voice somehow projecting far outside his oxygen mask. “Andrew Alexander said I was right. Improvisation isn’t just a tool to develop material. He said it’s an art form! He agrees with me!” Del’s life’s work had been vindicated.
Del seemed to accept the idea that Wednesday would be his last full day on earth. A dining room just off the downstairs cafeteria at Illinois Masonic had been reserved for the private party, though little about it was private. There were jazz musicians, nurses, caterers, pagan priests, reporters, celebrities, novice students, old friends, and even a Comedy Central camera crew sent by the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York.
There was a generous spread of chicken, crabmeat, and other finger foods, with flowers, balloons, and photos decorating the tables, in addition to a chocolate birthday cake with “Happy Birthday, We Love You Del” and numbered candles that said “65.” Harold Ramis had flown in. Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray chatted with friends and waited for the guest of honor to arrive.
At last, under the glare of television spotlights and with Charna at his side, Del was wheeled in, attached to an assortment of tubes, wearing his oxygen mask and a red-white-and-blue-striped robe. He was rolled to the center of the room, and, almost reverently, everyone queued up. He pulled off his oxygen mask to speak more clearly to his friends.
Second City’s Joyce Sloane and Bernie Sahlins (who, as producer, had fired Del twice) each gave him an affectionate hug. Del wagged his index finger in the air.
“It is an art form!” said Del with an insistent smile.
“Del, for tonight, it is an art form,” said Sahlins, who’d always held that improv was just a tool to create scenes.
Sloane tapped Sahlins on the arm.
“Bernie,” she said, “you’re standing on his oxygen line.”
A few minutes later, Del addressed the guests. “I guess I’d better die now,” he started. “Otherwise a lot of people are going to be really disappointed!
“As I leave it, I begin to realize that we haven’t done such a bad job as people seem to think. The death of a working man in a big American hospital does not have to be the traumatic agony that people assume that it is. You can have a pretty good life pretty cheap in these States, and I think that’s something to be proud of. I didn’t know that until I was dying. It’s a nice thing to learn on the last day of your life.... And if that sounds too sappy or too front-loaded, screw it. So let’s hear it for the fucking human race!”
A pagan priest in a red robe and a priestess in a black robe stepped forward and began to conduct the Ritual of the Four Elements. They asked the blessing of the Deity to “prepare Del for his upcoming journey,” chanting, “The god blesses you with the strength you already have—the strength of humor. For in the middle of a joke, there is no past, there is no future, there is only the present, and the present never ends. So may you continue to find that strength, especially the strength of irreverent humor.”
Del again addressed the crowd: “In the words of a wise woman from a foreign land who is often misunderstood, ‘Death is not important, life is important. And life is eternal and life is now.’ Leni Riefenstahl.”
It was his last public joke.
Del was wheeled off to the elevator and Charna quietly invited a few people to follow. A few minutes later, after Del had been settled into his bed, we gathered on both sides in the darkened room. Barbara Harris had been with him in Second City in 1961; Ed Greenberg first met Del during his Committee days in San Francisco in the 1960s; Brian Doyle-Murray had attended Committee workshops and was an enthusiastic advocate when Second City considered hiring Del as a director; perhaps his most famous student, Bill Murray, was one of his most loyal friends. Second City actor Larry Coven was Del’s collaborator and perhaps his closest living friend. David Pasquesi started out as an ImprovOlympic student and became a fellow actor and director. And I, Kim “Howard” Johnson, another ImprovOlympic pioneer, had helped Del and Charna write their improv manual, Truth in Comedy, in 1994. And there was Charna, his partner, who gave him the chance to do his life’s work and make his dreams come true, who saved his life.
Del drifted off to sleep.
Charna got a call from a frightened Del around 3 AM and rushed back to the hospital. “I think I’m having delusions, but I wanted to check this out with you,” Del told her. “Steven Spielberg is shooting an underground movie that no one is supposed to know about, kind of like Dune but underwater.... Those cameras at the party were not from Comedy Central; they were really from Spielberg. When you took me back to the room, I found man-made marks all over my body. Dean Koontz is involved in this, there are time-traveling Nazis who want to take you and me and Coven back to the 30s, where I, as a fascist dictator, have to order Coven to kill you and dissect you. But, I’m not going to let that happen. I’m only going to play the part. What do you think?”
Charna finally stopped him. She explained to him that it was just carbon dioxide building up in his lungs and she would talk him down. She called Coven, who relieved her and sat there through the night, interrupted occasionally by a young orderly who was asking him about improvisation.
In the morning, friends and fans started returning. ImprovOlympic students gathered around, well meaning but obviously uncomfortable, and Coven finally told them, “You guys know this isn’t your gig anyway. Just take off.” Charna screened phone calls. In response to one call, Del snapped, “No! I don’t want to talk to that bitch!” and Coven reminded him, “Be careful! You never know when it’s going to be your last words.”
As the day went on Del could not get comfortable. The pain was too great. Charna suspected his request for morphine was simply an overwhelming urge to get high one last time, but her concerns may have masked a reluctance to let him go. “Are you sure?” she kept asking, and Del continued to insist, “Yes,” finally shouting, “I’m ready!” But Charna saw no reason he couldn’t hang around. “I felt he thought it was more important to get high, even knowing he wouldn’t open his eyes again. I was a little pissed off that day. I went through a range of emotions.”
As Del waited for the nurses to assemble the morphine drip, he talked with his friends. Charna sat on his bed and held his hand. “Promise me you’ll make the skull thing happen. No matter what,” he said. “And keep my ashes in the theater where I can affect the work.”
“I will,” she promised.
“And tell them all that we succeeded where others have failed. We created Theater of the Heart, a theater where people cherish each other to succeed onstage. Tell the students, Theater of the Heart.”
When the morphine arrived Del was ready. “Turn it up!” he said in a booming voice. The doctor turned it up, saying, “We are still within the legal limits.” A few seconds later Del complained. “Come on! I used to be a drug addict. I know what I’m supposed to be feeling. Turn it up!” In disbelief, the doctor increased the dosage, again repeating, “We are still within the legal limits.” A few seconds later: “Turn it up!” “Jesus,” the doctor said while complying, “he’s had enough to put out a horse!” After a few seconds Del sighed.
“Thank God. I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.”
He clearly intended those as his last words. But the telephone rang. It was Larry Hankin, his former San Francisco roommate. “I once thought very highly of Larry,” Del said, and decided to speak to him. “I can’t really talk,” he said. “I’m in the middle of something right now. But thanks for calling.”
Charna, Coven, and the others were still trying to help Del get comfortable. He let them know he wasn’t, and Coven couldn’t resist admonishing his friend, “We’re doing the best we can, Del.” Del retorted, “You could have done better.”
Those were his final words. The morphine finally rendered him unconscious. Charna put Coven and Randy Dixon in charge, then excused herself.
Coven stepped out for a snack a short time later. Dixon was on the phone with a friend when there was a commotion. Dr. Goldstein rushed into the room, along with the nurse who’d been administering the morphine. She peered into Del’s eyes and called his name a number of times, but got no response. She spoke to the nurse about taking him off the morphine drip and left the room.
Dixon leaned down to whisper in his mentor’s ear. “Del, if you’re going to go, now might be a good time, because they’re cutting off the morphine. If you’re sticking around for the drugs, you might want to get out of Dodge.”
Forty minutes later, just after 6 PM on March 4, 1999, it was over.
Postscript: The “skull thing” Del Close spoke of on his deathbed was a provision of his will that said, “I give my skull to the Goodman Theatre, for a production of Hamlet in which to play Yorick, or for any other purposes the Goodman Theatre deems appropriate.” At a press conference on July 1, 1999, Charna gave Robert Falls, the Goodman’s artistic director, a skull resting on a red velvet cushion inside a Lucite box. Falls held out the skull in his right hand and spoke. “Alas, poor Del! I knew him, Horatio: A fellow of infinite jest...”
But the skull wasn’t Del’s. Charna came clean in the October 9, 2006, issue of the New Yorker. After Del died, hospital personnel laughed at her request to remove the head, suggesting that she contact the Illinois Society of Pathologists. They too ultimately refused. After two days, she reluctantly had the body cremated in its entirety. Then she went skull shopping at the Anatomical Chart Company in Skokie. She purchased a skull there, and to make it resemble Del’s she and her sister pulled out as many teeth as they could manage before turning it over to the Goodman.
The truth doesn’t seem to matter to most of those who knew him. Robert Falls still keeps the skull on his bookshelf. The attitude of most of Del’s friends is that if it wasn’t originally Del’s skull, it is now.v