Del Close, an actor and coach who taught John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray and elevated improvisation to an art form, died Thursday in Chicago of complications from emphysema. He was 64.
Close pioneered the concept of “long form” improvisation, in which an ensemble trained in a series of acting games and exercises creates a show onstage, relying mainly on wits, guts and a theme suggested by the audience.
While many comedy groups use improvisation as a tool to develop characters and sketches, Close believed that improvisation was the show. He often said there was really only one role for a director: “Light fuse and run!”
His ideas, although hotly debated in the comedy world, have influenced nearly every improvisation group in America today, from Chicago’s legendary Second City to San Francisco’s the Committee. “He was the singular most powerful force in improvisation in the world,” said Kelly Leonard, the producer of Second City, where Close acted and directed before opening his own theater 15 years ago.
The resident guru at “Saturday Night Live” during the show’s early years, Close trained several generations of comics, from Belushi and Murray to Mike Myers and the late Chris Farley. Close came up with the idea for the popular early 1980s television show “SCTV,” which stood for Second City Television and was widely credited as the intellectual and spiritual force behind a recent renaissance in Chicago’s hotbed of improvisation.
Much of Close’s own humor on stage was morbidly satirical. A gypsy of the counterculture--he hung out with Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, was a prolific and proud abuser of drugs, and ran light shows for the Grateful Dead--Close said his comic sensibility was fueled by “social rage.”
But ultimately he espoused a humanist view of the crazy enterprise to which he devoted most of his adult life.
“The world is a slightly better place for having improvisation in it than it was before,” he told an interviewer a few years ago. “There’s something about it that says something positive about the human spirit, that a bunch of people can get together and by following a few simple traffic rules can create art and can entertain an audience and can thrill and exalt each other.”
The son of a jeweler, Close was born in 1934 in Manhattan, Kan., then a town of about 15,000. He attended several universities but never earned a degree.
As a young man he joined a carnival group in which he learned to dodge knives and eat fire, calling himself “Azrad the Incombustible.” His next job on the fringes of show business was throwing spaghetti “worms” at moviegoers during late-night horror shows.
In Chicago in the mid-1950s, he found himself in the company of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, who had formed the Compass Players, the group that introduced improvisation to American audiences. He became a member of the Compass’ St. Louis company in 1956.
“That was the hook, and the hook was set,” he once told the Kansas City Star.
The Compass Players evolved into Second City, the granddaddy of improv troupes with companies in Chicago, Toronto and Detroit. Second City spawned a movement that eventually produced other groups, such as the Committee, and shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV.”
In 1962 Close joined the cast of Second City. That was the beginning of a long and bumpy relationship between the improv group and Close, who in addition to his drug addictions, abused alcohol and suffered emotional problems that sometimes required institutionalization.
Harold Ramis, a former “SCTV” player who is now a prominent film writer and director, recalled picking up Close at a psychiatric hospital to do a show at Second City and then ferrying him back to the hospital after the program.
Fired by Second City in 1965, Close moved to San Francisco and a few years later was producing light shows at Grateful Dead concerts as the group’s “optical percussionist.” He began doing bit parts in movies such as “Beware the Blob” with Burgess Meredith and on television in “My Mother the Car” and “Get Smart.”
In 1972 he returned to Chicago, where he directed reviews at Second City for the next decade. There he mentored Belushi, who later would call Close “my biggest influence.”
“I like the man’s style. He can create with you, unlike so many other directors. He can motivate people,” Belushi said of Close in 1978.
(Belushi sometimes used Close’s apartment across the street from Second City to shoot up. Close kicked his own heroin habit after Belushi’s death from a drug overdose in 1982.)
In the late 1970s, Close came up with an idea for a program about a fictional television network that was so impoverished it had to cram an entire day of programming into 30 minutes. The show, “SCTV,” satirized the institution of television with spoofs of contemporary TV fare. It ran for seven seasons in syndication, on NBC and on cable, ending in 1984.
It was toward the end of the ‘60s, however, when Close began to develop the form of comedy that would become his legacy. He was working in San Francisco with the Committee, whose members had been using a variety of games and exercises to develop material for sketches. The group wanted to find a way to unite all its techniques into one framework.
The result was something called the Harold, an improbable name for a performance format that has become an entrenched practice on the improv circuit, as familiar to cutting-edge comics as the Heimlich maneuver is to medicine.
As explained in “Truth in Comedy,” a 1994 textbook written by Close, his partner Charna Halpern and writer and performer Kim “Howard” Johnson, there are three elements of the basic Harold: scenes involving two to four actors, games involving the full company and one-person monologues.
It begins with a suggestion from the audience, which the actors personalize through a warm-up game as simple as word association. The audience suggestion of “camera” led one group to think of high school yearbooks, for instance, which eventually led to a series of scenes following the lives of four teenagers from high school to the Vietnam War.
Typically running about 40 minutes, the Harold is a fluid form--"comedy in jazz riff,” as one critic has described it--with actors embellishing scenes through several rounds of improvising. No one knows at the start where the riff will end. Aficionados have described the experience as terrifying and inspiring.
The Harold “changed the face of improvisation,” said Halpern, who was Close’s partner for the last 15 years in Chicago’s ImprovOlympic, a combination nightclub and comedy school.
Although groups such as Second City use improvisation as a rehearsal tool to develop characters and sketches, Close believed in improvisation as an end in itself. In collaboration with Halpern, he was constantly tinkering with the form, turning the Harold into a more elaborate tapestry of scenes with a cinematic flavor. The ImprovOlympic became the cutting-edge training ground, sending many of its graduates, such as Farley, to better-known venues like Second City and television and movie careers.
Although some comics considered Close’s brand of improvisation cumbersome and lacking in commercial appeal, his ideas have influenced nearly every improvisation group working today, Second City’s Kelly said. “We took a lot of his ideas and put them on our stage. It was Del’s pushing--saying, ‘Do not play it safe. The dangerous part is the fun part'--that opened up a whole new world for us,” Kelly said.
Close’s influence can be seen on programs such as HBO’s “Mr. Show,” in which characters drift from one scene to another, and in the work of the Upright Citizens Brigade on the Comedy Central cable network.
His death came a day after friends, including Murray, Leonard and Ramis, threw him a “pre-wake,” at his invitation, at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center, complete with saxophonists, pagan priest and priestess (he was a Wiccan), and a crew from Comedy Central, which filmed the party for a future broadcast.
Aside from his improv work, Close was a serious actor whose performances ranged from Shakespeare to modern plays. Critics raved about his Polonius in a production of “Hamlet” at the Wisdom Bridge Theater in Chicago.
Halpern said a memorial program of some kind will be held, perhaps at Second City in Chicago, but no formal funeral service is planned.
“There is something irresistibly funny about a funeral,” Close 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.”
In death, he may get the last laugh.
In one of his final acts, Close willed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. He will play Yorick in its next production of “Hamlet.”
The Del Close obituary did not run in its entirety in all editions. The Times is re-running it in full today.