Obituary: Del Close

DEL CLOSE was often said to be the man who changed the face of improvisational comedy. He influenced the careers of such performers as Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers and John Belushi.

Born in the tiny town of Manhattan, Kansas, in 1935, a second cousin of the future President Dwight Eisenhower, Close briefly attended several colleges before joining a travelling carnival as a fire-eater and knife- dodger. His life was changed forever in 1956, when he went to St Louis to become a member of the Compass Players, a trail-blazing improvisational group which included Mike Nichols and Elaine May. By the early 1960s the Compass had become the widely imitated Second City, a legendary launching- pad for comedy performers, with companies in Chicago, Detroit and Toronto.

In 1965, after being sacked by Second City for various excesses, Close moved to San Francisco, where he eventually produced concerts for the Grateful Dead. In 1972, after acting in the film Beware! The Blob, he returned to Second City to direct the company's revue The 43rd Parallel, in which the young John Belushi was appearing. There was an immediate rapport between the two men, largely because they shared an enthusiasm for hard drugs. According to Wired, Bob Woodward's 1984 biography of Belushi, "John developed an angry hip character of the early Sixties modelled on Close. On stage Belushi even predicted Del's death, saying: `And by then the needle will be in my arm and I'll be six feet underground, and there'll be nothing you can do to stop it.' "

In the late 1950s, when the US Air Force began investigating the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on dreams, they found an eager guinea-pig in Close. At their "Dream Lab" in Brooklyn, he was hooked up to a machine and given LSD. When his rapid eye movements indicated he was dreaming, he would be wakened and asked to give details of the dream. He left the project after an incident when, annoyed because he had been roused from a particularly deep sleep and asked, "What were you dreaming?", he refused to reply. Close swore that he later received a letter from the Air Force, saying: "You still owe us one dream."

John Belushi was one of the original "Not Ready for Prime Time Players", as the cast were known, in the irreverent US television show Saturday Night Live (1975), and Close was employed as the cast's resident coach. Belushi told an interviewer: "I like the man's style. Del can create with you unlike so many other directors. He's my biggest influence." Unfortunately, Close's influence reached beyond improv; he often lent Belushi his flat to shoot up in. Belushi's death in 1982 from a heroin overdose, at the age of 33, shocked Close into giving up that same drug.

Close also had problems with amphetamines, alcohol and mental instability. At one time he was living at a psychiatric hospital while appearing at Second City. A fellow performer, Harold Ramis, now a successful screenwriter and director of such films as Ghostbusters (1984) and Groundhog Day (1993), would pick up Close at the hospital in the evening and take him back there again after their show.

In 1984, with his partner Charna Halpern, Close opened ImprovOlympic, a comedy school-cum-night-club, in Chicago. Ten years later he, Halpern and Kim "Howard" Johnson collaborated on Truth in Comedy, a book setting out the Close precepts of improvisation. Although he was a devout Wiccan, improv was his main religion. He once said: "The world is a slightly better place for having improvisation in it than it was before. There's something about it that says something positive about the human spirit."

Close acted in the television movie First Steps (1985) and in such series as the successful Get Smart (1965) and the disastrous My Mother the Car (1965) and also devised the successful series SCTV (Second City Television). He also acted in many stage musicals and plays, essaying an acclaimed Polonius at the Wisdom Bridge Theater in Chicago. Despite his death, he will soon make an unusual appearance in another Chicago production, of Hamlet. He willed the Goodman Theater Company his skull, requesting that it be cast as Yorick.

The day before his death, Del Close invited various improv performers, musicians and Wiccan priests and priestesses to attend what he described as a "pre-wake" in his hospital room. The party was filmed for the Comedy Central cable television network.

Del Close, actor, director and acting coach: born Manhattan, Kansas 9 March 1934; died Chicago 4 March 1999.

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