WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — You may not know his name, but there is an excellent chance he’s responsible for your favorite comedic movie, TV show, or actor.
He also had a hand in the creation of some of your favorite dramas as well. Without him, there likely never would have been Saturday Night Live, Second City TV, and National Lampoon films, including the Vacation series, No Breaking Bad, or Better Call Saul.
This Kansan was the one who trained hundreds of future actors, comedians, and writers from the 1960s through the 1990s. His name was Del Close.
He was born in Manhattan, Kansas, on March 9, 1934, and was the second cousin of another famous Kansan, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1951, at the age of 17, he ran away from home and joined “Dr. Draculas Den of Living Nightmares,” a sort-of circus sideshow with a horror theme that toured the country putting on midnight stage shows where he learned to eat fire, and swallow swords.
In 1954, his father died, reportedly by suicide. However, there are varying accounts of what exactly happened, with Close giving many of them.
In 1957, Close was part of the Compass Players in St. Louis, joining Mike Nichols and Elaine May who would go on to fame as a comic duo, before Nichols became an Academy Award-winning director of films like “The Graduate.” May would go on to a long career as an actress and screenwriter that continues to this day.
Nichols and May, along with several others, would form what became the Second City Theater, creating Improv as a form of performance. Close appeared on Broadway in the musical “The Nervous Set” but would soon move to Chicago and join Second City.
In the late 60s, he was in San Fransico and became house director of The Committee, an Improv Troop that included alumni Howard Hesseman, Rob Reiner, and David Ogden Stiers. He then joined the Merry Pranksters and wound up doing light shows at Grateful Dead concerts before returning to Chicago and the Second City Theater.
Gary Austin, the founder of the famous Groundlings Theater and School in Los Angeles was a student of Del Close at The Committee. Groundlings alumni are numerous and include some of the most well-known names in comedy and cultural icons over the past 40-plus years.
At Second City, Close taught Improv to students, including most of the early cast of “Saturday Night Live” and SCTV (Second City Television). He left Second City to teach at what was originally called the ImprovOlympic, but shortened to iO after the International Olympic Committee threatened to sue over the name.
The co-cofounder of iO and Close became life partners as well. They invented a long-form version of Improv called “The Harold” and co-authored, along with Kim Johnson, “The Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation.” “The Harold” is still taught at iO to this day.
He played an English teacher in the 1987 classic set in Chicago, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a corrupt alderman in “The Untouchables,” and numerous bit parts in other movies and on television. He also co-authored the “Wasteland” graphic novel series for DC comics.
His biggest contribution though was to the people he taught and who considered him their mentor. Here is a small list of just some of his students over the decades:
In early March of 1999, Close was admitted to Illinois Masonic Hospital, now called Advocate Illinois Masonic Hospital, due to his worsening emphysema which was now terminal. Actor Bill Murray arranged for a final birthday party and send-off for Del that was recorded for posterity.
On March 4, 1999, Del Close died, five days shy of his 65th birthday. His final moments were spent surrounded by friends and throngs of students, both former and current, who came to say goodbye to their mentor.
As part of his final wishes, his partner Charna Halpern donated his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre where it was to be used for productions of Hamlet, with him to be credited as “Yorick” and in any other production it could be used for.
However, Halpern later admitted to the New Yorker that she was unable to get anyone at the hospital or with the Illinois Society of Pathologists to remove and prepare his skull. She instead purchased one from an anatomical company and gave that to the theater.
Today would have been Close’s 89th birthday. Although he is gone, his impact and influence on our culture is everywhere and undeniable.
For more about Del Close and his life, check out the documentary, “For Mad Men Only.“