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Del Close; Improvisational Comedy Pioneer


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.

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