So Close

Do you know “the Harold”? Does the name Del Close mean anything to you?

If you answered yes to either or both of those questions, then I have the perfect movie for you. Or will have. Once the script is revised, and a studio signs on and puts up the money, and hires a director and actors, and…

Forget about that other "landmark" on Clark Street and come to IO

Forget about that other "landmark" on Clark Street and come to IO

The man - without the trademark bandaged glasses

The man - without the trademark bandaged glasses

On Sunday, we got to hear the first draft of a screenplay about the life of Del Close, improv guru to some of the biggest comedy stars of the last 30 years: Belushi, Farley, Murray, Myers, etc., etc. And while they’re all associated with Second City, where Close worked and taught for years, it’s Improv Olympic (IO) founder Charna Halpern who wrote the script. She, not Second City, let Close develop the long-form improv style he dubbed the Harold, and which he used to entertain audiences and to teach comic artistry to the famous and non-famous alike.

Of course, a movie about a largely unknown guy (outside of comedy circles) who taught a bunch of now-celebrities wouldn’t make much of a movie. Except, of course, when the guy is insanely funny himself, and perhaps insane as well. Close abused alcohol and drugs, had group sex, practiced paganism, called his pet “cat person,” and smoked like a fiend even after a diagnosis of emphysema. But as Halpern’s story shows, he also could sing, worked with some of the greatest comic minds of his and this generation, and truly believed that improv performers had an obligation to each other, to the audience, and to their craft to listen. To make others look better. To make something better of the world.

Halpern’s tale bops back and forth in time, showing us the prankish high schooler, the young performer, the teacher. She and Close worked together for several decades, and decidedly loved each other, but were not lovers, a relationship that seemed to serve both of them well. Halpern sorted out his finances and got him out of a roach-infested apartment. Close made IO the training ground of the stars. The script doesn’t say it, but my impression of the Chicago comedy scene is you go to Second City to get discovered and move on to New York or LA. You go to IO to learn how to get to Second City.

Various famous people make appearances throughout the script, as Close became a friend as well as mentor to some of his better students, especially Bill Murray. (In one of the ironies of the reading, Bill’s brother Joel – another Close protégé – played Close, and another actor played the young Joel, who makes a brief appearance in the script.) The big name celebs are all there, as well as some of the students who obviously did not have what it took to meet Close’s high standards. For all his own quirks, Close seemed to know that making good comedy is a serious business. When it’s not drug-addled craziness.

Near the end...

Near the end... (Halpern is center)

The story goes up to and just beyond Close’s death, which Halpern experienced firsthand. Refusing any kind of machinery to prolong his life, Close went out peacefully, with the help of some medicinal opiates, always administered within legal limits, as his closest friends gather around him. Halpern, who read her own character on Sunday, said she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get through the scene without crying. From where I sat, it seemed she was a trouper.

Living in Chicago, if you have an interest in theatre and comedy, you quickly hear about Del Close and his successes. And you hear about the skull. As part of his will, he left his cranial case to Bob Falls of the Goodman Theatre, requesting it be used as Yorick in Hamlet – and with Close to get a credit in the playbill. Falls accepted the behest, and the theatre has the skull on display in its lobby. Or so the myth has gone, and Halpern’s script doesn’t challenge it. (The truth emerged in 2006, as recounted here.) Why ruin a good story? The guy lived and died for his art, for theatre, and that’s an inspiring myth.

Right now, Halpern is planning on a rewrite, and I think she should have no trouble getting the movie made. It’s funny, touching, and a lot of big-name IO alum will surely throw their weight around Hollywood to get it produced, and possibly appear in it as well (doing their Close impersonations over the closing credits; it appears every former student does one). I told Halpern afterward, for what it was worth coming from a hack playwright like me, that I thought the biggest problem with the obviously enjoyable script was her character. She sells herself short as a person, and what the relationship truly meant to both of them, in her obvious homage to a man she loved and respected. Yeah, the story is about him, but without her, there is no Harold, and maybe that death scene takes place 10 or so years sooner. And conveying what the Harold is, rather than simply talking about it a few times, would help the non-Chicago, non-improv folks the film must reach if it’s going to have any kind of box-office success. But I have no idea how to do that, and it was about the time I rambled on with that observation that I told Ms. Halpern, “I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about.”

Some of the alums at the IO 25th anniversary reunion

Some of the alums at the IO 25th anniversary reunion

Did I mention this was free? And took place about a mile or so from our house? Just another example of the kind of opportunities I will be – ah, yes, that’s right, no more whining. Anyway, when Del the movie gets made, see it. You will laugh, and learn how  important a dedicated teacher/mentor can be in any walk of life.


~ by mburgan on March 10, 2009.

2 Responses to “So Close”

  1. what a delightful post!

    I enjoy your blog so much.

  2. Why, thank you Frank. I try to check out yours as often as I can, but probably not as often as I should. Always something provocative there.

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