Del Close, a legendary influence on countless Second City performers and a towering figure in the Chicago theatre, has died at the age of 64. Mr. Close succumbed at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center, where he had recently checked in for heart and respiratory ailments.
In his capacity as director, with Bernie Sahlins, of Chicago's famous Second City improvisational comedy troupe, Mr. Close helped launch the careers of such performers as Bill Murray, John Belushi, Michael Myers, Chris Farley and Harold Ramis. A tall, seemingly average-looking man with dark, slicked-back hair and glasses, Mr. Close possessed a dark sense of humor and a hard-living lifestyle which sat in direct contrast to his physical appearance. The final example of his taste for the offbeat came just before his death when he invited friends and colleagues to his hospital room for what was called a "pre-wake." Additionally, Mr. Close has donated his skull to the Goodman Theatre in hopes it be used for a future production of Hamlet
. If Mr. Close's cranium is indeed used, it will be the second staging of the Shakespeare tragedy on the actor's resume. In the mid-80s, director Robert Falls (now artistic director of the Goodman), cast Mr. Close as Polonius in an infamous, avant-garde Hamlet starring Aidan Quinn. Mr. Close played the "foolish, prating old man" as savvy American businessman brimming with horse sense and practical tips. He won a Joseph Jefferson Award for his performance -- one of three Jeff Awards he culled over his life.
Mr. Close began his career in 1957 as a member of St. Louis' Compass Players, the predecessor to Second City. At the Compass, he performed with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. When they moved north to Chicago, Mr. Close migrated to New York, where he appeared in the Broadway musical The Nervous Set. Mr. Close was soon back in Chicago, however, where he joined the Second City company in 1962. He was soon fired, though, for constantly showing up under the influence, Second City's Kelly Leonard told Playbill On-Line. Indeed, during his early years, Mr. Close freely indulged in alcohol, cigarettes and a variety of drugs.
Mr. Close rejoined Second City in 1972 and stayed for the next 10 years as director of the company. During those years, he worked with Murray, Belushi and many others. When Belushi, with whom he became close friends, died of a drug overdose in 1982, Mr. Close himself finally decided to break all his old habits. In the early '80s, he left Second City to form his own group, Improvolympic, a company known for a long-form improv called "The Harold."
He occasionally took roles in straight plays, often to great acclaim. Mr. Close's credits include Harvey at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, All the Rage at the Goodman, and Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Briar Street Theatre. He also made several movies, including "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Primarily, however, he remained a local figure, lionized in Chicago, but only vaguely known by the country at large.
Leonard said a memorial service will be organized in the weeks to come.