Del Close: Dueling scripts detail improv pioneer

Charna Halpern's script about her late iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) co-founder Del Close opens with the vastly influential, hard-living, difficult, brilliant improvisation pioneer glimpsing a TV on which his former student Betty Thomas is thanking him while accepting her acting Emmy Award for "Hill Street Blues."

The funny thing is, Thomas is now committed to direct a different script about Close, this one based on his former assistant/student Jeff Griggs' 2005 book "Guru: My Days with Del Close" and being produced by Second City co-owner/CEO Andrew Alexander and his wife, Diane, along with Chicago-to-Los Angeles transplant Robert Teitel ("Barbershop," "Faster").

With the ever-volatile Close — who discovered and/or shaped a who's who of comedy stars including John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, John Candy and Chris Farley — it's hard to know whether he might have been amused or enraged by the ironies here. The chief philosophical conflict of his life pitted his evangelical belief that long-form improvisation is an art form unto itself versus Second City founder Bernie Sahlins' view that improvisation is a tool to be used to create material that's ultimately scripted and polished.

Although Close had various stints directing and teaching at Second City, this iO vs. Second City debate lasted all the way to the death-bed birthday party Close hosted while at Illinois Masonic Medical Center; he died March 4, 1999, five days short of his 65th birthday, after struggling with emphysema and various body-breakdown issues. As Griggs and Halpern both recount, from his hospital wheelchair Close declared to Sahlins one last time, "It is an art form," to which Sahlins responded, "Del, for tonight it is an art form."

Now the leaders of Second City and iO are competing again, this time to get the green light for their Close movies, even as both scripts concentrate on Close's later years at iO. The two projects have been stuck in neutral for years, as if Close were making the final defiant point that his extraordinary — and extraordinarily complicated — life cannot be contained in a mere script.

A December 2005 Tribune news brief had director-producer Harold Ramis involved in "Guru" along with the Alexanders, who had optioned the book upon its publication, hoping to begin filming the following spring. That didn't happen, and Ramis, who had worked with Close at Second City, eventually moved on. Halpern a few years ago thought she had Myers lined up to play his onetime mentor in her "Del," but that trigger never got pulled.

Now "Guru" may have new momentum. Thomas, who directed Howard Stern's "Private Parts" and, most recently, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel," had left the project due to script issues but is attached once again. Also, although they said nothing has been signed, Teitel and the Alexanders have been working with James Stern, another LA-based native Chicagoan who had a big success last year producing "Looper," to find a way for Stern's Endgame Entertainment to underwrite "Guru."

As usual in Hollywood, the launch would be contingent on the entire package coming together, with box-office-proven actors signed on to sell a story about someone whose fame never approached his importance. Names are being tossed around and agencies are involved, but until everything is pinned down, it's all smoke.

Still, James Stern said he has been keen to shoot a film in his hometown and would love for that to happen with "Guru" later this year. He likened the story, which chronicles Griggs' errand-running adventures with the troublemaking teacher during the latter's final months, to the 1982 movie "My Favorite Year," in which Mark Linn-Baker plays a young writer charged with keeping Peter O'Toole's aging, drunk actor on the straight and narrow.

"Del changed the face of comedy more than any person alive," Stern said. "Del was where the river started. Del's story is largely unknown to the general public, and it would be great to change that."

Said Teitel: "We finally got the right script together. We've got a terrific, terrific director who knows the material better than anybody because she was taught by Del. It's been a long time coming just to get to here, and it feels right."

But Halpern, speculating on the unlikelihood that two Del Close movies would get major financial backing so close together, argued that hers is the one that ought to move forward.

"My movie is more in depth about Del and the things that we've done," said Halpern, who had hired Griggs to be Close's assistant but said his year and a half with Close paled next to her almost two decades nurturing and working side by side with him. "He didn't know the young, vibrant Del."

Her script, which she said has been optioned by Radar Pictures (chaired by another transplanted Chicagoan, Ted Field, who did not return a call for comment), is based on "a 19-year relationship with one of the craziest men in the world. I've had experiences with this man that no one else has had. He loved me. I was one of the most important people in his life."

Although Halpern wrote the epilogue to "Guru" and gets a final "special thanks" from Griggs for giving him detailed feedback on the book, she complains now that he got stuff wrong.

"It frustrates me," she said. "I told Jeff all these stories, and he mixed them up, so they're not all true."

Griggs, currently performing on a Second City Caribbean cruise, said he continues to work at iO and remains "close" with Halpern.

"I see her every two or three days, and she'll ask me something, and I'll say, 'Look, we're on the same page,'" Griggs said. "Both (projects are) about this phenomenally important guy for comedy and Chicago theater, and we want both of them to be made. There's no rivalry."

Griggs wrote the original "Guru" script but hasn't read the current version, completed by Nick Torokvei, son of Second City alum Peter (now P.J.) Torokvei. The script-development process has been lengthy with both projects; Halpern brought in former "Saturday Night Live" writer Michael McCarthy as a co-writer on "Del."

A major challenge is figuring out how to distill Close's sprawling life into two hours of entertainment. Do you include his early days as a circus fire-eater dubbed Azrad the Incombustible? His experiences in the Second City precursor Compass Players with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the latter of whom he dated? His friendships with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — whom he supposedly advised to create a religion for the tax benefits — comedian Lenny Bruce and entertainer/activist Wavy Gravy? His Air Force-sanctioned experiments with LSD and later travels with Ken Kesey's "Acid Tests"? His experiences creating psychedelic light shows for the Grateful Dead, with whom he landed at Altamont Speedway in 1969 before they all left due to the Hells Angels-induced violence?

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