The main thing Jeff Griggs remembers from his first visit to Del Close's apartment is the overpowering stench. "Cat feces and rotting food permeated the air," Griggs writes in his new memoir, Guru: My Days With Del Close. "The odor of garbage that had been piling up in and around the trash receptacle became the dominating fragrance." And underneath it all was a funkier smell he couldn't quite identify at first. He later found out Close had an aversion to flushing the toilet after urinating.
Griggs would spend the next year and a half getting to know the man behind the stench, the legendary improvisational theater director and mentor to the likes of Bill Murray, John Belushi, and John Candy. As Close's personal assistant, Griggs was to visit him at home every Thursday and take him out on errands--to the bank, the grocery store, the bookstore. Close, who was 62 at the time, was in poor health and couldn't carry shopping bags on his own. He couldn't always make it up the stairs.
Griggs, a native of downstate Quincy, Illinois, was a student at ImprovOlympic in the late 90s, doing odd jobs in exchange for classes. His first gig was answering phones at the box office. One night, facing a long line of ticket buyers, he ignored the phone, which was ringing off the hook. Unfortunately, the box office number was rigged to ring also at the home of Charna Halpern, founder of ImprovOlympic and Close's business partner.
Halpern drove to the theater and publicly chewed Griggs out. "This is my business!" she shouted. "I need you to answer the phones!" Griggs promised to do better next time.
A few hours later Halpern stopped in again to check on things. Griggs decided to mess with her, pretending to have misplaced an urgent message from Andy Dick. When Halpern figured out he was joking, she was impressed. She offered him the job with Close a couple days later. "Charna told me if I was brave enough to antagonize her, I'd be able to handle Del," says Griggs.
"Charna had originally hired someone else," he explains. "But that didn't work out. The woman had gotten Del the wrong Jell-O. Del put his pot in his Jell-O and didn't like the way the particular flavor she chose tasted with pot in it." Close apparently preferred lime for the job. "He screamed at her and made her cry."
Close was famously prickly. He concocted cruel nicknames for many of his students: the Fat Chick, the Asshole, the Little Greek Guy, the Guy Who Always Wears the Red Sweat Suit, the Anorexic Bald Guy, the Chubby Gay Guy, the Lesbian Lawyer, the Dumb Cunt, the Fat Dumb Cunt, Mr. Clueless, That Useless Son of a Bitch. In the book Griggs recounts an incident in which a female student's "mugging and posturing in scenes was so awful that he encouraged her to sew her vagina shut so that she didn't produce any offspring who might have her despicable talents." If a student balked after one of Close's tongue-lashings and threatened to drop out, Close would whip out his checkbook and refund his tuition on the spot.
But Griggs wanted the gig, badly enough to lie to Halpern. The job required a car--which he didn't have, though he told Halpern he did. He ended up borrowing friends' cars for his weekly visits. "I was worried Del would catch on that I showed up with a different car every week," he says. "He never seemed to notice."
During their rounds, Close seemed to love nothing more than getting a rise out of Griggs: causing scenes in public, calling waitresses cunts, constantly and loudly criticizing Griggs and referring to him as his "retarded friend." Griggs deflected these jabs by calling Close "Grandpa." Eventually Griggs looked forward to their time together, even keeping up the visits long after his ImprovOlympic classes were over. "It became a volunteer job," he says. "I couldn't think of anyone else doing it."
Griggs remembers sitting with Close one afternoon at the end of an errand when Close told him, "You know, I really enjoy these trips we do every week. It's just nice to spend a couple of hours talking to someone." Griggs replied, "Yeah, Del, I don't mind. I don't mind at all."
"Yeah, me either. I don't mind," spat Close. "I need for you to listen to me right now. I like this. It would be nice if you could like this too." He got out of the car and slammed the door.
Throughout his career Close had been a notorious abuser of almost every licit and illicit drug available, including heroin, methamphetamine, and alcohol. Close told Griggs he'd given up the needle the day of Belushi's funeral. He'd also gone through aversion therapy in Texas to keep off the sauce. That left marijuana, and lots of it.
Sometimes Griggs arrived at Close's apartment to find him too high to run errands. Once Griggs had been chatting with Close for over an hour while they watched TV when Close jumped up and screamed, "Jeff? When did you get here?" Apparently Close had thought he'd been conversing with his cat.
A lifelong smoker of cigarettes as well, Close had already been diagnosed with emphysema when Griggs started taking care of him. He died on March 4, 1999. For several years after, Griggs told friends funny stories about driving Close around. Then one friend, Chris McAvoy, persuaded him to write down his memories. He wrote a long piece and posted it on the Chicago Improv Network Web site. The response was good, so he wrote another chapter and posted it, and again got a good response. After that he worked on the book off and on until it was finished--the whole thing took three months. "I was working at ImprovOlympic," he says. "I had a lot of time on my hands."
Griggs didn't tell anyone besides close friends that he was working on a book until it was done. He didn't tell Halpern about it until December. She asked to see the manuscript. "I was nervous about it," she says. "There are so many myths about Del. I'm always very careful to make sure information is right." She corrected a few things before the book went to print. For example, she says, there was a scene in which Close cried to Griggs about being lonely. "I don't know about that," she says. "I have seen Del cry, but that's when he was crashing from drugs. I can't believe Del cried to Jeff, but I wasn't there. Maybe he was high." After talking with Halpern, Griggs kept that scene in the book but deleted the tears.
But there are still some stories she's not sure about. "I've known Del for 19 years," she says. "I know what's true. There's certain things that just don't ring true. . . . Jeff has Del say several times in the book, 'I'm going to tell Charna to buy you a car.' He never did that. Even in the hospital, Del and I talked the whole day before he died. He never said I should buy Jeff a car.
"And," she says, "there are things in the book that I wanted to kill him for if they are true. Like when he talks about Del passing out in the grocery store. If Del passed out, he should have gone to the hospital. Jeff told me that Del told him not to tell me. I don't care! His job was to make sure things like that wouldn't happen."
Still, she likes the book, and even wrote its epilogue. "For the most part I thought it was quite nice," she says. "It's fun. He did a good job."
The book comes out this week, on April Fool's Day. Second City owner Andrew Alexander has optioned it for a movie, for which Griggs has written the screenplay. Griggs says he didn't see any of this coming. "It started off as just me telling a lot of stories," he says, "and everything that's happened after that has just been more than I had ever expected."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Manning, Joyce Ravid.