I’ll Take What Del Had


Actor/Improviser/Teacher Del Close

When an audience does not respond well to a performance, the performer will often use the ancient showbiz phrase, “I died up there.” And that’s how it feels. Like a slow, lingering death-by-indifference. It’s part of the life we performers have chosen. It’s what we signed up for.

There are, however, a significant number of performers who have died onstage for real. Sheet-over-the-head, dead-gone-dead. A wonderful performer and dear friend Steve Daly said, “There’s the way every performer wants to go….onstage during a show.”

I’m not so sure. Here are a few performers who have gone to the greenroom in the sky during a performance.

In 1918, William Ellsworth Robinson, who performed under the name Chung Ling Soo, was shot through the chest while performing a trick known as The Bullet Catch. Metal fatigue in the gimmicked portion of the rifle caused the actual bullet to be fired. He died the next day.

Zero Mostel, Movie and Broadway star, and creator of the role Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, collapsed and died from an aortic aneurism during a preview performance of The Merchant in 1977.

In 1984, Comic/Magician Tommy Cooper, famous for tricks that went hilariously wrong, collapsed onstage from heart failure during a TV appearance on Live From Her Majesty’s in London. The audience, thinking it was a bit, laughed for a full minute before the director cut to commercial, and Tommy was taken offstage.

Comedian/Movie Star Dick Shawn died of heart in 1986 failure during a sold-out performance at UC San Diego. He lay onstage for five minutes before stagehands realized it wasn’t a bit. Even when paramedics arrived and took him away by ambulance, many audience members still believed it was a bit done in very poor taste.

Singer/Musicologist Tiny Tim suffered a fatal heart attack onstage in 1996 while singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips during a benefit concert hosted by the Women’s Club of Minneapolis.

Near Misses…

In 2017, actor Stacy Keach suffered a silent heart attack in Chicago during the opening night performance of the one-man play Pamplona, in which he portrayed Ernest Hemingway. As of this writing, he is recovering.

At the Concert For the Americas in 1984, drummer Buddy Rich suffered a heart attack while playing his solo during his band’s closing number. He finished the solo and the song, bowed, walked offstage, THEN went to the hospital and recovered. Badass Level: INFINITE.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Steve’s opinion regarding performers wanting to go during a performance. I think I’ll pass, given a choice. I think I’d rather go out the way legendary improv performer/teacher Del Close did, in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones and friends. Some of his last words were, “I’m tired of being the funniest person in the room.*”

In his will, Del bequeathed his skull to Chicago’s Goodman Theater with instructions that it be used as Yorick in future productions of Hamlet.

That’s a good way to go. I’ll take that.

Just not quite yet.

~Kevin Burke


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