Curtain Call

Denver mourns the loss of its favorite bipolar, one-armed comic/poet/playwright.

Dear Book Person,

Ask any gifted, but not talented sixth-grader what Vincent Van Gogh did. "He cut off his ear and sold one painting in his lifetime." What an underachiever!

Portrait of the artist as a high-school graduate (above); a more recent photo of Don Becker.
Portrait of the artist as a high-school graduate (above); a more recent photo of Don Becker.
Don Becker lost his hand in 1986.
Don Becker lost his hand in 1986.

I cut off my arm during a psychotic episode. I was a promising stand up comic in Denver, twice voted Denver's Best over Roseanne Barr. I wrote for Dennis Miller Live, optioned the rights to my play Lucifer Tonite to the Executive Producer of the Reba Show and if that doesn't blow your skirt up I have recently completed my autobiography, One Hand Clapping or My Life as a Bipolar Intellectual, God-fearing Anarchist, One-Armed Media Darling. The book is 17% gut-wrenchingly painful, and 83% hysterical to the point of ventricular fibrillation. Trust me, I'm a lot funnier than Vincent Van Gogh.

Unabashedly yours,

Don Becker

The cover letter is written on yellow legal paper, in clean but childlike handwriting. Its author, a southpaw, used his right hand, unable to manipulate a pencil with the hook on his left.

But the fate of Don Becker's autobiography depends on more than the whims of any "book person." Friends who've been charged with tending to his estate have to decide whether it makes sense to try and publish the manuscript without Don around. Don, who was 53, died in mid-May in his Capitol Hill apartment. He had talked so fondly of snubbing Oprah when he would occasionally envision his triumphant book tour. Now it doesn't seem like it will be as fun of a ride without Don on it.

I had heard about Don Becker before. As a standup comic in this city, it was hard not to. His name would pop up at a road gig opening for a local veteran or in the green room backstage at the Comedy Works. Or if not his name, at least his story: the gifted, crazy jokesmith who could have been something huge had his demons not told him to lay his arms across the train tracks two blocks from Union Station one night in 1986.

Even so, Don continued to cut a swath across the cultural landscape after surviving the train with his life, if not his arm. So, too, did his story bleed into Denver lore. As tales of tortured artists go, his was a pretty good one. Don knew this. It's no coincidence that he name-checked Van Gogh in his cover letter, well aware that society's a sucker for the crazed-genius archetype, the artist walking a fine line between insanity and brilliance. But in researching his past, I realized that Don Becker was more than this, and to paint such a portrait would be to sell the man short.

"I would caution you to resist romantic angles concerning doomed comics or 'darkness' or Don's mental status," Steve Stajich, a former Denver comic turned television writer in Los Angeles and a friend of Don's, wrote me in an e-mail. "It only has value as a means of entertaining dumb people who can't follow a story about a really bright guy who beat some mental complications to spend all of his adult life creating compelling, funny work that mattered on an intellectual level."

And it's the quality of that intellectual level that was so truly remarkable about him. Too often in Denver — and I imagine in other, similarly ego-challenged second cities — the tendency is to negate our intellectual level, to dismiss it as not on par with that of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Particularly in the hollow vacuum of show business, the notion that art has no merit unless someone signs a check and points a camera at it reigns supreme. Don was susceptible to such thinking. His letter to book editors flies the flags of his national accolades proudly, listing his successes in relation to their importance in larger forums. He was trying to get a book published, after all.

But despite his success or lack thereof on a national scale, Don believed in art, and he captivated and challenged Denver audiences for 25 years with that belief — from behind a mike telling jokes, on the radio airwaves, and on slam-poetry and theater stages, where he shook the floorboards and howled at the moon. In the process, he created fans from many backgrounds and generations, their one commonality being that they were all curious as to what the man would come up with next.

To many who knew him, Don was the most unique, intelligent individual they had ever come across, and one of the most troubled.


Donald K. Becker was born August 13, 1954, and grew up in the Harvey Park neighborhood of southwest Denver. His mother, Marion, was a schoolteacher, and his father, Dick, was a weatherman and anchor for Channel 7 and later sold real estate.

Like his son, Dick suffered from bipolar disorder. Patrick Gerace, a childhood friend of Don's, recalls visiting him one day only to find Dick Becker (who passed away several years ago) sitting out on the front lawn in his underwear reading the paper; he had completely reassembled the living room outdoors.

Don had one sister, Beth, who was born deaf, and his mother remembers that he always seemed to understand and communicate with her better than anyone else. He was very enjoyable as a baby, his mother says, and he was a very smart, bright child, but by the time he got to junior high school he started acting up a bit — albeit in his own way.

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