Curtain Call

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

He's described by fellow comics as being very intense. At a bar called Soapy Smith's, around the corner from the Comedy Works, where the comics would hang out and drink after shows, Don could go from being completely calm and cogent to screaming in someone's face about trivial, occasionally nonsensical, issues. He never seemed to sleep. At times he acted paranoid. Most of the comics dismissed it as coming with the territory, genius kissing insanity in the arts, no surprise there.

None of the other comics knew Don was battling bipolar disorder and psychosis, paranoia and delusions. They didn't know he was taking the mood stabilizer lithium or about a mental breakdown in high school after a bad trip.

But on August 12, 1986, Don's troubles were made all too clear.

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.

How he lost his arms is a story that has been told and retold and mis-told a thousand times, often by Don himself. Some fell for his lie that it was an injury sustained in Vietnam. Others swear it was a drunken accident, that for his 32nd birthday he wanted to hop a train, and his wish went horribly awry.

Don's version of what really happened — or at least the one he told in magazine articles and in a documentary made by local filmmaker Robin Beeck in 2001 — was that about a week or so earlier, he had wrecked his car. Although Don wasn't hurt, the crash shook him up and left him with the paranoid conclusion that he was going to die and that he was going to kill someone else in the process. The delusions intensified over the next few days, and he became convinced that if he sacrificed his arms, he would be able to live. So after a card game with friends that night, Don walked down to the 15th Street viaduct, made his way to the tracks and laid his arms across them. Doctors were able to reattach one of his arms. The other would have to be replaced by a hook.

"He told us that he did it to save his life," says Brent Johnson, who first met Don years later when the comic took a yoga class with Johnson's wife, Denise, and later became his good friend. "We can think about that and say that's a psychotic who is not thinking clearly, and I don't think he would argue against that. But what strikes me is that in all the years since that incident, he didn't disown that part of himself. I think to him it sort of made sense all along. I never heard him say things like, 'What a stupid fucking thing I did,' or 'God, I wish I had never done this.' It was in his mind at the time he did it as his only option. It was the price he paid to stay alive."

After numerous painful surgeries and unimaginable psychological trauma, Don bounced back onto the comedy scene. In 1987, Westword again named him Best Comic, and the Comedy Works hosted a benefit for him at the Rainbow Music Hall, which drew Roseanne Barr, Louie Anderson, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison and Dennis Miller (whose HBO program Don would write for ten years later).

"He was backstage," Louis Johnson remembers. "And I watched him pull this shit on three different people. He'd go up to someone and go, 'Thanks for doing this.' And then he'd put his arm with the hook up and go, 'Can you twist that hook down for me? It's loose and I can't really reach it.' Then he would scream like he was in serious pain, and whoever it was would jump back. He thought that was hilarious."

Don incorporated his arms into his routine, but it really didn't set him apart.

"The Denver comedy scene at that time included Chris Fonseca (cerebral palsy), Art Carlson (a dwarf) and Roger Rittenhouse (born without one arm)," recalls comedian George McClure. "While emceeing a gig one night that included all of those performers, Rittenhouse cracked, 'You know, folks, you'd usually have to be underneath a big top to see a show like this.'"

The laughter was there, but close friends say Don began to resent having to mention his arms and feared that people only viewed him as the mentally ill, one-armed comedian as opposed to just a comedian. He didn't want his mental or physical problems to define him, and although he continued to perform until 1992, hosting a radio talk show on KNUS from 1989 to 1990, Don eventually hung up his comedy hat.


With a creative fire still burning inside him, though, Don turned his attention to his lifetime hobby of writing poetry. In 1993, Hang Fire Press published a book of his poetry titled Three Sheriffs in Bethlehem; during that era, he became a fixture in Denver's burgeoning slam-poetry scene, performing at Muddy's, the Mercury Cafe and Penny Lane in Boulder, and finding receptive, appreciative audiences wherever he went.

"His shtick was between comedy and poetry," recalls Clarissa Pinkola Estés, also a poet in the scene at the time. "He used everything he had — his injuries, his demons, his great humor, his great writing — to create this crazy, mad poetry. One time we did a benefit together at the Bug. Don got up there, and every word was an F-word; he used it like people use the word 'the.' He definitely grabbed people's attention and held it."

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