Curtain Call

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Friends of Don's agree that there were far more peaks than valleys in his life, and it was during those peaks that they all fell in love with his humor, forgave him for any slights or perceived meanness. He was just too clever to stay mad at for long.

Laura Baxendale was walking down Colfax with Don recently to pick up some beer when they encountered a homeless guy in a wheelchair. Don had a fresh haircut and was wearing a trenchcoat. He leaned in and whispered something into the homeless guy's ear — Baxendale didn't hear it — and all of a sudden the man gave Don $10.

"Don said, 'I can't take your money,'" Baxendale recalls. "And he handed it back. Then he said to me, 'I guess my new hipster look is really paying off.'"

Baxendale met Don through some mutual friends who had cast him in an independent film they'd made. Those friends shared a story about how they had taken him to a party on a Sunday, only to find that the host had neglected to buy any beer in advance. Don was so pissed that he raided the fridge and ate an entire pound of cheese. He wasn't even hungry. He was just angry that there was no beer, and the wholesale devouring of cheese seemed the only proper recourse.

But he was decidedly sweet, too. As Don said of himself in the documentary, "I hope I've become more compassionate. I was really an asshole. I mean I was really egotistical. And I still am an egotistical asshole, I want you to know that. But I'm a kinder, gentler egotistical asshole."

Particularly around children. One of Don's ex-girlfriends had a child, and Don fell in love with her, doted on her, made up stories for her.

Brent and Denise talk about how Don would come over to their suburban home for dinner and regale their children with wild, fascinating stories, the children wide-eyed and mesmerized by the one-armed storyteller in their living room. It gave him an outlet to unlock his goofy side, his softer side.

And he was always there to listen. "He was kind of like my therapist," Baxendale says. "I felt like I could open up and tell him anything, he had been through so much. If your best friend is the only person you feel free enough to say certain things to and the one person who is completely nonjudgmental of you, then Don was my best friend. In that case, I think he was the best friend of a lot of people."

Including women.

"He always had an amazing, eclectic group of women around him, usually younger," Swanson says. "In all the years I knew him, he really only had one steady girlfriend. I just don't think he wanted a relationship. He just wanted to be with someone on his own terms, and I respected that about him, because he was very honest about it."

But Don's real best friend — and most likely foe — was his work, his creative output. His mind was constantly working, and there was little rest. Even at laid-back dinner parties, he was always pacing, opening the refrigerator door again and again. For Don, there was always some project to be completed, polished, another on the horizon. He was working on a graphic novel with a friend titled The Hate Fairy. He kept up his occasional column, It's Always Something, which appeared in Life on Capitol Hill. And for the past three years straight, Don had been working furiously on his autobiography — the one he was sure would bring book persons to "the point of ventricular fibrillation."

Having recently finished it, he was experiencing the doubt and sense of emptiness those close to him say always came with the completion of a major project. Did I do a good job? Is it actually done? What's next?

"He worked the last three years on it pretty steadily, and he was really relieved to be done with it," says Denise, whom Don considered his personal manager and who was helping him find a publisher. "And yet he didn't know what to do with himself after he was done with it. I think he expected that it would get published immediately.

"I think he was also concerned that the book would define him. Just like he didn't want to be the mentally ill, one-armed comic, I think he was worried about becoming the mentally ill, one-armed writer. Plus he really wanted that book to be something that would give people hope — that I've been to the darkest place you can go and I'm on the path to healing. But he was still really nervous about what was next," she says.

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Adam Cayton-Holland