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Chances are good you haven’t heard of them, but chances are even better you’ve felt their influence

Two new documentaries look at film impresario Donald Rugoff and improv grandmaster Del Close.

Donald Rugoff working the phones, in "Searching for Mr. Rugoff."
Donald Rugoff working the phones, in "Searching for Mr. Rugoff."Film Comment/Sy Johnson

In two new documentary releases genius means obnoxious behavior, frequent bullying, megalomaniacal ambition, lasting influence, ultimate obscurity, and poor personal hygiene.

You might remember the Apple ad featuring a montage of great people like Albert Einstein and Muhammed Ali with the Steve Jobs quote “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers,” etc. Ira Deutchman opens “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” with that quote, and the first difference you might notice between the subject of the film and the famous people in the commercial is that few will know who Rugoff is, not even those in his profession of film exhibition and distribution. But without him, Deutchman argues, not many independent studios might ever have sprung up. Without Donald Rugoff, quirky, thought-provoking films like “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” itself might never have made it to the screen.

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Deutchman, who was one of the founders of the indie studio Cinecom and who created Fine Line Features, started his career in the film business working for Rugoff’s Cinema 5. It was a mixed experience and for a long time afterward he did not remember his boss fondly. Then he learned that Rugoff, who had lost his company, had gone on to start a movie theater in an abandoned church on Martha’s Vineyard. He died there, in 1989, at 62, and was rumored to have been buried in a pauper’s grave. Pondering this, Deutchman recognized how much he had learned about movies and the movie business from the late maven, who seems much like the Roger Corman of that aspect of the industry in that he gave people their first break in the business. Troubled that he had not fully appreciated Rugoff’s influence on his career he decides to search out the truth about the man in a quest like that of a low-budget “Citizen Kane.”

Donald Rugoff (left) and Robert Downey Sr.
Donald Rugoff (left) and Robert Downey Sr.Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

He tracks down other former employees of Cinema 5 (and clients like the directors Costa-Gavras and the late Robert Downey Sr.) who share his ambivalence — put off by Rugoff’s abrasiveness and abuse but grateful for what they learned working for him. They recall positive experiences such as bumping into people like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut at the office but also the mortification of being forced to parade through the streets in medieval costumes to promote the release of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975).

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They remark on the contrast between Rugoff’s exquisite taste in art and film — his releases are a best of list of the 1960s and ‘70s from “Putney Swope” (1969) to “Pumping Iron” (1977) — and his slovenly dress and habits. Some speculate that his erratic personality was because of a metal plate in his head, but his ex-wife denies it (judging from her memories of their marriage his offensive deportment was not restricted to the workplace).

Meanwhile, Deutchman tries to retrace the last years of his problematic mentor. Shockingly, he finds almost nothing online. He visits the Edgartown library and the local newspaper office and resorts to such old-school methods as spooling through reels of microfilm to uncover the truth. In the end what he finds “is like the man himself — different.”

“Searching for Mr. Rugoff” begins screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Aug. 20. In the spirit of Donald S. Rugoff, all proceeds from the release will be donated to the not-for-profit art house theaters presenting the film across the country.

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Go to coolidge.org/films/searching-mr-rugoff.

A photo booth portrait of Del Close, from "For Madmen Only."
A photo booth portrait of Del Close, from "For Madmen Only." Sincerely Films

Too Close for comfort?

When it came to acting up or smelling bad, Donald Rugoff had nothing on Del Close — who died in 1999, at 64. Nonetheless a generation of comics regard him as their inspiration and mentor. In “For Madmen Only” (2020) Heather Ross looks back at the brilliant career and outrageous misadventures of the unfiltered genius who began his career as a firebreather in a magic act and whose go-for-broke notions of improv propelled Second City into greatness, turning out alumni such as Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Tina Fey. All remember him with awe and reverence — his protégé Robin Williams referred to Close’s philosophy and method as “the church of Del” (Close for some reason called it “the Harold.”)

Ross structures her film around an autobiographical comic book called “Wasteland” that Close wrote for DC during its edgy Dark Knight period, in the 1980s, the composition of which she reenacts with James Urbaniak brainstorming with his creative team in a squalid office. Among the anecdotes that emerge in this recurring device is Close’s witnessing his father committing suicide by drinking battery acid and his taking LSD and recording his dreams in experiments for the Air Force (he tried to quit the program but the Air Force told him he owed them one more dream).

Yet despite these murky episodes, as well as his drug use, his abuse of cast members, and his multiple, messy mental breakdowns — or maybe because of them — he not only soared with Second City until “Saturday Night Live” snatched his top cast members, but then chaotically managed a second Second City, in Toronto, which spawned comedy greats like John Candy and Martin Short. He was the Hunter S. Thompson of stand-up, except unlike Thompson he never enjoyed the fame that his acolytes achieved.

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“For Madmen Only” can be streamed on Altavod and Apple TV. Go to www.altavod.com/content/formadmenonly.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com