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Les Golden (Interview)

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Les Golden is an American astronomer, gambling writer, actor, musician, and political activist who writes extensively on various casino games. This is an interview with him from 2011 with Associated Press writer/editor Deborah Elwood.
DE: Les Golden is a true Renaissance Man, a polymath. The interview with this astronomer, professor, actor, comedian, gambling writer, trumpet player, bandleader, cartoonist, environmentalist, political activist, and playwright began about his days at Second City, his mentoring by Del Close, and his revealing to the Chicago Tribune the details of the hoax involving the skull of Del Close. It became an interview about many of his endeavors, about Leonard Running Bear, pee gee ball, how to get revenge on telemarketers, encountering extraterrestrials, the Foul Balls, and other topics.

Meeting Del Close

Les Golden Renaissance Man feature article

DE: How did you get to meet Del Close?

LG: When I returned back to Chicago from my years in Los Angeles, my niece Cheryl Balaban told me that the director Del Close was putting together a workshop at Second City of the brightest people he could find. Before then I had never heard of him. This was one of his experiments in determining the traits of the paradigm improviser. I later coined the term “improvipithecus” or Improv Man to describe such a being.
DE: I like that.
LG: I didn't take archaeology at Cornell for nothing. So, Cheryl told me I should audition, but forewarned me that Del would ask if I knew the term for the tissue connecting the two lobes of the brain, the “corpus callosum.” I never took biology and I didn't know what it was. Del, as a joint minimum test for intelligence and knowledge base, wanted to see if the prospective student was sufficiently aware of the bi-lateral brain to recognize that term for the tissue connecting the left and right lobes. Our class would use as a textbook Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards as a guide for accessing the creative, holistic right-mode of thinking as opposed to the analytical, sequential left-mode of thinking.
DE: Close used this as a textbook?
LG: Del had a library of either 10,000 or 20,000 books. When I was interviewing his high school classmates for a film documentary I was producing after his death, they told me he was pretty much of a bookworm recluse. He would sit in his upstairs room in his parents' house in Manhattan, Kansas, reading. He read voraciously and widely.
DE: What happened to those books after he died?
LG: He willed them to Larry Coven, a Second City alumnus with whom he apparently had a strong intellectual bond. The books are with Larry in L.A. the last I heard.
DE: So you got to interview with Del Close.
LG: Right. At that interview, in his tiny, cluttered office upstairs of Second City, Del asked me if I knew what the corpus callosum was. I answered, “It's the tissue connecting the left and right sides of the brain.” When I told him I had a Ph.D in astronomy from Berkeley, he joyfully said, “You're in the class.”

The Game of Monster

DE: Why did your niece even suggest you study with Del?
LG: Cheryl knew that both my twin brother Bruce and I had the requisite skills for improvisation from playing the “Game of Monster.” She was the oldest of my sister's three daughters. When she was perhaps three or four years old, my brother and I would pretend we were hideous monsters. The game would be played in her front yard, affording her plenty of space to run away. As each of the younger daughters grew up, they too became our prey.
DE: Didn't it scare the kids?
LG: Sure. That was the fun. But they knew they were safe. Except the youngest, Susan. It took her a long time to realize she wasn't going to be eaten alive.
DE: How gruesome. Cannibalism in Chicago.
LG: I know. But when you're hungry, Deborah, you're hungry.
DE: It sounds like good acting training.
LG: Although when it was time for dinner . . . . just joking. Actually, when you think of it, we used a lot of the techniques of good acting. We adopted a physical character, this hunched-over, blood-thirsty, flesh-seeking monster. We shifted quickly from emotion to emotion.
DE: Elaborate please.

LG: Actors, poor actors, inexperienced actors, switch smoothly between emotions. They feel I guess that there has to be a transition. So from joy to sorrow, or happiness to anger. But real people, in everyday life, switch instantaneously. You can be talking to someone and they make a comment and you go from careful listening to anger. You've seen people all of a sudden just strike out at someone. But actors don't do that. In the monster game, we would be sweet, forlorn, lonely, and as soon as the girls would get within arm distance we'd instantly turn into hideous, blood-thirsty monsters. Great acting. Close always told us that kids are great actors when they're playing alone. It's when the adults start observing them that they become lousy actors.

DE: Give me an example of the emotion switch you did.
LG: Sure. “We're just ugly monsters, and nobody wants to play with us,” we'd say. “I want to have friends and have people like me, just like everybody else. But I'm just an ugly, hideous monster.” As Cheryl approached, we would give a slight indication of just how abominable we were. It would be a subtle look out of the corner of the eye, or a sinister lowering of the head or opening of the mouth. See, looking away from someone is low status. Staring into their eyes is high status. It's a good lesson in how to get along with a new dog or a bear in the wild.
DE: If you ever want to try it.
LG: Okay, so as soon as we'd give that slight look, Cheryl would scream and run away, realizing we just wanted to devour her young, sweet, white flesh, being, of course, monsters. Or, we would lie on the ground, crying, asking for love and pity. “I want to be loved and petted, and be told I'm not just an ugly monster. Won't you please come over and just give me a pat or a hug.” Of course, as soon as she was within reach, we'd grab her and start devouring her young, sweet, white flesh.
DE: What about the improv aspect? Did this fit in?
LG: Exactly. From the improv viewpoint, we were playing the game of manipulation, one of the four advanced modes of doing a scene. The “Game of Monster” was what Del would call a manipulation game. I manipulate you into doing something against your judgment and then you suffer the consequences, in this case, becoming luncheon meat for a monster. The neighbor little girls also wanted to play, but I think my nieces guarded their front lawn as the territory for their game with their uncles.

From Comic to Actor

DE: And then Cheryl told you about Del's class.
LG: Right. She became a theater major at Washington University and then Northwestern and pursued a career, mainly in improvisation. She became aware of Del and, when this particular workshop was announced, she interviewed with Del and then told me about it. My involvement with performing had many facets, trumpet, stage in high school, stand-up, but I had always looked with disdain at improvisation. My twin and I had stolen the show as Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, the bumbling blabber-mouth brothers of Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General, our high school Senior Class play at Oak Park High. Knowles Cooke, our director, always told the cast that when one actor came on stage he couldn't prevent himself from laughing. He never told us who that was. He died a few years ago. We had been in touch. But I sort of hope it was my brother and myself.
DE: The high school play?
LG: Yes. Then I was the emcee for the University of California, Berkeley, Jazz Ensembles, had a wedding band under the name of the Les Morris Quintet, had a radio show as “Flash Golden” on Berkeley's KALX-FM (90.7) radio station and did the play-by-play for the California Golden Bears basketball team. Those gigs, with the encouragement of my girlfriend Lea Lyon, led to my trying out stand-up at the Holy City Zoo in San Francisco. At the end of our stand-up comic workshops at San Francisco's Mustard Seed we would do “improv,” and I always thought it was a silly art form.
DE: You moved to L.A. after getting your Ph.D at Berkeley in astronomy. There must have been a lot of improv there.
LG: There was a lot. My disdain, however, was enforced after I moved to L.A. after getting a National Research Council post-doc at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While working out and hanging out at the Comedy Store, I would watch the “improv,” particularly at the Comedy Store on Sunset Blvd. I mainly saw Robin Williams, whom I had known from the Holy City Zoo, stealing the show with his high-energy characterizations and throwing out of jokes. While obviously impressed with his brilliance, in the tradition of Jonathan Winters and Sid Caesar, I wasn't infatuated with improvisation as an art form. I did met Sid Caesar once. He said that astronomy would be a great subject for stand-up comedy.
DE: But your feelings toward improv must have changed when you returned to Chicago.
LG: Not immediately. When Cheryl told me about Del's workshop I expressed such sentiment and initially demurred, but she told me to simply trust her. I did, and I quickly discovered the difference between the Chicago school of improvisation and whatever you might call the way improv is done in Los Angeles. Del, in particular, viewed improv as a means of teaching acting. It was anathema to him that improv consist of “going for jokes.” It soon became obvious to me why so many great comic actors have come out of Second City.
DE: Were you an immediate sensation in the class?
LG: (laughing) I was an immediate and total, 100% disaster, Deborah. I was horrible. Most of my performing on stage had been as a stand-up comic in San Francisco and L.A. and that was not what Del wanted. He wanted authenticity. One day after class, I was walking past the bar of the upstairs lobby and Del even averted my eye. He wouldn't look at me.
DE: Close had a reputation of having the ability to demean his students with disdain.

Les Golden possesses a "great character face." Shown here as model for Krey Hot Dogs.

LG: That is putting it mildly. He had an overwhelming presence. Intimidating. Just like Sedelmaier of “Where's the Beef” fame. But with Sedelmaier it was more of the fear that he wouldn't hire you again for his commercials. With Del, I think the fear was more that he would turn you into a functionless blob of self-loathing failure. But I wasn't fazed. I had succeeded in more intellectually-challenging endeavors and had faith I would master this subject.

DE: Such as?
LG: Well, I learned how to write in high school, the only member of my graduating class to get a 5 in the AP English on the advanced placement test after my English teacher junior year had not wanted me to continue in accelerated English. Then again, it took me a long time to learn as a graduate student how to think with what physicists call “physical intuition” after getting through Cornell University by memorization rather than intuitive understanding. The challenge of evolving from a comic to an improvisational actor was not of the same magnitude. My twin brother, similarly, had to overcome five years of study in the 2E honors electrical engineering program at M.I.T. before he learned how to think as a lawyer and started getting A's at Harvard Law School.
DE: Where did you become a writer?
LG: Nina Grace Smith, without a doubt. At Oak Park High. Her classes were in the Oxford Room. Now they've renamed it after Shakespeare I think. She had patience and stuck with me. We had great teachers at Oak Park High, Lona Lee Lendsey in calculus, Chris Bjerknes in English, Jess Wagus in Spanish, track head coach Bob Wright and Roy Gummerson our distance coach as moral teachers. But it was Nina Grace who gave me the opportunity to become a writer. I can't forget Knowles Cooke. The rumor I heard was that they choose The Inspector General for the senior class play expressly as a vehicle for my brother and myself. But we'll never know that for sure, I'm afraid. I'm happy to say my brother and I were in touch with many of these long after high school.
DE: But you were a disaster at improv.
LG: Initially, of Titanic and Hindenburg magnitude combined.
DE: That bad? But something must have clicked sometime.
LG: The breakthrough came one day when we were performing a scene in classic Greek style. While I was on stage, Del gave me the direction that this was large Greek acting, to become expansive. I then made the, to me, bold step of extending my arms outwards and looking upwards to the sky and speaking, projecting, to the heavens. After the scene, as was his manner, Del gave notes. His first comment was, “What happened in that scene?” Various answers were provided. Del said, “No, Les became an actor.” From then forward the workshop was largely a private lesson between Del and myself. He would always comment on what I had done in the scene. He actually would refer to other actors by my name. I nearly became the focus of the workshop. The attention he paid to me would have been an embarrassment if I hadn't been learning so much from him. I looked forward to those workshops. Improv people refer to improvising as playing and that's what it was. Time to play. Drive from Oak Park along North Avenue to Second City to play with your friends.

Surrogate Writer

DE: Did he get to consider you a peer?
LG: I'd like to think so, but not really. I took assiduous notes in his class. I viewed it as a college course. A lab course.
DE: He must have been impressed.
LG: I think he respected me. And every teacher likes to have attentive students. I saw in his workshop that the vast majority of actors attend all these acting classes and hope to learn by some magical passage of a creative ether. None really view it as an academic pursuit. I was in his workshop and then I went to see a million plays, as a sort of “outside reading” if you will. I watched to see why the actors were or weren't connecting. Put it in the context of what Del was teaching us.
DE: He appreciated your attention.
LG: I think so. I'd like to hope so. I remember in San Francisco, when the instructor at the Mustard Seed would tell us there was going to be no lecture that day, I was disappointed.
DE: Del gave lectures.
LG: More or less. Acting teachers provide instruction in the context of scene study. Del would give short lectures at the beginning of the class. Those were great. Telling us about the exercises of the day.
DE: And you took notes and he liked that.
LG: He certainly noticed. One day after class I was crossing Wells Street in front of Second City. Del at that time lived across the street, in a book-infested hovel behind the famed Earl of Old Town bar and nightclub with his cat. He came up to me. “Spring Magazine asked me to do an interview,” he said. “You know this stuff as well as I do. Will you do the interview for me?”
DE: He trusted you.
LG: Well, he trusted that I took good notes, at least.
DE: That was published in an 1982 issue. After that interview was published, I began thinking of writing an article about Del's techniques for Chicago Magazine. In one of the first of Del's workshops, the other actors told me I should go meet Josef Sedelmaier, the famed commercial director of “where's the beef” and other notable commercials because I had a great face and was a “Sedelmaier character type.” I went to his studio, the site of the old Chez Paree nightclub on Fairbanks Court, and met his secretary and talent screener, Kay Sanford, who immediately became enamoured with my character face and ultimately other parts of my body if you get my drift. That was the start of my becoming a “Sedelmaier regular” with weekly audition calls on Sunday night for Monday auditions and numerous commercial gigs. Every week the same routine with Sedelmaier.
DE: Kay Sanford had read the Spring magazine article?
LG: No, but I told her about it. Kay had a friend who was a playwright and who also wrote for Chicago Magazine, Alan Gross. I contacted him about the piece about Del and Second City and he enthusiastically agreed to get it published in the magazine. As I wrote it, however, it became clear that the length demanded it would have to be in two installments. He agreed to that. It soon become clear that only a book-length treatise would be sufficient. Del was more than happy to hear about this. He had told me that he always wanted to be a co-author of an article in Science magazine, the prestigious journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS. I guess he though that somehow I could do the trick. At the very least, this book would put him on the intellectual as well as theatrical map.

The Analytical Approach To Creativity

DE: So you wrote a book about Del Close?
LG: No, it was about his teachings. A number of prominent books about Second City have been written by good writers. But this book was going to be an analytical discussion about the techniques, not fawning over all the celebrities like the other books. I called it “The Analytical Approach to Creativity: The Techniques of the Chicago School of Improvisational Theatre.” It was geared as much to college classes as acting classes. Other actors actually asked me for the table of contents even before publication. Some of my acting friends who are professors have told me they'll adopt the book.
DE: How did Del like the idea?
LG: Are you kidding? He loved it. He even wrote in long-hand his autobiograhy. I still have it, of course. Finally someone was going to discuss his techniques, the techniques he had developed from reading thousands of books. It wasn't going to be another book about John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd and Gilda Radner.

Flash Golden at halftime at Oakland Coliseum for Cal-UCLA showdown. He wears his signature gold jacket and blue and gold tie. To his right is color man George Skofis. To his left, standing, is Larry Heavey, baritone sax player with the UC Jazz Ensembles.

DE: Not to digress, but did you ever meet any of those folks?

LG: Yeah. When I was at Berkeley, well before studying with Del, I was performing stand-up and I would mail every week or so a couple pages of jokes and scenes to the cast. That was the cast with Belushi and Radner. I didn't even know if it would get to them. Well, one Saturday night I get this call from New York. It was the cast!
DE: You're kidding!
LG: No, they wanted to talk to this guy who was sending them the jokes.
DE: You spoke to them on the phone.
LG: Can you imagine? I spent most of the time with two of the writers, Alan Zweibel and Marilyn Suzanne Miller, both Jews of course, but I remember talking briefly to all of them. Laraine Newman, Belushi, Ackroyd, Gilda. It was like visiting an extraterrestrial zoo, these characters.
DE: What about during your workshop?
LG: There was this famous time John Belushi actually dropped by. We were doing the three through the door exercise. Remember I mentioned about sudden character shifts?
DE: That real people do, but actors don't?
LG: You're a good student, Deborah. Right. In this exercise you enter a room ultra-high status, and suddenly realize you're in the wrong room and are not the supremely dominant figure but the grossly subordinate one. Big status shift.
DE: For example.
LG: The college football coach comes into the room and starts screaming swear words at his players, but then he realizes he's entered the wrong room and it's the board of trustees.
DE: Ouch. And Belushi was in the class that day?
LG: Well, we had done the exercise. A bunch of the students. Then Del showed how to do it and of course he was brilliant. Belushi walks in. Del asks him to do it. And I'll never forgot it.
DE: He was good?
LG: He did the first two blustery entrances and sheepish exits. You can imagine Belushi doing that, right? But the third time, he swung the door at the back of the Second City stage open and then when he saw he was in the wrong room just let the door swing close on him. He didn't speak a word. It was utter “Twilight Zone.” The forces were overwhelming and he was mortally defeated.
DE: Great.
LG: At that point Del said something to the effect, “Now you see why I'm here directing and John is the biggest comedy star in the world.”
DE: When do we get to the skull?
LG: Fast forward to 1999. Del dies.
DE: That was quick.
LG: He had always abused substances and a woman by the name of Charna Halpern became his confidante, business partner, and friend. We all owe Charna thanks for extending Del's life. He had been a heavy smoker and died of emphysema. At the last days, I tried to arrange a lung transplant, but it didn't go anywhere. Charna nixed even the concept. I would guess Del didn't want it. He famously said, “If I had known I would have lived this long I would have taken better care of my body.” I guess he was resigned to it. He was 65. In 1999.
DE: You had been in contact?
LG: Spiritually. But I was teaching at UIC and I was a full-time actor. Thanks to what Del had taught me. I always used his techniques. The ones I was going to write about in the book. My brother actually lived around the corner from him and he'd see him more frequently than me.
DE: What happened to the book?
LG: I queried publishers and actually got three offers. Schirmer Books in New York, McFarlane Books in North Carolina, and Bantam-Doubleday.
DE: Congratulations!
LG: Premature. I chose Bantam because they were putting together a series of books on theatre, stagecraft, directing, mine was supposed to be the acting book, and one or two others. They sent me tons of books as references. They viewed it as a book on creativity as much as acting, hence the title.
DE: And.
LG: My teaching and my acting didn't allow me to finish it. So I had to return the advance.
DE: They sent you an advance?
LG: Today with inflation it would be about $20,000. A nice little advance for a first-time author. My agent now is one of the editors that I had worked with there. They told me that many contracts with professors have to be terminated because of lack of time.
DE: Was Del disappointed?
LG: I don't know. But he later wrote a book with Charna and essentially a re-write editor, but it's very superficial. He didn't want to wait on me. For example, they mention the rule of three and dismiss it as magical. I go on for about two pages about the electromagnetism and neurophysiology behind it.
DE: One personal question.
LG: Watch your hands, Deborah.
DE: Okay. In 1996, June Edvenson, your running mate as a Republican for State Rep, called you one of the two most intelligent people she had met while in Chicago.
LG: She's pretty smart herself. She's in MENSA.
DE: Are you?
LG: I've never taken the test, but I've scored in the top 1% of every aptitude test I've ever taken so I qualify. I've spoken to MENSA about the possible shapes of extraterrestrial life.
DE: So what happened with June?
LG: We dated. But that was 1996 and I went away for three and a-half months to be a professor on Semester at Sea. Got paid to travel around the world, Deborah. Met a lot of great people. The supreme court justice from Madras invited me to his home for tea and cookies with him and his wife. I took a picture of him coddling a parrot doll. I threatened to expose him to the papers. “Chief Justice Mohan Photographed Fondling Parrot Doll.” It was a great laugh. The tea was great. They gave me a couple packages of it and I still have some. We stayed in touch after the cruise was over. He wanted to open up a chain of Dunkin' Donuts in India. I told him it wouldn't work. Stand in the heat and dust and drink hot coffee in India? I wish they would take better care of their dogs. I have horrible visions of a dog in the Agra train station while I was waiting for the train to the Taj Mahal. Horrible wounds on his back. And these two dogs, one limping badly, walking by the train tracks near the port.
DE: Sad.
LG: Everywhere animals are mistreated. The caged, emaciated animals in the roadside zoo in Vietnam en route to the Cucci Tunnels. The pack of dogs running by theSphinx. The dogs running around the Plaka. The young boys kicking dogs in the courtyard leading into the Temple of Karnak. Dogs waiting for handouts by the Nile. I got into the habit of bringing rolls with me from the ship to feed the dogs. At one temple, I gave a roll to one dog. His companion just laid down staring at him eating. Even at the Taj itself. To the left and right of the Taj are two large temples. There are homeless people there. I took a photo of a dog, looked like he was in a concentration camp he was so thin. You had to get to Israel before you can find some humanity and concern for dogs. Finally, back to civilization.
DE: Very sad.

Professor Leslie M. Golden lectures in 2005 on how the East Indian Ocean tsunami-generating earthquake led to a shortening of the length of the day.

LG: But the judge was a man in front of which the people literally cower. I saw it.

DE: June?
LG: When I got back, she wasn't waiting at the dock. She later married a Norwegian fellow and moved to Norway. I think it's night there right now. In fact, it's always night there. Just watch your fjords, fellow.

Close's Skull

DE: Back to the skull.
LG: So, Del dies. There's a get-together memorial service at Second City in his honor and of course I go. Funny speeches kind of thing. Tim Kazurinsky gives the great joke, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Del.”
DE: Of course the line from Hamlet is, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.”
LG: Right. You'd be good on stage, Deborah.
DE: Checking my time availability right now.
LG: So at Second City I talked to the guy who used to be his roommate.
DE: His name?
LG: I don't know if I should tell his name. He's a lawyer.
DE: Understood.
LG: Now, this guy, let's call him Bad Gums, like Deep Throat?
DE: Good one.
LG: Bad Gums had been Del's roommate during I think the 1970's. He had been going to law school in Chicago and was paying the rent by being a forensic pathologist.
DE: Interesting.
LG: He had a choice of throwing beef at McDonald's or cutting up corpses, I guess.
DE: I guess he preferred the fresher meat.
LG: Funny. I should be careful. I've got about 2000 shares of their stock.
DE: You said “funny.” But you didn't laugh. Comics don't laugh?
LG: Not usually. Unless you're in the audience supporting another comic. If it's funny, we just say so.
DE: So Del's roommate was a forensic pathologist
LG: Right. He used to come to our workshop so I got to know him. Now most people by now knew that Del wanted his skull to be donated to the Goodman Theatre to be used as the skull of Yorick in productions of Hamlet. Bad Gums told me that Charna had called him in Hawaii and asked him, as a member of the insider group and Del's former roommate, to do the procedure. Bad Gums flew in from Hawaii to do it, for free of course. That was another consideration, I assume.
DE: Flew in, blades and all, I presume.
LG: Who knows? Pre 9-11. But in the meantime Charna is contacted by the state or some law enforcement agency or found out somehow, that it was illegal and she'd be prosecuted.
DE: And how did you find out?
LG: Deep Throat, I mean, Bad Gums, told me this at the Second City memorial service. So the skull, Del's skull, was cremated with the rest of his body. I learned all this from him at the service.
DE: What about the skull?
LG: I don't know first hand, but I've read that the skull Charna presented was a mail-order skull. I never saw it, but Bad Gums did. He told me it didn't have Del's separated front teeth and the patina was obviously ancient, not a fresh skull.
DE: No one questioned it?
LG: Well, I don't know if anyone at the Goodman did. But pretty much everyone knew it was a hoax. I once called Sheldon Patinkin about it. He said, and I think most agreed with the sentiment, that sometimes fiction serves a better purpose than truth, words to that effect. Among other things, having Yorick played by Del Close would help the box office. And it kept Del alive, so to speak. Del has an after life. I think Sheldon may actually have seen the skull.
DE: And thus our story ends.

The Hoax Revealed

LG: Not quite. I read this article by Robert K. Elder in the Chicago Tribune. It was about six or so strange and eerie things about Chicago. I think it was on page 3. And now I'm getting upset. Not only were Del's wishes disregarded, ignored, but now it's out there, beyond the Chicago theatre community.
DE: So you used the Tribune for kitty litter?
LG: I called Elder at the Tribune.
DE: You called Elder?
LG: I explained the situation. He did the research and made the phone calls to confirm what I had told him and exposed to the world what we all knew.
DE: That it was a hoax?
LG: Yes. Initially, Charna denied it, but ultimately I guess because everyone knew it she had to confess. She didn't do it to Elder, but apparently to the New York Times or .....New Yorker.

Books In Progress

Principal actor for Alka Seltzer national campaign. This photo appeared in every National Basketball Association program for every team during its season.

DE: What about your improv book, Les?
LG: Well I've been working on it off and on now for the past few years. But I have a contract to write an astronomy textbook and we're finishing that up now for 2012 publication. “Laboratory Experiments in Physics for Modern Astronomy.”
DE: Sounds interesting.
LG: I'll tell you something, Deborah. If you really want to learn a subject well, lecture on it or write a book about it. Nothing like students with a puzzling look on their face to make you realize you don't know what you're talking about. Then I'm finishing up a screenplay about Edward O. Thorp, the mathematician who wrote Beat the Dealer, the famous blackjack book. It's very funny, but truthful to his history. A guy by the name of Julian Braun has a pivotal part in it.
DE: Julian Braun?
LG: He was the Jewish guy from Chicago who worked at IBM and as a programmer had access to the IBM computers and he provided the calculations that Thorp published. He's buried in Waldheim Jewish Cemetery in Forest Park. Another pivotal mathematical Jewish figure, Harvey Dubner, has a smaller role. And courting his real-life wife Vivian provides the love interest. Thorp, by the way, like Braun, is from Chicago. Braun spent most of his life here except for college. Thorp's family moved to Southern California when he was young.
DE: A funny screenplay about a gambling revolution.
LG: And sexy. Lot of romantic scenes.
DE: Starring?
LG: You? With, say, Kim Novak?
DE: I'll ask the wife.
LG: And I'm putting together about 100 of the gambling columns I've been writing for the last number of years for a book on card counting. That should just be an editing chore. It shouldn't take too long. Then I'm going to finish the improv book.
DE: Are there a lot of card counters in the casinos?
LG: I think the number is grossly underestimated. I wrote in one of my columns, as fictitious mobster Vito Angelini, that “da only famous counters are da ex-counters.” I was told that somebody picked it up and said it in a movie, I think, but it's true. If you get caught, you're an ex-counter. But the game today is to avoid being detected.
DE: Those are quite a list of chores, Dr. Golden.
LG: Well, I guess. But they're all pretty close to completion. I've also transcribed the recipes from the West Suburban Temple sisterhood of 1951 from my mom's (a-la sholom) card file. The women contributed their favorite recipes, many those of their mothers from Europe. I'm including my favorite Jewish jokes, a history of Chicago Jewry, and definitions of a couple hundred Yiddish words and phrases. I'm calling it “Your Great-Grandmother's Old Country Jewish Cookbook.”
DE: With jokes.
LG: Yeah. The subtitle is “to keep you schvitzing in the kitchen while he's kvetching in the kitchen.”
DE: When will that be done?
LG: It's pretty much done.
DE: Quite the Renaissance man, Les. Astronomy text, acting book, gambling book, cookbook, screenplay. All published within a couple years.
LG: Thanks. Keeps the mind active. One of my pet peeves is actors who think they can ignore the analytical mode of the brain. Deborah, they're literally wasting one-half of their brain power.
DE: After the cookbook?
LG: Well, hopefully those works will give me what they call in publishing a “platform.” I really want to get my humor book published.
DE: I'd like to see that.
LG: It's a compilation of some of my political cartoons, jokes, stand-up routines, essays, word puzzles, math puzzles, astronomy and physics essays, a couple gambling articles, environmental and animal welfare articles, humorous letters to the editor, some articles about the General Assembly passing new election law to specifically and, if I may add, unconstitutionally keep “Cut the Taxes” off the ballot, and fake interviews with telemarketers, to get them to never want to call you again. Those are in the section called “Revenge of the Telemarketing Victims.” My good friend Evan Jacobsen, Elsie's son, read some of them and said it's the funniest thing he's ever read. And he's a tough critic.
DE: So it's a hodgepodge.
LG: My agent refers to it as a computer dump of my brain.
DE: What's the whole book called?
LG: “The Non-Linear Mind of Professor Les Golden.” I include a one-act play about Del's skull written in Mickey Spillane-Raymond Chandler style that I entitled “The Skull Caper,” an essay on the physics of football hang time, and the saga of Leonard Running Bear and Balmer Lions, my slate spoof for the high school election a few years ago. Talk about having fun writing.
DE: I want it.
LG: Only my UIC physics colleagues living in Oak Park would have understood that “Balmer Lions” was a play on words on the “Balmer lines” of the hydrogen atom. It was sort of a hidden message to them that I was the perpetrator.
DE: Sounds entertaining.
LG: Thanks, Deborah. It's funny, and in fact the first line of Del's autobiography he gave me refers to a line from Chandler's “The Little Sister.”
DE: You performed in that play at Village Players' didn't you?
LG: Good memory. Yes. With my good friend B.F. Helman in the lead. Our director was Ray Andrecheck, with whom I had worked in “Taming of the Shrew” at Festival Theatre. He had trouble finding a lead for the detective and I suggested B.F. B.F.and I had played on the Emilia Lorence Talent Agency team in the 1980's. Most people don't know she was Jewish, too, as is Harrise Davidson, another major talent agent in town of that era. She's married to Jos, who was graduated from Oak Park High in 1960.

Baseball And Influences

DE: Oi vey. Baseball?
LG: Oh yeah. Like all the other kids, I wanted to be a baseball player. You know I led the Oak Park little league hitting .573? At Cornell I played third for my TEP fraternity team in intramurals when I failed to make the Cornell baseball team, but the team I put together for intramurals my fifth year was the “Golden Rods” and my team for the summer fast pitch leagues at Berkeley was the famed “Foul Balls.”
DE: Graphic.

Members of the University of California Jazz Ensembles in a publicity photo prior to a performance at the Oakland Museum. From top, Gary Maas, drummer, now an optometrist, Les Golden, trumpet, vocalist, and announcer, and Larry Heavey, baritone sax, now a radiologist.

LG: The best team name was this other team, though, the “Master Batters.”

DE: Ah, Berkeley.
LG: My older cousin Sherwin Shapiro used to call my brother and me foul balls. He also named the side lawn next to our house “Golden Gardens” and we used to play pee gee ball with those little plastic golf balls. We put up badminton fences for the outfield fences, lined the foul lines with flour, kept records, and our little girl friends would come and watch. We were the first of the clan to move to the suburbs.
DE: Times were simpler then.
LG: Yeah. Just think. We didn't even have uniforms and nobody got trophies. In any case, B.F. did a great job in “The Little Sister.” We had fun.
DE: What was the line in Del's autobiography then from “The Little Sister”?
LG: Right. “Never trust anyone from Manhattan, Kansas.” That's a good writer. Great catch line. Here's the copy.
DE: I'll print it.
LG: Great. It's Del's own writing. Like to hear from any graphologists.
DE: You believe in that?
LG: No, it's like astrology. A pseudo-religion. Although I met a palmist who was a physician and she taught me some interesting stuff. I have a perfect “M” in my palm for those who know what that means. Actually all religion is pseudo. Guiding your life by mythology.
DE: You don't practice?
LG: Deborah, religion is valuable as a guide to moral and ethical behavior and to preserve history. But I've had some very personal experience with some who are regular churchgoers and would stab you in the back. It's okay to do anything to your fellow man as long as you put cash in the tray. And I've had some experiences with others who violated that commandment against “bearing false witness against thy neighbor.” They should fervently hope that there's no G-d or else they're in for a long hot eternity.

The Search For ET

DE: And how did you become such an ardent environmentalist and animal welfare advocate?
LG: I'm a planetary astronomer. You become very quickly aware of the fragility of the earth.
DE: Our big blue sphere.
LG: Not so blue anymore with plastic-filled garbage dumps the size of Texas in the oceans and the destruction of the oceans and rain forests. Earth will only be habitable for all species when it is no longer inhabited by man.
DE: That's a good quote.
LG: That was nice, wasn't it? This global warming thing. It's such simple physics. We all know that warm air can hold more moisture than cool air. But that's the source of the energy that is creating the storm of the century every month.
DE: I'm just a writer.
LG: Okay. You know when you boil water it evaporates. Well, the same amount of energy is released when moisture condenses. So when the massively increased amount of moisture in warm air resulting from global warming condenses you get a massively increased release of energy and that energy drives cyclones, whether they're called monsoons, hurricanes, typhoons, or hurricanes.
DE: Global warming means there's more moisture in the air to condense and release energy.
LG: Exactamundo.
DE: What about life on other planets?
LG: We'll never, ever make contact.
DE: That's a blanket statement.
LG: It's a hoax that astronomers propagate so we can get funding to build nice telescopes. Most of the telescope time is used doing real astronomical research. But the carrot is to listen for signals.
DE: With billions of stars there has got to be plenty of planets with life.
LG: Without a doubt. The galaxy is teeming with life, after all the first cells formed on earth almost immediately after the molten earth cooled. But not with the life with which we can ever communicate.
DE: Why not?
LG: First, more than 90% of the stars are too cool to provide the energy to drive the reactions. Second, you need active vulcanism to allow the dissolved oxygen and water in the magma to escape into the atmosphere and in geologic time scales planets cool and the magma stops flowing. Our oxygen and water continually, but slowly, is lost to interplanetary space when it finds itself at the top of the atmosphere and gets dissociates into individual atoms, especially the hydrogen. This problem is far more severe for less massive planets that are closer to their parent sun. And you also need vulcanism to create the magnetic field to shield your lifeforms from solar winds and cosmic rays. Third, you have to be looking at a particular star of the right type at the time that intelligent, communicative life exists. The illustration I give is a football field full of flashlights that blip on for a second and otherwise are dark. You have to be looking at the flashlight at exactly the moment it's on. And of course you have to be listening at the right frequency.
DE: Radio waves?
LG: Radio waves are a good choice. Charles Townes, who was a member of my thesis committee, suggested optical lasers.
DE: So, you have no hope.
LG: I don't think any serious astronomer really believes we'll ever receive intelligent signals. It's an intellectual sort of hoax, to get lecture gigs and funding. Some very close friends of mine have made a living out of it. Like Jim Tobin, my good friend at the National Taxpayers United of Illinois makes a living out of getting people to hope he'll lower taxes, so some astronomers make a living out of making people feel we'll make contact with extraterrestrials. But it's a better way of spending your life on earth than the Kafka-like shuffling of papers from right to left which is what millions of government bureaucrats do. He was Jewish, too, you know.

On Being Lucky

DE: Talking about hoaxes, then, Les, how did it feel studying with Del Close?
LG: Deborah, I've been very lucky to have had the chance to study with some of the absolutely pre-eminent people in their fields. Del for acting. The greatest trumpet player to have ever lived, Bud, who lives in Oak Park.
DE: Herseth?
LG: Like Del used improv to teach acting, Herseth used trumpet lessons to teach you how to be a musician.
DE: What do you mean?
LG: He taught you what it means to make music rather than just playing notes.
DE: How good of a player are you?
LG: I'm okay. I was a soloist with the Cornell band. But I'm only okay. My brother, now, when he got out of Harvard law school and moved back here Buddy Rich wanted him to go on the road with him.
DE: Wow.
LG: I know. Harold Little our orchestra director at Oak Park High described Bruce as having a cast-iron lip. He could hit double-C. But Bruce had to study for the bar exam.
DE: Any other folks you were lucky enough to study under?

Logo for Les Golden's popular "Count on Les" columns for print magazine

LG: Jerry Cimera, the trombone soloist with the Sousa band. Frank Drake of the Drake Equation was my professor at Cornell. He's also from Chicago and studied engineering physics at Cornell like me. I had always liked astronomy but his two-semester class in radio astronomy was what made it my profession. He is very distinguished and very distinguished looking. He used to come to class in a suit and would stride to the blackboard and in the upper left-hand corner he would write on the blackboard four or five references in the literature that dealt with the lecture he was going to give, without saying a word. And he'd throw out suggested thesis subjects during his lectures. Always perfectly prepared for his classes.

DE: Very inspiring.

Featured column on Les Golden in Chicago Tribune.

LG: I'll never forget the day the Ranger spacecraft encountered the moon and the signals were lost immediately. Everyone thought that it was a catastrophic collision, which it turned out to be, but Drake showed us how to think when he suggested that it might have just gotten buried in a dust layer many meters thick. He just carried respect with him and showed that astronomy is a field to be respected and that astronomers should be respected. Because of him, I've never given a lecture without wearing a tie. So many of his students reached prominence. Then, my thesis advisor at Berkeley is the only chaired professor in extraterrestrial life in the world, W.J. Welch, and was the guy to discover the existence of complex molecules in interstellar space, sparking this serious search for extraterrestrial life. I'm even lucky enough to communicate with Ed Thorp, a prodigious mathematical talent.

DE: And Del?
LG: As far as Del, the other kids would come to his workshops with false hopes of his getting them into the main stage cast at Second City and were awed and intimidated by him. I viewed him as a great talent and a great teacher that I was lucky to meet. I wasn't at all intimidated. I've had intimidating professors, although maybe not in his class. And although I visited him in his apartment I never felt that I had to indulge and never did indulge, if you get my drift, to curry his favors like so many of the other actors. Deborah, if I haven't excelled in any field I certainly have been lucky to have had the chance to learn from the best and I have no excuses. I've had all the opportunities in the world. Except maybe June not meeting me at the dock.


"The only famous counters are the ex-counters."

Published Books

  • Basic Composer: An Analysis of Music Notation Software, Music Education Incentives Publishers (1988)
  • Astronomy 101, UIC Press (1994)
  • A Field Guide for Political Activists: How to Generate Support and Turn Out Your Voters, Lee Brooke (2008)
  • Laboratory Experiments in Physics for Modern Astronomy, Springer Science+Business (2011)

Selected Theatrical, Film, Radio, Television, and Commercial Credits

Title Director Role Co-stars
Kronenbourgh Beer Josef Sedelmaier Murray Bruce Jarchow
Tony’s Pizza Josef Sedelmaier Vito
Chicago Tribune Jim Wotring Jo-jo Marji Bank
K-Mart Jim Wotring Lester Tim Gamble
Eagle Foods Gerald Hagner Les Ken Anderson (athlete)
Motorola Cellular Ed Italo Miller Lee Trevino (athlete)
Buick Jim Parish Cal Don Majowski (athlete)
True Value Hardware Jim Lynch Professor Astroray (one-person show)
Cognex Stewart Talent Timothy McCoy Paula Scrofano
Illinois State Lottery Jeff Jones Big Brother
Heinz Ketchup Bob Shallcross Les Golden (stand-up comedian as himself)
Bubble Up Stan Cottle Murray Charlotte Ross
The Len Petrulis Show Len Petrulis Phillipe Maurice, Parisian fashion designer Kajon Mueller
Freeman Shoes Loren Ostir Wally Tucker
Thrift Drugs Clay Covert Mr. Eisen (one-person show)
Madison Gas and Electric Bob Wendt Bob (one-person show)
Ohio Edison Ken Ancell Mr. Heater (one-person show)
American Family Insurance John Alexson Mark Rick Plastina
Outtakes Jack Sell Harvey Knox Broderick Crawford
The Nightmare Trial of Billy Barnes Gerald Rogers Edward Keppel
The Roommate Nell Cox Mr. Chipbeef Barry Miller, Lance Guest
Welcome Home, Bobby Herbert Wise Coach Lazare Adam Baldwin
How I Became A Holy Mother Arnold Aprill Master Patti Shaughnessy
Taming of the Shrew Dale Calandra Gremio Ned Mochel, Susan Hart, and others
YMCA Jerold Haislmaier Michael Marks
Ten Little Indians Faith Dukor-Chaplick Dr. Armstrong June Atkinson, Russ Cady
Stage Struck James Carter Herman Jim Mullen
The Odd Couple Faith Baime Vinnie
What the Wine Sellers Buy Wanda Getsug George Lucy Evans
The Little Sister Ray Andrecheck Toad B.F. Helman
Taming of the Shrew David Darlow Vincentio Robert Petkoff, David Darlow, Kristine Thatcher, Greg Vinkler, Michael Halberstam, and others
The Inspector General Knowles Cooke Bobchinsky Stephen Straight, Barbara Tucker
Eddie Hubbard Show Live from Arnie’s Eddie Hubbard Jeffrey Clayton Maxwell Robert Goulet, and others
Unshackled! Jack O’Dell Richard Goldstein (and others) Judith Easton, David Mink, and others
Deadly Spygames Jack Sell General Vladimir Korchenko Tippi Hedren, Troy Donahue
Lady Blue Gary Nelson Davey Carlton Danny Aiello, Jamie Rose, Ron Dean

Background of Les Golden

Leslie Morris Golden (Eliezer Moshe ben Reuven Motl y Chanah Kaileh, Lazar Masche) was born in Chicago, an identical twin,[1][2][3] the son of Anne K. (née Eisenberg; March 7, 1909 – November 19, 1999), a legal stenographer and homemaker, and Irving R. Golden (March 15, 1907 – June 22, 2005), an attorney and co-owner with his father Max Goldstein, an immigrant finish carpenter from Belarus, Russia, of a store fixture and bar manufacturing firm,[4] and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, where he attended Horace Mann grammar school and Oak Park-River Forest High School.

He holds the B.A. (with Distinction) and Masters of Engineering Physics from Cornell University, where he was both a Cornell McMullen Scholar and a Fellow of the Interfoundation Committee of the American Institute for Economic Research (Great Barrington, Mass.), and received the M.A. and Ph.D in astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley,[5][6] under Professor William J. “Jack” Welch,[7] the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair emeritus in Extraterrestrial Intelligence. At Cornell, he was the award-winning feature editor and then editor-in-chief of the Cornell Engineer magazine and a member of the Engineering Student Council. Some of his early research in astronomy appeared in a book by Stephen Hawking.[8] He performed research at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as a National Research Council Resident Research Associate[9] and the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California. He is the director of the Near Earth Asteroid Reconnaissance Project (N.E.A.R.),[10] which he founded as a University of Illinois at Chicago professor in 1994. He has been elected to both Phi Beta Kappa (arts and sciences) and Tau Beta Pi (engineering) as well as Pi Delta Epsilon (journalism).


  1. His parents are Irving R. (b. 1907) and Anne K. Golden (b. 1909; maiden name, Eisenberg). Anne had twin brothers, Irving and Sam (b. 1905), and twin uncles on her mother’s side, Michel and Kivah Gerstein (b.1876), making the Golden twins the third successive generation of male twins on the maternal side. The birth of the Golden twins was one of a record number of twin births at Wesley Memorial Hospital, a part of Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, in early December.
  2. (1943), “Twins Tend Record Twin Crop,” Chicago Herald-American, December 4, p. II-3
  3. Petlicki, Myrna (1997), “Golden memories,” Oak Leaves (Oak Park, Illinois), July 2, p. B3-6
  4. Kogan, Rick (2005), “Lawyer also designed, built bars,” Chicago Tribune, July 24, p. IV-7
  6., page 90
  8. (1979) Hawking, S. W. & Israel, W. General relativity: an Einstein centenary survey. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22285-0. “A much cited centennial survey”;
  10. , page 22