Feature

Have You Heard the One about the Comedian Who Laid Down on the Train Tracks?

For years Denver comic Don Becker battled mental illness, struggling with psychosis and paranoid delusions. Then one night the voices in his head offered him peace-but at a terrible price. One man's story of madness, humor, and unexpected redemption.

February 2005

He has no ticket, no suitcases, but Don Becker has baggage.

On a dark August night in 1986, the rumble of an approaching train vibrates through the rubber soles of his shoes. The tracks shudder, a whistle cuts the night, a white light grows larger.

For days now, he’s been hearing the voices—relentless, piercing, threatening. Their presence robs him of peace, crowds his thoughts, crushes his sense of reality. The voices aren’t new, but they are more insistent than they’ve ever been: “Sacrifice your arms…or you’re a dead man. Sacrifice your arms…you won’t have to die, and you won’t have to kill anyone.” Becker falls to his knees next to the track.

"What happened to my hand?!

Damn dog!"

Members of the audience shift in their seats and laugh uncomfortably. This is no joke—the comedian wears a prosthetic arm. It's a year or so after the incident that claimed one of Becker's arms. Someone wonders out loud if it's a prop. The audience in the Denver club has come to see the man they remember as young, bookish, and edgy, a guy who looked like the bespectacled Sherman from "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle." But tonight at Comedy Works, Don Becker is rough around the edges. Gone are the tie and short hair. In their place, a garish shirt, a tousle of stringy hair, and a hook at the end of his left arm. His wild appearance is meant to distract from the sinister-looking prosthetic, but instead it heightens the unsettling effect Becker has on his audience.

Many in the crowd had heard something about the comic's disfigurement. As a local story, the incident was a source of discomfort, shrouded in the mystery of conflicting stories: It was described as a suicide attempt, an injury from Vietnam, a drunken accident.

"Actually, I was feeling really fat," he tells the crowd. "I wanted to lose some weight, so I tried the Amtrak Weight-Loss Program."

The audience laughs with a little more certainty this time. The arm jokes diffuse tension. Becker hates telling them, hates drawing attention to his missing limb, but knows he has to address the curious stares before he can move on with his routine. As he changes the subject, perspiration runs into his eyes. The microphone is in his right hand. His reflex is to wipe his brow with his left, but he catches himself—yet another reminder that his hand is no longer there.

Twenty years ago, Becker, along with Roseanne Barr, was one of Denver's top comics and a favorite among local critics. Both stand-up comedians were favored to go far, but a battle with mental illness cost Becker his left arm and his promising career. Still, despite his profound psychosis and years of self-destructive behavior, Becker is a survivor. In recent years, he has fused personal experience, religion, humor, and tragedy into a series of offbeat plays and solo performances. Back on a Limb, for one, was an emotionally raw exploration of his illness. "Former Rocky Mountain News theater critic Jackie Campbell gave it a D," Becker says, "because she said it sounded like a madman yelling at the back of the bus. Jackie, that's what it is. Give it an A!"

Until Back on a Limb, Becker circulated a very different version of the story, in the vain hope of saving face. "He said he was drinking and he tripped and a train ran over him," says longtime friend Diane Jeffrey. Becker was so convincing in his tale that, to this day, some people still insist the comic was intoxicated, jumping trains, or seeking new material from homeless drunks in the Platte Valley. At the time, no one would have guessed he intentionally placed his arms on the train tracks.

The lies, in part, made Becker look like a sympathetic character. They were also an attempt to preserve his comedy career. A one-armed comedian ain't funny, says Becker. He cites a line from a psychology book he once read: "Evil is the feeling you get when you look at somebody with one arm."

It's comedy night in 1980 at the now-defunct Chicago Speakeasy on South Colorado Boulevard. Don Becker has convinced comedy-club owner George McKelvey to give him his first shot at stand-up. By the time he gets his chance, the audience is starting to dwindle. McKelvey wants to call it a night—Becker does not. He insists on having his turn, nervously taking his cue to the sound of polite applause. From center stage he looks out into the bright light and he freezes. For one horrible moment his mind is blank, emptied of the jokes that just moments earlier were ready to go. But as he pulls out his first line and hears the audience's laughter, he smiles, moving smoothly into his next bit:

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