January 7, 2007

2006: The Year in Death

About 10 years ago now, I think it was, I started pulling together an annual list of dead celebrities to run in one publication or another every January. A lot of places do this sort of thing, from Time to Entertainment Weekly to CNN to the network news. The difference is, those places always focus on the Big Names—the Sinatras and Ronald Reagans—while I try to give a final tip of the hat to those people who, though not as well known, still contributed something invaluable to the culture.

     So when you see those other places flashing pictures of Lou Rawls, Shelly Winters, James Brown, Coretta Scott King, and Cap Weinberger, please keep in mind that they’re only scratching the surface. It was, after all, a record-setting year dead celebrity-wise. And so, with deepest respects, I would like to offer a final farewell to a few people who should be remembered.

     The music world seems to be hit hard every year by that ol’ Grim Reaper, and this year was no exception. We lost big band singer Martha Tilton; Shocking Blue vocalist Mariska Veres; legendary Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun; Fred Marsden, the drummer for Gerry & Pacemakers; and Denis Payton, sax player for The Dave Clark 5. Jazz guitarist Bill DeArango is gone, as is Brian Harvey, the House of Freaks frontman who had his throat slit. Alex St. Clair, amazing Beefheart guitarist, and Wilson Pickett died this year, together with Henry and William Cowsill—not to mention Janette Carter, the last surviving Carter Family child.

     Buddy Blue of the Beat Farmers, R&B singer King Floyd and Gene Pitney died. Not only did the remarkable Buck Owens die—so did his wife, Bonnie, a month later.

     Keep your jokes to yourself—the Grateful Dead lost keyboardist Vince Weinstock and legendary roadie Ramrod Shurtliff. Molly Hatchett guitarist Duane Roland has left the building, together with the Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan, Johnny & the Hurricanes’ frontman Johnny Paris, Milan Williams of The Commodores, and the legendary Arthur Lee. Sun recording artist Gene Simmons, Etta James, Freddie Fender, and Buck Page, who sang with Riders of the Purple Sage, are all gone. Runaways drummer Sandy West lost her battle with cancer and R&B singer Ruth Brown, whose career was revived after appearing in Hairspray, both passed away. Li’l Wally the Polka King is dead; as is master dulcimer player David Schnaufer. I may be most saddened, however, by the loss of Danny Flores, who played sax and provided the vocals for the classic, “Tequila.”

     The world opera was struck too, with the loss of Anna Moffo and Lorrain Hunt Lieberson—together with the greatest Wagnerian soprano of all time, Birgit Nilsson, and Wagner parodist Anna Russell (whose act was only funny if you were an opera buff).

     No branch of the entertainment industry was hit harder than movies and television. Gone are Raul Davila (The Believers); George Walsh (the announcer on Gunsmoke); Anne Meacham (Seeds of Evil); Leonard South (Hitchcock’s cameraman); Don Stewart (Rocketship XM’s special effects whiz); Chris Penn (Reservoir Dogs);  Moira Shearer (Peeping Tom); Sonny King (Jimmy Durante’s sidekick); Franklin Cover (the interracial husband on The Jeffersons); Harry Hunter (Kids); Richard Bright (who played Al Neri in The Godfather); the incomparable Don Knotts; and the equally incomparable Dennis Weaver, who gave the performance of a lifetime in Touch of Evil.

     Speaking of Orson Welles, Gary Graver, who was Welles’ assistant director for many years before moving on to porn, died as well.

     Sadly, hipster favorite H.R. Puffnstuf lost both the abrasive Jack Wild and Lennie Weinrib, who was the voice of Ludicrous Lion.

     Directors Gordon Parks (Shaft), Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green), Britt Lomond (Zorro), Vilgot Sjoman (I Am Curious Yellow), Remy Balvaux (Man Bites Dog), Gillo Pontecorvo (Burn!), and Perry Henzell (The Harder They Come) all passed away.

     Actors? Don’t get me started. Along with those listed above, the amazing Maureen Stapleton—whom I loved in everything from Lonelyhearts to Reds—passed on. So did Henderson Forsythe (Deathdream), ‘40s Western star John Kimbrough, Tom Corbett Space Cadet’s Frankie Thomas, Paul Gleason (the principal in The Breakfast Club), Robert Sterling (star of the Topper TV series), Bernard Hughes (Da), Kasey Rogers (Strangers on a Train), Red Buttons, Jack Warden, the always-enchanting Mako, Candice Rialson (Candy Stripe Nurses), Robert Earl Jones, (Maniac Cop 2), Sven Nykvist (Cries & Whispers), Edward Albert (Midway), Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), Gene Janson (The Blues Brothers), Phyllis Kirk (House of Wax), Nelson De La Rosa (he was a midget!), Arthur Hill (Andromeda Strain), Bettye Jaffe (Ben Casey), Jeremy Slate (Billy Jack), Truffaut regular Claude Jade, and Leon Niemczyk (Knife in the Water).


     But they aren’t the only people involved in making movies. The man who wrote the music for Bridge on the River Kwai, Malcolm Arnold, is no longer with us. Neither is Oscar-winning set designer Gretchen Rau. And then there are the screenwriters—Lee Presson Allen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brody), Henry Farrell (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), Ted Berkman (Bedtime for Bonzo), and the brilliant Joseph Stephano—who will forever be remembered for his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—are all pushing up daisies.

     Speaking of writers, we lost that depressive William Styron, who was among the most renowned of America’s post-war novelists, and Fredrick Busch, who was not. Interestingly, we also lost three writers who wrote pretty awful books that were later turned into great films: Peter Benchley (Jaws), Morton Freedgood (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), and Robert Scott (God is My Co-Pilot).

     Then there are those people who don’t fit so easily into some of the larger categories—like lion tamer and circus owner Arlette Gruss and wax museum impresario Spoony Singh. Also passing this year were Jim Gary, an artist who sculpted in auto parts; tap dancer Fayard Nicholas; Paik Nam-June, who created video art; Allan Kaprowi, who envisioned “the Happening;” and Arthur Widmer, who invented blue screen technology. There was also ventriloquist Rickie Layne and—almost as creepy—wacky hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski.

     Roller derby queen Ann Calvello took her last lap, and famed lady wrestler Kay Noble went down for that final pin.

     George Lutz, who later admitted that he made up the stories about what went on in his Amityville home, yet still turned it into a 9-film franchise, is doing some haunting of his own these days.

     The last of Howdy-Doody’s Clarabelles, Lew Anderson, tooted his final horn,

     Jack MacPherson, the radical surfer who inspired Tom Wolfe’s The Pump House Gang, is dead, as is famed animal trainer Captain Haggerty. Eddie (the dog on Frasier), and Robert K. Hoffman, who founded National Lampoon magazine, both kicked the bucket.

     Legendary outlaw publisher Lyle Stuart died, as did Fausto Vitello, whose magazine Thrasher defined the skate punk movement. And, sadly, Ian Copeland, who ran I.R.S. records and helped make New Wave mainstream, was promoted to glory.

     Even ice cream, if you can believe it, wasn’t spared from death’s icy grip, as we lost both Mr. Softee co-founder James Conway and Haagen-Dazs co-founder Rose Mattus!

     I don’t have the room or patience to cite all the interesting people who died this year—like Sid Raymond, who was the voice of Baby Huey—but before I start collecting names for next year, I would like to take a moment to remember a few people whose passing was particularly saddening. As happens every year, we lost a few celebrities whose work meant a great deal to me. So here’s a special double tip of the hat to Tommy Johnson, the tuba player who made the Jaws theme so memorable. What more can be said about Mickey Spillane, except that he’s been a huge influence on what I do (believe it or not)?

     God bless Peter Boyle, who will always be The Wizard and Joe to me, and Stanislaw Lem, who wrote like nobody else. I always admired the fact that he insisted he wasn’t writing science fiction, even though nobody paid any attention.

      Speaking of science fiction, the Quartermass movies and television series were a huge influence on me, and this year we lost not only Nigel Kneale, who created the series, but Val Guest, who directed the best of the films (as well as The Day the Earth Caught Fire—the best disaster movie ever made).

     Through his makeup and costume work, Van Smith helped make John Waters’ films what they were.

     Mickey Hargitay, Jack Palance, Bruno Kirby and Jan Murray were all actors beyond compare.

     Well, okay, so maybe they weren’t actors “beyond compare,” but I’d watch anything any of them appeared in.

     Sid Davis’ classroom films warped me beyond repair, for which I am grateful.

     Syd Barrett remains the only member of Pink Floyd who matters.

     Akira Ifukube—not only in his brilliant scores to the Godzilla films, but through his other orchestral work as well, proved himself to be among the giants of 20th century music.

     And then there’s the team of Dan Curtis and Darren McGavin, who gave us Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Yes, Curtis also gave us Trilogy of Terror and The Norliss Tapes, and McGavin gave us The Man With the Golden Arm, A Christmas Story, and Hangar 18, but it was Kolchak that changed my life and continues to inspire me to this day.

     I will miss all these irreplaceable people deeply, and can only offer my humble thanks for the things they have given us.


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