January 6, 2008

Obituary Round-Up 2007


It’s hard to believe that Anna Nicole Smith only died last February. It feels like she’s been dead for years, doesn’t it?

            When the news programs and celebrity magazines trot out their annual year-end Dead Celebrity lists, it’s easy to guess what names you’ll be seeing—those people whose passing actually made the news. So this year be hearing once again about Vonnegut and Mailer, Pavarotti and Sills, Evel Knievel and Ingmar Bergman. And there’s no denying that all those people were very important.

            But it’s that predictability which prompted me, some ten years ago, to begin publishing my own list. You may have heard of some of these people; most you probably haven’t. But they all still contributed in some small or large part to that beast we call a “culture.” I certainly can’t fit all the names here—there are too many and I’m lazy—still, in an effort to keep these people from being forgotten, I would like to offer my thanks and a tip of the hat to the following people, whose deaths have left us all a little poorer.

            As ever, we lost quite a few luminaries from the movie and television industry. And while the newscasts will certainly be mentioning Joel Siegel, Joey Bishop, Tom Snyder, Merv Griffin, Jane Wyman, and perhaps even Lily Munster herself, Yvonne DeCarlo, we also lost voiceover artist James Andelin; Frank (“Captain Video”) Campanella; Scooby Doo creator Iwao Takamoto: film noir actor A. I. Bezzerides; the master of Italian exploitation movies Carlo Ponti; “Fritz the Cat” producer Steve Krantz; famed martial arts choreographer Bon Soo Han; soap opera star Darlene Conley; Barney Miller’s Ron Carey; John Waters favorite Liz Renay; The Mod Squad’s Tige Andrews; Solveig Dommartin from Wings of Desire; actress Barbara McNair; the great Ian Richardson; Charles Swartz, who produced many a drive-in classic; forties actress Janet Blair; B-movie actress, pin-up girl, and Marilyn Monroe confidante Jeanne Carmen; Andy Sidaris, producer of “boobs and guns” extravaganzas; enormous character actor Tab Thacker; the unforgettable Betty Hutton; soap star Lanna Saunders; Gareth Hunt from The Avengers: Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg; Freddie Francis, who directed several of Hammer Films’ most memorable pictures; the irreplaceable and confounding Calvert DeForest, better known as Larry “Bud” Melman; composer Herman Stein, who scored many of Universal’s best horror films; Highlander producer William Panzer; John P. Ryan—one of my all-time favorites—who starred in It’s Alive and other low-budget genre classics; director Bob Clark, who was versatile enough to give us Black Christmas, Porky’s and A Christmas Story; Reagan lookalike Jay Koch; director Burt Topper; Luigi Comencini, best known for directing Italian kids’ films; soap actor Edward Mallory; versatile character actor Calvin Lockhart; the Great Roscoe Lee Browne; the almost as great Barry Belson, who appeared in Airport, The Shining, and many other films; the always unpredictable Kitty Carlisle Hart; Rolling Thunder director John Flynn; long-time MPAA president Jack Valenti, who always annoyed me; Tonight Show bandleader and constant Carson foil, Tommy Newsom; comic actor Tom Poston, who raised “flat affect” to a whole new level; Little House on the Prairie producer Ed Friendly, as well as Little House actor Dabbs Greer; one time Tarzan Gordon Scott; Roy Jenson, who was in three films I love—The Getaway, Soylent Green and The Car; Curtis Harrington, director of some of the best made-for-TV films of all time; Night Court’s Nicholas Worth; screenwriter Bernard Gordon, who gave us Day of the Triffids; Gammera’s Eiji Funakoshi; Barbershop’s Carl Wright; incompetent but spunky Italian horror director Bruno Mattei; Will Schaefer, who wrote the themes to hundreds of TV shows; game show and Sid & Marty Krofft standby Charles Nelson Reilly; Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang; Japanese monster movie regular Jerry Ito; Kerwin Matthews, who’ll always be Sinbad to me; Charles Lane, who went from It’s a Wonderful Life to Petticoat Junction; famed cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs; Psycho II director Richard Franklin; German star Ulrich Muhe; Michel Serrault, from La Cage aux folles; the sometimes great Michelangelo Antonioni (who would have gotten more coverage had he not died a day after Bergman); Planet of the Apes makeup artist William Tuttle; Houseboat director Melville Shavelson; Match Game hottie Brett Somers; Disney special effects designer Peter Ellenshaw; Alice Ghostley, of Bewitched and so many other things; Karl Hardman, who produced Night of the Living Dead; another soap actor, Michael Evans; Miss Moneypenny to everybody’s James Bond, Lois Maxwell; Playhouse 90 producer Martin Manulis; drive-in auteur Charles B. Griffith; Law & Order star George Grizzard; Steve McQueen’s stunt double of choice, Bud Ekins; the wonderful Deborah Kerr; Marty director Delbert Mann;

Dick Wilson, an actor who deserved more than to be known as “Mr. Whipple” for eternity; Spaghetti Western director Ferdinando Baldi; Beyond the Valley of the Dolls star Michael Blodgett; Jeanne Bates, who played Mary’s mom in Eraserhead; British horror producer Tony Tenser; legendary agent Freddie Fields; Jillian Kessner, whose naked kung fu movies made her the woman of many an adolescent boy’s dreams; and Frank Capra, Jr., who wasn’t exactly his dad, but still did okay for himself.

            Of all the pop musicians who passed away this year, none touched me quite so deeply as Don Ho. I loved Don Ho. After the loss of Elvis, Roy Orbison, Sinatra and Johnny Cash, he was pretty much all we had left. And now with him gone, I may never learn what happened when he took his girl for that surfboard ride. We lost plenty more than Don Ho this year, of course. There was Robert Goulet, too—I liked him a bunch. The Springsteen Empire was dealt a blow with the loss of the E Street Band’s Bill Chinnock and Mr. Springsteen’s long-time personal aide, Terry Magovern. We also lost a couple of Sneaky guys, with the passing of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Mentors replacement bassist, Poppa “Sneaky” Spermshooter.

            The world of pop music also lost Denny Doherty of the Mamas & Papas; Social Distortion bassist Brent Liles; former Ramones manager Linda Stein, Joey’s mom, and CBGB founder Hilly Kristal all died, proving that the Ramones curse still lives; folk legend Eric von Schmidt; another ‘60s folk singer, Mark Spoelstra; The Spinners’ Billy Henderson; Joe Hunter of the Motown Funk Brothers; Sam Cooke’s one-time drummer Mike Clark; not only the man who wrote “Silver Bells,” Ray Evans, but also Carol Richards, who sang it; Al Viola, who played mandolin for Sinatra as well as on The Godfather soundtrack; Dylan’s drummer Ian Wallace; Boston’s lead singer Brad Delp; R&B singer Luther Ingram; one-time Kiss guitarist Mark St. John; the man who gave us “Monster Mash,” Bobby “Boris” Pickett; Janis Joplin’s keyboardist Richard Bell; flashy Irish lounge singer Joe Dolan; Hank Medress of The Tokens; George McCorkle from the Marshal Tucker Band; Hy Zaret, the man who wrote “Unchained Melody”; saxophonist Boots Randolph; The Drifters’ Bill Pinkney; the incredible Tommy Makem; Tony Wilson, the man who founded Factory Records and gave us Joy Division; Edie Brickell’s keyboardist Jeffery Carter Albrecht; Janis Martin, who was touted as “The Female Elvis”: the amazing Theresa Brewer; Killing Joke bassist Paul Raven; Quiet Riot’s lead singer Kevin Dubrow; that wife-beating coke head Ike Turner; and Dan Fogelberg, the bane of my early teens. I’m sorry, but I did not like his music at all.

            It’s usually inevitable that the list of country music deaths on any given year would run longer than your arm. This year the Reaper made surprisingly few visits to the Grand Ol’ Opry. Apart from Frankie Laine, Lee Hazelwood (I realize calling him “country” is pushing it a bit, but let it slide) and Porter Wagoner, we really only lost a handful—the great Del Reeves; Buckaroos bassist Doyle Holly; Buck Jones; bluegrass plucker Larry Fuller; and the legendary Hank Thompson.

            Like country, the world of jazz is usually hit pretty hard, too. But, again like country, it was a pretty light year, death-wise. There was Max Roach, of course. And Coltrane’s widow Alice (an accomplished pianist on her own) and his double-bassist, Art Davis. There was also trombonist Jimmy Cheatham; Jeanne Kane of the Kane Sisters Singers; extraordinary pianist Oscar Peterson; Belafonte’s drummer Bobby Rosengarden; clarinetist Tony Scott; Satchmo’s drummer Danny Barcelona; clarinetist Alvin Batiste; blues harpist Carey Bell; pianist Joe Duskin; British jazz singer George Melly; blues singer “Weepin“ Willie Robinson; and jazz violinist Johnny Frigo. Sure don’t hear about jazz violinists very often.

            In a strange twist, the number of wrestlers who died this year was far outstripped by the number of noted writers who died. Wrestling, believe it or not—and you might—is usually one of the busiest categories in any given year. But this year, along with the much publicized Chris Benoit nightmare, we lost Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow; Ernie Lass; Brian Adams (who wrestled under the name “Crush”); Peter Hume (who was also a sometime actor, appearing in Meatballs); and, sadly, the Fabulous Moolah, who scared the hell out of me when I was young.

            Meanwhile, as far as writers were concerned, along with the postwar giants Vonnegut, Mailer and William Styron, we also lost Art Buchwald; counterculture conspiracist Robert Anton Wilson; the always tawdry Sidney Sheldon; political columnist Molly Ivins; Das Boot author Lothar-Gunther Buchheim; famed historian Arthur Schlesinger; journalist David Halberstam; brilliant French cultural critic Jean Beaudrillard; Donald Hamilton, who created the Matt Helm series; mystery writer Magadelen Nabb; Boys From Brazil author Ira Levin, who had great ideas but was a miserable stylist; “New York intellectuals” Elizabeth Hardwick and Hollis Albert; and Aldous Huxley’s widow—an author in her own right—Laura Archera Huxley.

            Apart from the musicians, actors, wrestlers and authors, of course, there are also a number of other people of note who passed away this year—people who don’t fit easily into any other category—like mime Marcel Marceau and Momofuku Ando, who invented Ramen noodles.

            Watergate nasty, terrible author, and rumored JFK assassination conspirator E. Howard Hunt died this year, as did painter Dan Christensen; Robert Adler , who invented the TV remote; local NY newscaster Ralph Penza; former nutty presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton; wine maker Ernest Gallo; sometimes funny comedian Richard Jeni; Jimmy Lee Smith, the cop-killer who inspired The Onion Field; minimalist painter Sol LeWitt; always-hilarious Russian president Boris Yeltsin; the almost-as-funny Kurt Waldheim; astronaut Wally Schirra; Leonard Eron, the psychologist who claimed that television violence led to aggressive behavior; Jerry Falwell, the televangelist who inspired a million punk songs; Tammy Faye Messner, the televangelist’s wife who inspired a million late night jokes; Don “Mr. Wizard” Herbert; gossip columnist Claudia Cohen; fashion designers Gianfranco Ferre and Liz Claiborne; professional ne’er-do-well Count Gottfried von Bismarck; Lady Bird Johnson; suicidal tenor Jerry Hadley; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers choreographer Michael Kidd; notorious pornographer Jim Mitchell; famed psychologist Albert Ellis; Yankees legend Phil Rizzuto; ‘60s comic Stanley Handelman; bitch on wheels Leona Helmsley; hero schlub and falsely accused terrorist Richard Jewell; Werner von Trapp of the Trapp Family Singers; guru Sri Chinmoy; online amateur porn star Zoey Zane; and groundbreaking composer Stockhausen, whom I put right up there with Evel Knievel.

            It’s worth noting, too, that when you obsessively keep track of these things all year long, you can’t help but notice a few trends—and if there was one death trend this year (apart from post-war writers), it was cartoonists. Bad year for cartoonists. We lost B.C.’s Johnny Hart—as well as his partner on the Wizard of Id, Brant Parker; Archie’s Joe Edwards; Playboy cartoonist Philip (Buck) Brown; and Kudzu creator Doug Marlette.

            On a personal note, I know few people who haven’t been touched by death in some direct and personal way this year. Morgan and I both lost pets we loved dearly. I know at least five other people who also lost pets this year. We also lost a dear friend—painter, composer and bookstore owner Jennifer Bates. Other people I know lost family members and friends of their own. Point being, it was a pretty shitty year. Here’s hoping in this New Year that ol’ Reaper focuses his attention on those people who deserve it.


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