January 4, 2009

Dead Celebrity Round-Up, 2008


A few weeks ago, I received the following note from my friend Grinch. I’m not sure what prompted it:

            I just wanted to share with you my little secret for staying happy and cheerful through these grim winter months.

            I was noticing how every time I turned on the radio, or switched the idiot box to CNN, and they started a story with the words “sad news from Hollywood today,” my pulse quickened, my heart raced with the excitement of anticipation, and my face would beam.

            I’ve found that I don’t have to wait for a celebrity death to get this sweet sensation. Right now, just say “sad news from Hollywood today” out loud. Try not to smile.

            It’s true. And it’s that reflexive emotional response that keeps me going all year round.

            This year when mainstream media outlets trot out their annual dead celebrity round-ups, chances are good they’ll focus all of their attention on that forgettable loser, Heath Ledger, for some godforsaken reason. If they have any time left over, they might—might—find time to mention a few of the true giants (or at least recognizable figures) who’ve passed on this year, like Roy Scheider, the brilliant but suspicious Arthur C. Clarke, the Great Richard Widmark, the Great Charlton Heston, the Great George Carlin, director Sidney Pollack, composer Isaac Hayes (still a genius in spite of his crackpot religious beliefs), Paul Newman, and—if only because they died so recently—Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt.

            That’s why every year at this time I try to do my small part to remember a few others who’ve passed on over the course of the previous 12 months. Each and every one of these people contributed something to the culture. And each one of them, believe you me, was a hell of a lot more important than Heath Ledger, in spite of what you may have heard.

            In an unexpected twist this year, the world of professional wrestling got off easy, with the loss of only two wrestlers. Sadly, one of them was the legendary Killer Kowalski—the other a relative youngster named Chase Tatum.

            As ever, though, the music industry was dealt several mighty blows across the board, including:

            Ken Nelson, the country producer who invented the “Bakersfield Sound” and Larry Levine, the engineer who helped develop the “Wall of Sound” technique. We also lost Moog composer Mort Garson; Monkees’ songwriter John Stewart; tap dancing legend LaVaughn Robinson; French crooner Henri Salvador; remarkable Pere Ubu guitarist Jim Jones; Dave Clark Five vocalist Mike Smith; blind guitarist Jeff Healey (who was probably sick to death of being known as a “blind guitarist”); renowned tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano; Norman ‘Hurricane’ Smith, who produced the Beatles and Pink Floyd and sang “Babe, What Would You Say?”; ABBA drummer Ola Brunkert; mambo pioneer Israel “Cachao” Lopez; Apple Records executive Neil Aspinall; jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard; ‘80s R&B singer Sean Levert; Gene Puerling of The Hi-Los; The E Street Band’s Danny Frederici; Chris Gaffney of Dave Alvin’s band; Paul Davis, the soft rock sensation who had a hit with “I Go Crazy”; songwriter Delaney Bramlett, best known for penning Eric Clapton’s “Let it Rain”; bluesman Robert Ward; British trumpeter (and game show host) Humphrey Lyttleton; Jim Hager, one of the twin Hager Brothers, who were Hee Haw regulars; country legend Eddy Arnold; ‘50s pop singer Jerry Wallace; and gospel singer Dottie Rambo.

            We not only lost Earle Hagen, who composed the theme to The Andy Griffith Show (among many others), but also Neal Hefti, the jazz trumpeter who wrote the theme to Batman.

            Sadly, the Beyond Great Bo Diddley died, as did Hugh Jarrett of The Jordanaires; jazz pianist Esbjorn Svensson; one-armed violinist Angel Tavira; Hayward “Chuck” Carbo of the Spiders; big band singing legend Jo Stafford; Les Crane, who had a hit with the song “Desiderata”; sax player Johnny Griffin; jazz guitarist Joe Beck; Ferrante’s other half, Lou Teicher; Robert Hazard, who had his own band and wrote the song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”; jazz drummer Lee Young; Don Helms, who played pedal steel for Hank Williams; Jerry Wexler, reknowned R&B producer; Spinners’ vocalist Pervis Jackson; LeRoi Moore, who played sax for the Dave Matthews Band; Replacements’ drummer Steve Foley; the Great Jerry Reed; Grand Ol’ Opry star Charlie Walker; Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright; Motown producer Norman Whitfield; Henry Z. Steinway, last of the piano-making Steinways; R&B drummer Earl Palmer; Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio; George ‘Wydell[‘ Jones of The Edsels (who gave us “Rama Lama Ding Dong”); Levi Stubbs, lead singer for The Four Tops; Dionne Warwick’s sister Dee Dee, an R&B singer in her own right; Jamaican songwriter Vincent Ford, who wrote Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”; the amazing and unforgettable Yma Sumac; Zappa drummer Jimmy Carl Black; Miriam Makeba, the matriarch of modern South African music; hip hop performer MC Breed; Robert Lucas of Canned Heat; Kenny MacLean, bass player for Platinum Blonde; folk legends Davy Graham and Odetta; Bill Drake, the radio pioneer who first conceived of the “Top 40”; Classics IV vocalist Dennis Yost; Elmer Valentine, co-founder of LA’s Whiskey a Go Go rock club; and jazz pianist Page Cavanaugh.

            Two classic American rock bands each suffered a double whammy this year, with Jimi Hendrix’s old band losing drummers Mitch Mitchell and Buddy Miles (who had also been one of the California Raisins), and the Grateful Dead losing lawyer Harold Kant and keyboardist Merl Saunders.

            It wasn’t just music that lost a number of luminaries in 2008. As usual, the worlds of movies, Broadway, and television likewise lost a number of beloved characters.

            Suzanne Pleshette, best remembered for her role on The Bob Newhart Show, died, as did veteran radio and television writer/actor Bill Idelson; cinematographer Edward Klosinski; makeup artist Shu Uemura; “troubled young actor” Brad Renfro; Rev. Lynn Lemon, who helped make Plan 9 From Outer Space the wonder that it is; TV regular Lois Nettleton; screenwriter Ugo Pirro; Marlon Brando’s son Christian; The Fugtive’s Barry Morse; Carlos Aured, who directed Horror Rises from the Tomb and other splendid films; Japanese director Kom Ichikawa; actor David Groh, best known for his role on Rhoda; Chinatown’s Perry Lopez; Creature From the Black Lagoon’s Ben Chapman; Broadway actor Dennis Lotts; TV writer Richard Baer; British porn king Paul Raymond; Marvin Wald, who co-wrote Naked City, as well as Naked City’s director, the Great Jules Dassin; Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient; Ivan Dixon from Hogan’s Heroes; Shakespearean acting legend Paul Scofield; Bill Hayward, who produced Easy Rider; the Great Ann Savage, whose, well, savage performance helped make Detour such a memorable noir; Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg; soap opera regular Stanley Kamel; Disney animator Ollie Johnston; ‘50s scream queen Hazel Court; Alexander Grasshoff, who directed a number of documentaries and disturbing “After School Specials”; actress Kay Linaker, who also co-wrote The Blob; John Phillip Law, of Danger: Diabolik; Sandy Howard, who produced A Man Called Horse, among other things; the sometimes great Dick Martin of Laugh-In fame; Rob Knox, one of the young stars of the Harry Potter films; Dick Sutcliffe, creator of the creepy Davey & Goliath animated series; game show producer Sophie Altman; the Undeniably Great Harvey Korman; co-founder of the Second City improv troupe, Paul Sills; the legendary character actor Mel Ferrer; producer Harry Bernsen Jr.; Bob Anderson, who appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life; respected sports and newscasters Jim McKay and Tim Russert; the King of Hollywood special effects, Stan Winston; the dazzling Cyd Charisse; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman regular Dody Goodman; Eric Lieber, who produced Love Connection and other symptoms of a civilization in swift decline; porn producer/director Dick Miller; Evelyn Keyes and Fred Crane, both of whom appeared in Gone With the Wind; beloved elderly comedienne Estelle Getty; soap star Larry Haines; voiceover artist and Broadway actor Bruce Adler; Bernie Brillstein, the Hollywood agent who helped launch SNL and The Muppet Show; comedian Bernie Mac; Howard Minsky, the Hollywood agent who also produced Love Story; actor and playwright George Furth; Julius J. Carry III, who appeared in The Last Dragon; the inimitable king of movie trailer voice-overs, Don LaFontaine; The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s Michael Pate; Peanuts animator Bill Melendez; Cirio Santiago, who directed some of my favorite sleazy drive-in classics, like Firecracker and Hell Hole; House Peters, Jr., who played “Mr. Clean” in 1950s TV. commercials; Tonight Show producer Lloyd Thaxton; long-time soap actress Eileen Herlie; French actor (and son of Gerard) Guillaume Depardieu; prolific character actor Kim Chan; game show host Jack Narz; Chinese director Xie Jin; and the brilliantly funny and talented Edie Adams (she was very nice to me once).

            In an interesting crossing of paths, we not only lost Gerard Damiano, the man who directed the porn blockbuster Deep Throat—we also lost Mark Felt, the man who was known as “Deep Throat” to Woodward and Bernstein as they uncovered the Watergate scandal.

            Also gone are Milton Katselas, who directed my favorite Marjoe Gortner film; John Daly, who produced Platoon; Maria Elena Marques, who starred in The Pearl; British comic Reg Varney; John Michael Hayes, one of Hitchcock’s most reliable screenwriters; wonderful character actor Paul Benedict, who was the eternally frustrated counting baker on Sesame Street; the biggest horror movie fan in the world, Forrest J. Ackerman, who created Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine; actress Beverly Garland, who probably wouldn’t want to be remembered for Alligator People; actress Nina Foch, who was in a number of films that were much more interesting than The Ten Commandments (though she was in that, too); the Occasionally Great Van Johnson; Sam Bottoms, who played Lance, the surfer, in Apocalypse Now; esteemed director of To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer of ‘42, Robert Mulligan; “Sleazoid Express” editor Bill Landis (who was no Forry Ackerman); and John Costelloe, who played the gay fireman on The Sopranos.

            Saddest of all, this year also marked the passing of two women, each of whom in her own way, sparked the carnal imaginations of many a twisted young man—Bettie Page, who was the Queen of Bondage before most people knew what bondage was, and the enigmatic Mail Nurmi, better known to the world as “Vampira.” Together, they unwittingly and single-handedly spawned what later came to be known as Goth culture.

            For some reason, on any given year the Reaper tends to tread lightly around the literary world—at least when compared to the music and movie industries. There are two possible explanations for this. First, writers tend to lead quiet, sedate, boring lives, and therefore don’t run into the same pitfalls that trip up so many musicians and actors. A more plausible explanation, though, when you consider the writer’s standing in our society, is that they die in similar numbers, but their deaths mostly go unnoticed.

            This was an unusually heavy year death-wise for writers, however. The numbers may not yet match those of musicians, but still.

            Harry Truman’s daughter Margaret, who established her own identity writing Washington-based murder mysteries, passed away this year, along with Gothic romance queen Phyllis A. Whitney; conservative author, columnist and Firing Line host William F. Buckley; French Connection and Green Berets author Robin Moore; New York magazine founder Clay Felker (who likely died of shame); Nobel-winning anti-communist Alexander Solzhenitsyn; Dave Freeman, who spawned any number of wisecracks for dying in a household accident after writing 101 Things to Do Before You Die; author of the popular Fletch series, Gregory McDonald; former literary wunderkind (and an undeniably brilliant writer) David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself; crime novelist James Crumley; crime novelist Tony Hillerman; Hillary Waugh, who wrote dozens of small-town mysteries; rough-and-tumble Chicagoan Studs Terkel, who gave voice to the voiceless; William Wharton, the painter turned writer with the incredibly popular Birdy; Michael Crichton, the doctor turned writer with the incredibly popular everything; New Age writer Marilyn Ferguson; culture critic John Leonard; popular theater and dance critic Clive Barnes; William Gibson, the playwright who penned The Miracle Worker; and Man of La Mancha playwright Dale Wasserman.

            As usual, the world of comics lost a few luminaries, including Gus Arriola, creator of the “Gordo” comic strip; veteran Mad magazine cartoonist Will Elder; Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber; and Dave Stevens, who created The Rocketeer.

            While she was not a cartoonist herself, the passing of Thelma Keane is worth noting here, as she inspired the “Mom” character in her husband Bill’s “Family Circus” strip.

            Then there are those people whose accomplishments didn’t fit neatly into any standard category. As a result, no matter how significant or inspiring their contributions, chances are good most of them will be sorely overlooked by the mainstream media at this, their final moment of recognition.

            So while CNN may well note the passing of Sir Edmund Hillary, it’s doubtful they’ll remember Johnny Grant, the colorful and charismatic “Honorary Mayor of Hollywood,” or Chris Bowman, the figure skating champion who overdosed in his hotel room.

             We also lost Richard Knerr, co-founder of Wham-O, the company that brought so much pre-videogame joy to millions, as well as (ironically enough) Betty James, co-founder of the Slinky company.

            Also gone are Eugene Freedman, creator of “Precious Moments” figurines; chess master and heretic Bobby Fischer; long time Mormon leader Gordon Hinckley; celebrity guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; hot rod designer Boyd Coddington as well as hot rod designer Li’l John Buttera.

            The conspiracy-minded will make of this what they will, but three supermodels—Katoucha, Waris Dirie and Ruslana Korshunova—all “committed suicide” under mysterious circumstances over a four-month period. Add to that the deaths of fashion critic Mr. Blackwell and designers Yves Saint Laurent, Ted Lapidus and Eletra Casadei, and I don’t know what to say.

            Not only did Elvis’s own fashion designer, Bill Belew, die this year—so did Bill E. Burk, the journalist and author who spent his career writing about Elvis.

            Albert Hofmann, the man who discovered LSD, died this year, as did “DC Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who “committed suicide” days before a court appearance in which she promised to reveal all; “Dungeons & Dragons” creator Gary Gygax; Egg McMuffin creator Herb Peterson; talk radio pioneer Wally Phillips; British artist Angus Fairhurst; photographer Douglas Kent Hall: break dancing legend Wayne “Frosty Freeze” Frost; Howard Stern regular Kenneth Keith Kallenback; influential American artist Robert Rauschenberg; sculptor Robert Graham; Alton Kelley, the San Francisco artist who created hundreds of unmistakable psychedelic posters in the 1960s; Larry Harmon, the one and only true Bozo the Clown; Kermit Scott, the philosophy professor and friend of Jim Henson whose appearance and vocal mannerisms inspired Kermit the Frog; microbiologist Bruce Ivins, a suspect in the 2001 anthrax mailings, as well as the clear victim of an FBI frame-up and smear campaign; the World’s Tallest Woman, Sandy Allen, as well as beloved sideshow fixture Billy Rodgers; NYC high tech visionary and conspiracy theorist Cal Chamberlain (aka Judge Cal); legendary radio newsman Ike Pappas; Mark “Papa” Guardado, president of the San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels; serial killer Arthur Shawcross; and probable crime victim Sunny von Bulow.

            I could not, of course, include everyone here, nor could I give each of these people the full and lengthy recognition they truly deserve. For that I apologize. But in my own meager way, I would like to say that each of these people, in one way or another, made the world richer, more exciting, or more interesting in general than it would have been without them. They will be missed, and I offer them an honest and sincere tip of the hat.

            Well, happy new year.


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