January 10, 2010

2009: The Year Death Ruled


Chances are good that at some point over the course of the last year, you heard someone, somewhere comment on the number of notable people who were dying. They were right—it was an extraordinary year, death-wise. Not simply in terms of volume, but in both the surprises as well as those venerable names we never thought would go away.

            For all that, though, come time for the major media roundups, who did we hear about? Walter Cronkite, Ted Kennedy, Ed McMahon, Patrick Swayze and—above and beyond everyone else—a creepy and freakish “alleged” child molester.

            But believe it or not there were others who died this year; others who were (dare I say) much more significant. So as I’ve done for the past twelve years, I would like to take a moment to remember the cultural icons most of those other places might forget.

            When more writers than wrestlers die over the course of the year, you know there’s something weird going on, and 2009 was such a year. Professional wrestlers have always proven to be such easy pickings for the Reaper, but this year we only lost five: Andrew “Test” Martin, John “The Golden Greek” Tolos, Umaga, Steve “Dr. Death” Williams, and the great Captain Lou Albano.

            But writers? Look out. We lost two-fisted crime novelist Donald Westlake on the first day of the year. Johannes Mario Simmel, bestselling Aussie author, died the next day. The great and strange poet W.D. Snodgrass soon followed, as did Hortense Calisher, John Mortimer (creator of the Rumpole series), martial arts novelist Liang Yusheng, John Updike, “Page Six” columnist James Brady, science fiction master Philip Jose Farmer, Billy Liar author Keith Waterhouse, mystery writer Barbara Parker, and the wonderful and underappreciated James Purdy.

            Jack D. Hunter, who wrote The Blue Max, died this year, along with feminist writer Marilyn French, poet and bearded lady FrancEyE, provocative (and slightly paranoid) cryptozoologist John Keel, Southern writer Paul Hemphill, and Frank McCourt, author of the outrageously popular memoir, Angela’s Ashes.

            Gay black writer E. Lynn Harris passed away, as did British novelist Stanley Middleton, anti-apartheid poet Dennis Brutus, and sleazy celeb tell-all publisher Michael Viner.

            It was an especially tough year on magazine and newspaper writers, as we lost Robert D. Novak, Dominick Dunne, Army Archerd, influential horror movie journalist Chas. Balun, and William Safire.

            Finally, nearly impenetrable French philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss died at age 100.

            There were also more artists than wrestlers who died this year, and that’s really saying something. Andrew Wyeth, feminist artist Nancy Spero, young hotshot Dash Snow, photographers Irving Penn and Helen Levitt, and famed editorial cartoonist Corky Trinidad all died this past year.

            It was also a pretty bad year for reporters. Sure, we all heard plenty abound Walter Cronkite (which was bad news in philosophical terms), but we also lost that wacky Paul Harvey, ABC Radio’s George Weber, NBC business reporter Irving R. Levine, radio talk show host Larry Glick, former CNN host Tom Braden, and Nashville anchor (and former Pat Sajak sidekick) Dan Miller. In these ranks it also seems more than fitting to include deeply respected 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt. Without him, where would Andy Rooney be today?

            The world of television and motion pictures seems to be hit the hardest every year, and this year was no exception. So if I may, in no particular order, 2009 saw the deaths of:

            Bernie Hamilton of Starsky & Hutch fame; Edmund Purdom from The Student Prince and many other films; the great character actor Pat Hingle; Clueless’s Brittany Murphy; The Big Chill’s Don Galloway; studio chief Ned Tanen; former Mouseketeer Cheryl Holdridge; Hawaii Five-O’s Harry Endo; French producer, director and actor Claude Berri; the Great Ricardo Montalban; Bob May, who played Robbie the Robot on Lost in Space; Susanna Foster, who co-starred in the 1943 Phantom of the Opera; the wonderful Charles Schneer, who produced all those Harryhausen films; soap actors Clint Ritchie and Philip Carey; Oreste Lionello, the Italian voice actor who dubbed the voices of Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis; Howard Zieff, who directed Private Benjamin; Wendy Richard from EastEnders; Count Yorga himself, Robert Quarry; Salvatore Samperi, a director who specialized in Italian sex comedies; Charlie Chaplin’s son Sydney, who also appeared in Satan’s Cheerleaders(!); Hungarian director Peter Bacson; the prolific Ron Silver; Hitchcock’s production designer Dorothea Redmond Holt; screenwriter Millard Kaufman, who gave us Bad Day at Black Rock; Coy Watson, who played one of the Keystone Kops; esteemed actress Natasha Richardson; sit-com producer Morton Lachman; Betsy Blair, best known for her role in Marty; TV director Harry Harris; Fellini’s screenwriter of choice, Tullio Pinelli; Monte Hale, the singing cowboy who appeared in Giant and several other films; brilliant film composer Maurice Jarre; young TV actor Andy Hallett; United Artists executive Steven Bach; Miguelangel Suarez, who appeared in Che and Bananas; gay porn star Jack Wrangler; Maxine Cooper from one of my all-time favorites, Kiss Me Deadly; Lee Madden, who directed The Night God Screamed; producer of the Carry On series, Peter Rogers; Jody McCrea, who appeared in (among other things) Beach Blanket Bingo; African Queen cinematographer Jack Cardiff; Battle of the Bulge director Ken Annakin; Broadway and film actress Marilyn Cooper; that ascorbic Bea Arthur; Jennifer Jones, who was in everything from Beat the Devil to The Towering Inferno; NBC producer Nora O’Brien; the Great (in more ways than one) Dom Deluise; famed talent agent Sam Cohn; Where the Day Takes You director Marc Rocco; munchkin town crier Mickey Carroll; tireless TV writer John Furia, Jr.; Nat King Cole’s daughter Carol, who also appeared in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; Wayne Allwine, who was the voice of Mickey Mouse; the multi-talented Don Edmonds, who helped make the Ilsa series an unlikely reality; Enter the Dragon’s Shih Kien; Farrah Fawcett of course (though her death was unfairly overshadowed); 1950s TV star Gale Storm; comedian, impressionist, and ‘70s variety show regular, the great Fred Travelena; the even greater Karl Malden; character actor Harve Presnell, who appeared in Fargo and Paint Your Wagon; Peyton Place and The Wrong Man’s Anna Karen Morrow; Mollie Sugden from Are You Being Served?; cartoon voice artist Dallas McKennon; Roy Disney; craggy-faced tough guy Val Avery from Hud, The Magnificent Seven, and so many other films; Connie Hines, who co-stared in Mr. Ed; Heinz Edelmann, the graphic designer behind Yellow Submarine; Brenda Joyce, who played Jane in the Tarzan films of the ‘40s; Harry Allan Towers, who produced and wrote the Fu Manchu series and a lot of really awful Jess Franco movies; speaking of awful, actor/director Paul Naschy; On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg; John Hughes, who single-handedly made the; ‘80s that much worse; character actor and Eastwood regular John Quade; Broadway and film actress Ruth Ford; Virginia Davis, who played Alice in Disney’s ‘30s series; the great Sammy Petrillo, whose performing career sputtered after Martin & Lewis’s attorneys saw Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla; BBC stalwart Ray Barrett; M*A*S*H producer Larry Gelbart; TV actor Paul Burke; Melvin Simon, the shopping mall magnate who produced Porky’s; Arnold Lavin, who produced and directed shows like The A Team and The Rifleman; The Exterminator star Robert Ginty; Dick Durock from Swamp Thing and Silverado, among others; Daniel Melnick, who produced some of the best films of the ‘70s; Vic Mizzy, who composed memorable themes for Green Acres and The Addams Family; that naughty Dr. No himself (and countless other movie villains), Joseph Wiseman; Don Lane, the popular American host of an Australian talk show; the irrepressibly great Carl Ballantine; Romanian actor Gheorghe Dinica; Gidget’s Paul Wendkos; the often great Edward Woodward of The Wicker Man and Equalizer fame; Ken Ober, host if MTV’s Remote Control; Thomas Benton Hollyman, the photographer who was hired to shoot Lord of the Flies; Police Story’s Dennis Cole; Robert Kendall, a character actor who specialized in playing Middle Eastern types; Return of the Blind Dead’s Tony Kendall; Asylum’s Richard Todd; Sesame Street’s “Olivia,” Alaina Reed Hall; and the always dashing Gene Barry.

            I’m also sorry to report that if you’re a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, actor Collin Wilcox-Paxton and screenwriter (The Remarkable) Horton Foote passed away this year.

            Hard as it is to believe, the music world was hit almost as hard as Hollywood, including Ohio Players founder Robert Ward; “the Puerto Rican Pepperpot” Olga San Juan; Jon Hager, the other half of Hee Haw’s Hager Brothers (his twin was on last year’s list); ‘60s British pop star Davy Dee; songwriter Clint Ballard, Jr., who penned “You’re No Good”; jazzman David “Fathead” Newman; Gary Kurfirst, who managed the likes of Blondie, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones; Skynrd keyboardist Billy Powell; Tom Brumley, who played steel guitar for The Buckaroos; Buffalo Springfield drummer Dewey Martin; famed cabaret singer Blossom Dearie; Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez of the Buena Vista Social Club; country singer Molly Bee; Gerry Niewood and Coleman Mellett, Chuck Mangione’s sax player and guitarist, respectively; Estelle Bennett of the Ronettes; salsa king Joe Cuba; jazz drummer Louis Bellson; ELO’s bassist Kelly Groucutt; Russian composer Isaac Schwartz; Jimmy Boud, who gave us “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (a song that always really bothered me); Hank Locklin, who gave us “Please Help Me I’m Falling” (which I always heard as “Please Help Me I’m Paul Lynde”); bluesman Willie King; former Capitol Records president Alan Livingston; folk song writer and music journalist Harvey Geller; Jack Lawrence, who penned classics like “All Or Nothing At All” and “Beyond The Sea”; blues singer and pianist Eddie Bo; John Ford Coley’s partner “England” Dan Seals; roots rocker Duane Jarvis; legendary gospel singer “Pop” Winans, Sr.; James Gurley, guitarist for Big Brother & the Holding Company; Randy Cain of The Delfonics; country singer Vern Gosdin; folk singer Travis Edmonson; Kris Kristofferson’s guitarist Stephen Bruton; rap artist Dolla; almost legendary pop singer Al Martino, who sang the theme to Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte and played Johnny Fontane in The Godfather; Wilco bassist Jay Bennett; the amazing Koko Taylor, Queen of the Blues; tenor saxophonist Sam Butera; pianist Barry Beckett; singer/songwriter/musician Lenny Rankin; Ventures guitarist Bob Bogel; that crazy rock’n’roll maniac, Ali Akbar Khan; The Seeds’ lead singer Sky Saxon; Paul Revere & The Raiders guitarist Drake Levin; bluegrass singer and bass player, Jack Cooke; James Sullivan, the drummer for some band called “Avenged Sevenfold”; esteemed conductor Sir Edward Downes; jazz saxophonist Hart McNee; Gordon Waller of the British pop duo Peter & Gordon; jazz composer George Russell; Sun Records studio musician Billy Lee Riley; the Great Les Paul; John Coltrane’s drummer, Rashied Ali; NY punk legend Willie DeVille; folk singer (and Pete’s half brother) Mike Seeger; famed soprano Hildegard Behrens; R&B tenor John E. Carter; Larry Knechtel, who was a studio keyboardist for Elvis and so many others; Tim Hart, British folk singer and co-founder of Steeleye Span; Ellie Greenwich, who co-wrote a string of classic pop songs, including “Leader of the Pack” and “Chapel of Love”; celebrity deejay DJ AM; gospel singer Marie Knight; blues singer Jesse Fortune; jazz singer Chris Connor; Jamaican producer and keyboardist Wycliffe Johnson; Fred Mills, trumpeter for the Canadian Brass; New Orleans blues singer Juanita Brooks; Peter, Paul & Mary’s Mary Travers; Ferrante and Teicher’s Arthur Ferrante; The Silhouettes’ John Wilson; Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa; blues guitarist Freddie Robinson; influential morose folk rocker Vic Chestnutt (who killed himself on Christmas Eve); Stephen Gately, from the Irish boy band Boyzone; Blue Cheer’s Dickie Peterson; crooner Al Alberts of The Four Tops; Alan Parson’s Project co-founder Eric Woolfson, and Aaron Schroeder, the songwriter who not only wrote songs for Elvis—he wrote the Scooby Doo theme, too!

            As with every year, there are also those people who don’t fit neatly into this or that category. For instance, this year quite a few celebrity relatives passed away. So many, in fact, that they’ve pretty much formed a category all their own. The big newsmaker among them, of course, was John Travolta’s son Jeff. But we also lost Lloyd Bridges’ wife Dorothy; Sammy Davis, Jr.’s widow Altovise; Sylvia Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes (who, as it happens, hanged himself); and Michael Landon’s son Mark.

            We also lost noted architects J. Max Bond and Charles Gwathmey; Bill and Hillary Clinton’s cat, Socks; Gidget, the Taco Bell Chihuahua; one-time Winston cigarettes spokesmodel Alan Landers; inescapable TV pitchman Billy Mays; “Dungeons & Dragons” co-creator Dave Arneson; Peter Dennis, famous for his one-man Winnie the Pooh show; versatile and wildly popular Vegas entertainer Danny Gans; the man who was actually known as Mr. Las Vegas, Bob Stupak; slick politician Jack Kemp; former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; female impersonator Danny La Rue; Oscar Mayer, king of wieners; Percy Sutton, urban media mogul and former Manhattan borough president; choreographer Merce Cunningham; radio evangelist Rev. Ike; former Philippines leader Corazon Aquino; Special Olympics founder (and Kennedy) Eunice Kennedy Shriver; Ed Reimer, commercial spokesvoice famous for saying “you’re in good hands with Allstate”; doomed swimsuit model Jasmine Fiore; test prep magnate Stanley Kaplan; Manson Family member Susan Atkins; Lucy Vodden who, according to Beatles’ mythology, inspired “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”; cult leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet; money-hungry evangelist Oral Roberts; New Jersey serial killer Howard Unruh; Art D’Lugoff, owner of The Village Gate; and Broadway director Tom O’Horgan, famous for his productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar.

            For all the hundreds of names listed above, there are still a few left. Too many, really. These are the people we lost in 2009 whose lives and work had a special impact on me, and who deserve special recognition and thanks.

            So here’s to the Truly Greats:

            Patrick McGoohan, who created, wrote, directed, and starred in The Prisoner, one of the smartest and strangest television series in history.

            Lux Interior looked like a zombie Elvis, and in fronting The Cramps brought rockabilly, punk rock, and trash movies together in a wickedly unholy mix.

            Before those Miracle Gro commercials, James Whitmore turned in some truly wonderful supporting performances , including his role as a cat-loving hunchback in Asphalt Jungle.

            Backing up Iggy Pop in The Stooges, guitarist Ron Asheton revolutionized the face (and the ears) of American music.

            With his poetry, his music, and The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll helped bring punk rock into literature, and vice versa.

            Novelist J.G. Ballard simply didn’t think like other people. Was it science fiction? Not really, no, though it was fantastic and terrifying and confounding and brilliant.

            As a character actor in films like Arthur and Little Murders, Lou Jacobi was a bit of a chameleon, but always unmistakable, always funny, and he always had a firm grip on life’s pathos.

            Soupy Sales was like everyone’s goofy uncle, always willing to dance that dangerous line between what was and was not “appropriate” for kids. I didn’t grow up with the show, but I knew Soupy.

            Marilyn Chambers began as a model of fresh scrubbed innocence, but with Behind the Green Door and all the adult films that followed she, well, lost that image. She always maintained a natural spark about her that made her so much more attractive than other porn stars. Plus she liked guns, sang country music, and ran for public office!

            Arnold Stang didn’t look or sound like anyone else in Hollywood, which may explain why he started in radio and did more cartoon voiceovers than actual films. But when he did appear onscreen—in films like The Man With the Golden Arm—his overeager, hapless nebbish often stole the show.

            Reading his poems on Laugh-In, Henry Gibson was both hilarious and slightly creepy. In films like Nashville and The Long Goodbye, he was also hilarious and creepy. And until I was fifteen, I thought he and Henrik Ibsen were the same person.

            David Carradine was an odd man and a fearless actor who could turn a crappy movie into something memorable simply thanks to his presence. And I don’t care what anyone says—the way he went makes perfect sense when you look at the rest of his life, and I say bless him.

            I’m not sure I would’ve liked Dan O’Bannon much on a personal level, but he did write Dark Star and Alien, contributed to the screenplay for Dead & Buried, and wrote and directed one of my favorite films of the ‘80s, Return of the Living Dead.

            Nobody’s really going to claim that Ray Dennis Steckler was anything close to a Great American Director, but he was a true independent who took the risks to make the films he wanted, baffling as they often were.

            I’ve loved the Clancy Brothers ever since I was in high school, and saw them perform live any number of times. But for all those shows, the best of the lot was a concert featuring Liam Clancy and Tommy Maken alone. Hearing that Liam—the last of the original brothers—had died, I felt the world had truly lost something.

            For all the celebrities, writers, artists, musicians, and other notables listed here, it’s also worth noting that nearly everyone I know lost someone this year. Friends, parents, pets, in-laws, siblings, spouses. It was a bad year. And in the end, those are the people—even if they didn’t make the news or work on a horror movie—who really matter.

            With that in mind, I’d like to add the name Bob Adrians to the list. Bob was my brother-in-law, a kind, tough, funny man who was a great father to my nieces and a good husband to my sister. I may miss Patrick McGoohan, but I’ll miss Bob more.

            In the end, here’s a tip of the hat to all of them. Each one, in his or her own way, helped make the culture and the world slightly less boring and horrible.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.