January 8, 2012

The 2011 Dead Celebrity Hoedown


In dead celebrity terms (the only terms that really matter in the end), 2011 was a pretty meager year. Not in terms of numbers, which were running about average, but in terms of big names. There were no Sinatras or Michael Jacksons this year. As I ticked through the list I started to wonder who, exactly, the mainstream newscasters would pretend to be somber about when they trotted out their paltry dead celeb lists. Elizabeth Taylor? That reupholstered, talentless skank? I never liked anything about her. She was in some good movies, but they were good despite her cold and lifeless presence. Amy Winehouse? Yeah, she’s right up there with Heath Ledger in my book. Oh, so we lost another drunk white chick who tried to sing like a black chick? Oh, how will we ever go on? And then there’s Steve Jobs, who with the introduction of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad turned a population of regular old assholes into a population of Giant Super-Duper Mega Assholes. Yeah, thanks a lot there, Stevie, ya jerk. Things are so slim this year they might even be forced to use Farley Granger just to fill up space on a cheap two-minute bit. Now that’s desperation.

            But we aren’t concerned with those people here. As every year, I’d like to give some well-deserved recognition to some of the others we lost — people who may not have been household names, but who (unlike Elizabeth Taylor) still contributed something, good or bad, to the culture and made the world a slightly more interesting place in doing so.

            It seems to be the case every year that the world of movies and television takes a big hit, and 2011 was no exception.

            As the year opened we lost actor Pete Postlethwaite, best remembered for his role in The Usual Suspects.

            Over the months he was followed by Forbidden Planet’s Anne Francis; Bill Erwin of Seinfeld and so many other things; Aron Kinkaid, who was in The Girl in the Invisible Bikini; Freakmaker co-star Jill Hayworth; Juan Piquer Simon, director of exploitation wonderments like Pieces; Peter Yates, who directed a number of classic action films like Bulitt; David Nelson who found fame on Ozzie and Harriet; The Don is Dead screenwriter Christopher Trumbo; and Touched by an Angel co-star John Dye was, well, you have your choice of bad puns here.

            Doctor Who’s Elisabeth Sladen left the planet this year, as did Michael Sarrazin of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Susannah York, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in that same film; Dan Frazer, a character actor known (especially from Kojak) for playing blue collar types and cops; Paul Picerni from House of Wax; acclaimed Japanese director Yoshimitsu Morita; Oscar-winning costume designer Theoni Aldredge; SNL writer Joe Bodolai; TV character actor Bruce Gordon; Bernd Eichinger the producer-director of The Neverending Story and Downfall; Sal Picinich, baker and reality show contestant; Maria Schneider from The Last Tango in Paris; Tarzan’s “longtime companion” Cheetah the chimp; Lena Nyman of I am Curious (Yellow); Peggy Rea of The Dukes of Hazzard and many other shows; blacklisted MGM singer/actress Betty Garrett; splatter film producer David F. Friedman; Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo Len Lesser; co-star T.P. McKenna and screenwriter David Zelag Goldman of the original Straw Dogs; Perry Moore, producer of the Narnia films; and Walter Seltzer who, bless him, produced both Soylent Green and The Omega Man.

            Oh, but we’ve barely started here.

            Justin Tennison, star of TV’s The Deadliest Catch, was found in the traditional motel room. Jane Russell from The Born Losers wasn’t found in a hotel room, but she’s still dead—as is French actress Annie Girardot; Lost Horizon director Charles Jarrott; influential cinematographer and documentary filmmaker Richard Leacock; famed director Sidney Lumet; and Kevin Jarre, who wrote the screenplays for Tombstone and other such popular films. Madelyn Pugh Davis who co-created I Love Lucy, Sol Saks who created Bewitched, and Sherwood Schwartz, who created pretty much every other comedy on television, all died. French New Wave star Marie-France Pisier passed away, as well as William Campbell, star of Dementia 13; Jackie Cooper, the rare child star who kept acting his whole life; and Arthur Laurents, the playwright and screenwriter responsible for West Side Story.

            The mummified remains of Yvette Vickers, former Playboy Playmate and star of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, were discovered this past year. Invasion of the Body Snatchers co-star Dana Wynter was neither mummified nor turned into a pod person, but she’s still gone. So is Family’s mom Sada Thompson; Mary Murphy of The Wild One (that’s the second Brando co-star this year); Bikini Drive-In’s Ross Hagen; British producer and actor Edward Hardwicke; director of The Honeymoon Killers Leonard Kastle; Australian actor Bill Hunter, known for Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding; Donald Krim of Kino International; Taxi star and drug addict Jeff Conaway; Hollywood accent coach Robert Easton; Clarice Taylor of Sanford & Son; James Arness, who battled rustlers and varmints on TV and giant ants on the big screen; Gunnar Fischer, cinematographer on The Seventh Seal; QVC shopping hostess Jeanne Bice; Laura Ziskin, producer of the Spiderman films and other blockbusters; and Bert Schneider, perhaps the single most important indie film producer of the 1970s, who gave us Easy Rider, among other things.

            Ryan Dunn, who made his mark on Jackass by shoving a toy car up his ass, died in a car wreck. David Rayfield, who wrote The Electric Horseman, was promoted to glory, together with ‘50s TV actress Elena Stewart; Robert Blossom of Deranged, Close Encounters, and many other pictures; Anna Massey, known for her roles in Peeping Tom and Frenzy; curvaceous ‘60s actress Linda Christian; the great character actor G.D. Spradlin from Apocalypse Now and The Godfather II; Zorba the Greek’s Michael Cocayannis; Oscar-nominated art director Polly Platt; Bubba Smith, star of both the NFL and the Police Academy films; Annetta Charles, who made a splash in Grease; Anthony Quinn’s son Francesco, known for playing on-screen villains; Gualtiero Jacopetti, one of the central figures responsible for the Mondo Cane films; Jimmy Sangster, who wrote so many classic films for Hammer studios; Taxi Driver’s Senator Palantine, Leonard Harris; renowned director George Kuchar; TV Spartacus Andy Whitfield; great and gruff character actor Charles Napier; David Hess, creepy and menacing star of Last House on the Left; and The Wicker Man’s Diane Cilento

            In October, Caligula star Anneka di Lorenzo drowned, and former ABC president Daniel Burle passed away quietly. Long time producer of the Academy Awards show, Gil Cates, died just like the producer of Fiend Without a Face and many other films, Richard Gordon; the splendid and ubiquitous character actor Leonard Stone; Wyatt Knight of the Porky’s films; Green Acres beloved Sid Melton; writer, director and actor Hal Kanter; Cynthia Meyers, star of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; John Neville, the British Shakespearean actor best remembered for playing Baron Munchausen; Loretta Young and Clark Gables’ love child, Judy Lewis; Harry Morgan, who had a good career playing simpletons in noir films before playing Jack Webb’s sidekick in Dragnet; and Karl Slover, one of the last of the munchkins — we seem to lose another one every year.

            In a rare surprise this year, we lost even more musicians than we did movie people, including Gerry Rafferty, who had a couple of hits in the ‘70s with “Baker Street” and “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and Mick Karn, bassist for the band Japan. Margaret Whiting, a singer known for her rendition of “It Might as Well be Spring” passed on, as did Electropop vocalist Trish Keenan; Don Kirshner, whose weekly televised rock concert introduced me to some hilariously awful bands; Charlie Daniels’ guitarist Tommy Crain, as well as his keyboardist Taz DiGregoria; singer, actress, and Rat Pack hanger-on Kaye Stevens; Gladys Horton of The Marvelettes; the great and prolific soundtrack composer John Barry; the confounding and noisy contemporary composer Milton Babbitt; Thin Lizzy’s guitarist Gary Moore (who was also found in a hotel room); Portuguese singer Cesaria Evera; cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran; legendary jazz pianist George Shearing; and the Gypsy of Blues Eddie Kirkland.

            Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr died of an overdose, which is maybe not all that surprising. Other musicians who died — but not from overdoses — include jazz drummer Joe Morello; rapper Nate Dogg; famed Italian singer Nilla Pizzi; legendary steel guitarist Ralph Mooney; bluesman Pinetop Perkins; disco queen Loleatta Holloway; or hip-hop radio and TV host DJ Megatron (he was shot).

            Hairy punk rock muppet Zoogz Rift split the scene for good, along with Mel McDaniel, the country singer who had a hit with “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On;” original Highwaymen singer (and Tim’s dad) Gil Robbins; TV on the Radio bassist Gerard Smith; music producer and child pornographer Huey P. Meaux; Merle Haggard’s drummer and co-songwriter Eddie Burris; bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens; Phoebe Snow, the singer perhaps best known for “Poetry Man;” composer Peter Lieberson; country singer Billie Jo Spears; Tom King, guitarist for The Outsiders; The Music Machine’s chief songwriter and vocalist Sean Bonnwell; John Walker of The Walker Brothers; influential ska drummer Lloyd Knibb; rapper M-Bone; Bob Flanigan of the Four Freshmen; rapist and “You Light Up My Life” songwriter Joseph Brooks; Mikey Wild, “special needs” Philly-based punk rocker and, um, artist; guitarist Ralph MacDonald, who penned “Just the Two of Us;” influential jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron; Drifters manager Faye Treadwell; Hubert Sumlin, Howling Wolf’s long-time guitarist; and Andrew Gold, who had hits in the ‘70s with “Thank You for Being a Friend” and “Lonely Boy.”

            In one of the year’s oddest coincidences (death-wise, anyway), Betty Taylor, a well-known singer and dancer at Disneyland for over thirty years, passed away. The previous day Wally Boag, Taylor’s long-time partner at Disneyland, also died. Rumors of a murder-suicide remain unsubstantiated, as the two lived over 100 miles apart, and both were in their nineties.

            In June we lost Martin Rushent, a producer who’d worked with T. Rex, the Buzzcocks, and many other bands. He was soon followed by Carl Gardner of The Coasters; E Street Band sax player Clarence Clemons; Rob Grill of The Grass Roots; Motorhead’s amazing guitarist, Wurzel; songwriter and record producer Jerry Ragavoy, who wrote “Time is on my Side;” Dan Peek, one of the founding fathers of America; Count Basie’s sax player Frank Foster; singer-songwriter Gene McDaniels; Johnny Cash’s upright bass player Marshall Grant; Warrant’s vocalist Jani Lane who was, yes, found in a hotel room; Nic Ashford, one half of Ashford & Simpson; famed bluesman Honey Boy Edwards; Esther Gordy Edwards (no relation) of Motown Records; Creole composer Wardell Quezegue; R & B singer Vesta Williams (who was found in another hotel room); and Sylvia Robinson, who was known as The Mother of Hip Hop.

            We lost pianist Roger Williams in 2011, along with former Weezer bassist Mikey Welch; songwriter and producer Paul Leka; big band singer Beryl Davis; the great Cory Smoot of GWAR; songwriter Liz Anderson; rapper Heavy D; Laura Kennedy of the Bush Tetras; songwriter Lee Pockets, who inflicted “Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” upon the world; porn star turned disco queen Andrea True, whose Andrea True Connection gave us “More More More;” jazz pianist Al Vega; soul legend Howard Tate; Roy’s last wife and manager Barbara Orbison; pop singer Dobie Gray; and Willie Nelson’s longtime bassist, Dan “Bee” Spears.

            In supernatural developments, the ghost of Elvis continued spreading his swath of terror last year, killing Jerry Leiber of the Leiber and Stoller songwriting team; Lamar Fike of the Memphis Mafia; Elvis impersonator Ted Prior; and Dolores Fuller. Although Ms. Fuller is best remembered as the leading lady in Ed Wood films like Glen or Glenda?, she was also an occasional Elvis songwriter. It’s unclear if Elvis is seeking vengeance upon the living, or simply trying to collect his whole team on the other side.

            Anyway. While normally special categories need to be set aside every year for porn stars and professional wrestlers (two particularly death-prone occupations), the numbers were so pitiful this year that it made no sense. Some other occupations, however, witnessed a startling spike in the mortality rate. Comedians for one were dropping like flies.

            David Frye, professional Nixon impersonator and political comedian, went to that big open mic in the sky, as did Patrice O’Neal; Mike DeStefano; Bill Skiles (who was one-half of Skiles & Henderson); Vic Dunlop; and Laugh-In regular; Alan Sues

            Writers across the board took a big blow again. In 2010 when more writers than wrestlers died, I started to get a little anxious. Now it seems there’s cause for serious concern. When people told me that publishing is dead, I didn’t think I was supposed to take them literally, but look at this.

            Dick King-Smith, author of The Sheep-Pig (which inspired the movie Babe) died. So did mystery writer Joe Gores; Reynolds Price; French poet Andree Chedid; British children’s author Brian Jacques; Czech novelist and Holocaust survivor Arnost Lustig; noted playwright Lanford Wilson; Charles Laufer, publisher of Tiger Beat magazine; Arthur Marx, author of several books about being Groucho Marx’s son; the Rev. David Wilkerson, author of the Christian Teen Lit standby, The Cross and the Switchblade; Lana Peters, author of several books about being Stalin’s daughter; Def poet Will “Da Real One” Bell; Russell Hoban, author of Riddley Walker; Lillian Jackson Braun, author of the popular The Cat Who… mystery series; and essayist, polemicist, and professional douchebag Christopher Hitchens—perhaps the last man on Earth who will ever achieve celebrity status for being such things.

            Even the world of comic books took a blow this year, with the loss of writer Dwayne McDuffie, artist Gene Colan, Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, and Jerry Robinson, who among other things helped develop Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker.

            It wasn’t just a bad year for comedians, writers, and bassists—journalists had a rough go of it as well, with the loss of quite a few from within the Fourth Estate, both young and old. Of course we all hear about Andy Rooney (I liked him a lot), but fewer people I’m guessing heard about Carlos Castro, the popular Portuguese journalist who was murdered by a gay hooker (in, yes indeed, a hotel room). Fewer still likely heard about former Meet the Press host Bill Monroe, let alone Pulitzer Prize-winning and sleep-inducing columnist David Broder; AP Cold War correspondent Gene Kramer; Joseph Wershba, who was one of Murrow’s reporters on See It Now; CNBC anchor Mark Haines; Robert Pierpont of CBS News, or the veteran New York Times political reporter and author, Tom Wicker.

            Even the art and theater worlds were walloped this year, as all those wrestlers and porn stars went prancing along their merry, breathing ways. What’s going on? It’s like the world’s gone all topsy-turvy! Maybe those damn Mayans were right after all.

            Ellen Stewart, founder of the La MaMa Experimental Theater, has put on her last show. And Milton Rogovin, who used his photography to call attention to social issues, has gone to that final dark room. Dorothy Young, who was once Harry Houdini’s assistant, won’t get out of this one, and neither will Broadway actress Marian Mercer; abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler; pop sculptor James Rizzi; Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo; photographer Gunther Sachs; notorious butter sculptor Norma “Duffy” Lyon; Richard Hamilton, who designed the cover of The Beatles White Album; “Family Circus” cartoonist Bill Keane, and internationally renowned artist Lucien Freud.

            Then there were those people who didn’t fit into any neat category, but were interesting and important nevertheless, like Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver and the woman known as “the first supermodel,” Georgia Carroll Kyser.

            Former Ice Capades star Donna Atwood went a little colder than usual this year, and fitness guru Jack LaLane learned that all the exercise in the world couldn’t save him from that ol’ Reaper. Toy maker Milton Levine passed away, as did Joyce Sloane, long-time den mother to the Second City comedy group; once-kidnapped heir J. Paul Getty III; Ed Gigo, the NYPD detective who cracked the Son of Sam case; beloved Viennese café owner Leopold Hawelska; early Dylan girlfriend and inspiration Suze Rotolo; LSD pioneer Owsley Stanley; Knut the polar bear; groundbreaking VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro; Harry Wesley Coover, the man who invented Super Glue; NYC radio legend Lynn Samuels; José Arguelles, the New Age guru who concocted all that “Harmonic Convergence” crap; Lawrence Welk’s Champagne Lady Norma Zimmer; former Nathan’s CEO Murray Handwerker; and Trouble, Leona Helmsley’s very rich dog.

            Randy “Macho Man” Savage, who died in a car wreck, was the only wrestler we lost this year, and Betty Ford was the only former First Lady we lost with a celebrity drug rehab center named after her. We also lost Bob Hope’s widow, Dolores; endlessly stylish trio of world leaders Kim Jong Il, Vaclav Havel, and Moammar Gadhafi; Prairie Home Compnon’s sound effects man Tom Keith; and my favorite heavyweight boxer when I was a kid, Joe Frazier.

            As always, I would like to pause a moment now to give special notice to a few of the Greats we lost this year—people whose contributions had a special and profound influence on me. So in no particular order I’d like to say thanks to:

            Charlie Louvin, who as one-half of the Louvin Brothers produced some of the finest (and at times, scariest) country music ever recorded.

            Danny Stiles, whose deep but gentle contempt for contemporary pop music, together with his profound love for the music and films of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s made his weekly NPR show so irresistible.

            Charlie Callas, who brought his array of insane noises to talk shows, variety shows, and nightclubs throughout the ‘70s, and never failed to make me laugh. No one ever told a joke like he did.

            Charles Sellier, whose Sunn Classics films fed my roving young imagination with inventive and terrifying documentaries about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ancient astronauts, and the end of the world.

            Tura Satana, who fed my young imagination in other ways through her roles in films like Faster Pussycat Kill, Kill!

            Even if you don’t recall his name offhand, you know who Kenny Mars is. At least if you’ve seen The Producers or Young Frankenstein you do. And you’ll never forget him, either. “Vot iz ziss ‘bay-bee’?”

            Even if he rarely received the same billing as Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee, Michael Gough was just as inescapable a presence in British horror films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Often playing mad scientists or evil, conniving bureaucrats, he had a masterful way of making audiences hate him.

            Country singer Ferlin Husky was friends with Boxcar Willie, posed for pictures with my folks, and had an unlikely hit song with “On the Wings of a Snow White Dove.”

            Poly Styrene had a very different kind of hit with her seminal UK punk band X-Ray Spex. “Oh Bondage Up Yours” wasn’t the best song the band ever did, but it sure did make a mark on the scene. Apparently no one believed a girl could say things like that.

            Dr. Jack Kevorkian was pilloried and locked away for not just having the gall to believe people should have a choice, but for actually giving it to them! He was also a heck of a painter.

             Larry “Wild Man” Fischer was tormented by countless internal demons. To make things worse he was exploited and (in his own words) derailroaded by Frank Zappa and Dr. Demento. He died destitute and miserable, but he wrote some catchy songs, left a couple of albums behind, and appeared on Laugh-In. He was perhaps our first Outsider Musician, and for all his hell was still more interesting than that shit I hear on the radio today.

            Peter Falk will always be remembered as Columbo, and with good reason. But he was also great in films like Murder, Inc., Wings of Desire, and The In-Laws. And all he had to do was be himself.

            Bill McKinney was terrifying and unforgettable as a backwoods rapist in Deliverance. Who could’ve guessed that so many of his lines would become part of our collective consciousness?

            What more can be said about director Ken Russell? He was sometimes great, sometimes awful, but that’s inevitable when you’re as daring as he was, always willing to cast the rules to the wind. His films were banned, butchered and attacked, but he marched on. Eventually he left the studios altogether to make the films he wanted to make, and that’s to be admired.

            I couldn’t fit every name here, and there are several I’m sure I missed and forgot. For that I apologize. Still, all the people listed here made a mark in some unique, recognizable way. We are all indebted to them even if you don’t know their names, and they all deserve a moment of quiet gratitude. They will be missed.

            (Except Elizabeth Taylor).

Special thanks to Gary Hertz for invaluable research assistance.


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