January 13, 2013

2012: The Mayans Were Right After All (At Least For These People)


It’s funny how death follows changing trends from year to year, same as fashion, restaurants, or television shows. Some years it’s pro wrestlers who go toes up. The next year it might be porn stars or models (if you can tell the difference). Some years a lot of musicians die in motel rooms, the next a lot of inventors fall off cliffs. You never can tell.

            This year some folks thought we were all going to die as the result of some vague cosmic catastrophe, and lord knows I had my fingers crossed. Unfortunately, those damned Mayans were wrong as usual, so here we are. In one way it’s a bit of a relief, I guess, because if everyone on the planet had died right there at the end of the year, this column would have run awfully long. Sadly, a number of notables did leave us this year for assorted reasons, few if any having anything to do with long-extinct Meso-American civilizations. As has become tradition here, I’d like to take a few moments to give some small notice to those people who died this past year, but who while alive made the world a touch more interesting for good or ill. And in 2012, believe you me, there were a bunch.

            As can usually be expected, the movie and television industry were walloped this year. Larry Hagman, who starred in a beloved sit-com before making the world despise him in a prime-time soap opera, died. So did former United Artists president Bingham Ray; voiceover artist Dick Tufeld known for his work on countless shows including Lost in Space; noted character actor James Farentino, star of The Final Countdown; and brilliant Shakespearean actor Nicol Williamson who will sadly always be remembered for his role in Excalibur.

            We also lost Oscar-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka; Zalman King, who wrote and directed the classic Blue Sunshine; Bill Hinzman, so unforgettable as the first zombie to appear in Night of the Living Dead; homeless former porn star Candy Barbour; Marland “Sledgehammer” Anderson, the porn star who stabbed himself to death during a confrontation with the police; actor Peter Breck from Shock Corridor; Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. star (and before that such an unforgettable presence on The Twilight Zone and so many other shows) Jack Klugman; famed Hollywood publicist Dale Olson; Walter Hill’s cinematographer Rick Waite; singer and actress Lina Romay, who was a regular in Jess Franco’s movies; Erwin Josephson, star of Scenes From a Marriage; Bruce Surtees, the cinematographer who shot classics like High Plains Drifter; Star Wars art director Ralph McQuarrie; eternal character actor and John Ford regular Harry Carey Jr.; and Disney songwriter Robert Sherman, the man responsible for inflicting the likes of “It’s a Small World” on the rest of us.

            Sci-fi-centric character actor Leonardo Cimino, (V., Dune, etc.) passed away this past year, along with Straight Time director Ulu Grosbard; Robert Fuest, the underappreciated director of great films like The Devil’s Rain and The Abominable Dr. Phibes; producer and director Jamaa Fanaka, best known for Penitentiary; and Phantom of the Paradise star William Finley (I do love that picture); Jonathan Frid, the man who was Barnabas Collins, opted to die this year instead of seeing the big budget remake of Dark Shadows. Don Grady, one of the titular My Three Sons, died too, though it had nothing to do with the Dark Shadows movie. The same holds true for reality TV performer Mitchell Guist; Risky Business co-star Janet Carroll; Hogan’s Heroes co-star and game show host Richard Dawson; busy TV actress Kathryn Joosten; Frank Cady, beloved for his role on Green Acres; powerful and prolific character actor Charles Durning; Supermarionation pioneer and Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson; and Gone With the Wind’s Ann Rutherford.

            Also missing from the table are Oscar-nominated production designer J. Michael Rev; TV actress and comedian Yvette Wilson; Victor Spinetti, a face seen regularly in the Beatles films; Richard Lynch, who played the God part in God Told Me To; silent-era child star Jack Hanlon; film critics Andrew Sarris and Judith Crist (though not together); much-loved character actress Celeste Holm from All About Eve and so many other films; Beach Blanket Bingo producer and director Bill Asher; Bollywood superstar Rajesh Khanna; Simon Ward of Zulu Dawn and many other pictures; Mike Hopkins, the sound editor who won an Oscar for his work on the Lord of the Rings films; Frank Pearson, perhaps best remembered for his role in Dog Day Afternoon; TV’s George Jefferson, the inimitable Sherman Hemsley; Chad Everett, who was America’s heartthrob while starring on TV’s Medical Center in the seventies; prolific Mexican-American actress Lupe Ontiveros; and crooner and actor Tony Martin, whom I never liked very much.

            Deeply respected director Chris Marker died this past year, as did Malcolm X’s Albert Freeman, Jr., and Carlo Rambaldi, the special effects whiz who helped give us the 1976 remake of King Kong (for which he won an Oscar even though his forty-foot-tall robot gorilla didn’t really work). Reality TV performer Joey Kover took a perhaps understandable overdose, Sons of Anarchy actor Johnny Lewis killed himself after murdering his landlady, and Top Gun director Tony Scott jumped off a bridge. But suicide wasn’t the case for most of the people on this year’s list, like Phyllis Thaxter of Superman fame; the Great Phyllis Diller, whose profound influence on the culture may never be fully appreciated, or the charming William Windom, who stood in for James Thurber on TV’s My World and Welcome to It. We bid a sad farewell to Muppet Show puppeteer Jerry Nelson, together with The Party’s Steve Franken; all-around British entertainer Max Bygraves; Oscar nominated actor Michael Clark Duncan; soap actor John Ingle; and the amazing Herbert Lom, who brightened everything from horror films to the Pink Panther movies;

            Wide-ranging forties character actor Turhan Bey’s spirit was liberated this year, as were the spirits of football player-turned-horse punching actor Alex Karras; Sammi Kane Kraft, the young star of the Bad News Bears remake, who died in a car accident; sometime actor, slow-witted morning show co-host, and Miss America emcee Gary Collins; influential cinematographer Harris Savides; Night Court creator Reinhold Weege; softcore legend Sylvia Kristal; and wildly inventive and often controversial Japanese filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu, who was hit by a car.

            Occasional actor and uncompromising leader of the American Indian movement Russell Means died this past year, as did Mac Ahlberg, famed for directing I, A Woman. Not only did British soap star Bill Tarmey kick the bucket, but so did Hee-Haw co-creator Frank Peppiatt; porn director Kirdy Stevens; TV producer Henry Coleman; character actor (After Hours) and NPR regular Larry Block; Friday the 13th: Final Chapter director Danny Steimann; TV’s “Mr. Food,” Art Ginsberg; Hollywood sword fight trainer Bob Anderson; respected actress Deborah Raffin; and Martin Richards, the producer behind a string of Broadway hits as well as a few noteworthy feature films including The Shining.

            Hard as it may be to believe after that list, the music industry was hit even harder in 2012. Bluegrass, rock’n’roll, country, opera, jazz, hip-hop, classical—you name the genre, I’ll tell you who died.

            Like Fred Milano of Dion and the Belmonts. He died. So did influential fifties guitarist Mickey Baker, and Fontella Bass, the sixties r&b singer famous for the hit “Rescue Me.” As one half of James & Bobby Purify, Robert Dickey had a hit with “I’m Your Puppet,” but he’s gone now. So is The Nuns’ lead singer Jennifer Miro Anderson; Tommy Ardolino of NRBQ; violinist Israel Baker; classical pianist Alexis Weisenberg; legendary funk-soul saxophonist Jimmy Castor; white r&b singer Johnny Otis of “Willie and the Hand Jive” fame; and the unforgettable Etta James.

            Reggae musician and producer Winston Riley was shot to death last January. Pianist and songwriter Clare Fischer died in January as well, but without being shot. America’s first black female opera singer, Carmilla Williams, passed away, and smooth-voiced cultural icon Don Cornelius committed suicide. The r&b singer who had a hit with “Two Wrongs Don’t Make it Right,” David Peaston died, as did popular train wreck Whitney Houston, who as per tradition was found in a hotel bathroom.

            Ballet dancer Zina Bethune was struck by two cars. Songwriter Dory Previn sadly passed on, and so did the seminal MC5’s bassist Michael l Davis; Davy Jones of the hugely influential Monkees; Mothers of Invention singer Ray Collins; guitarist Ronny Montrose; Jimmy Ellis who, as part of The Tramps, defined an age with “Disco Inferno”; Doobie Brothers’ drummer Michael Holsack; Barney McKenna, the last living member of The Dubliners; the great Earl Scruggs, who together with Lester Flatt became the most popular bluegrass act in the world thanks to Deliverance and The Beverly Hillbillies; Jim Marshall, who made the careers of most of these people possible with his amplifier design; Dick Clark, who also made most of these careers possible simply by being Dick Clark; Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist for The Band; Men at Work’s Greg Ham; Chris Ethridge, of the Flying Burrito Brothers; TV show composer Joel Goldsmith; Indian musical guru and starfucker Ravi Shankar; and The Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch.

            The great Booker T. & The MGs lost their bassist in 2012 with the passing of Donald “Duck” Dunn. The king of polka, the godfather of go-go and the queen of disco all died in the form of (in order) Eddie Blazonczyk, Chuck Brown and Donna Summer. Banjo player Doug Dillard died, and so did the Bee Gee’s Robin Gibb; folk legend Doc Watson; Herb Reed, the last living member of The Platters; Bob Welch of Fleetwood Mac (he was another suicide); Broadway composer Richard Adler; Spirit’s drummer Ed Cassidy; Perry Baggs, drummer for Jason & The Scorchers; country legend Kitty Wells; Deep Purple’s keyboardist John Lord; Motown studio bassist Bob Babbitt; famed songwriter and Broadway favorite Marvin Hamlisch; and Stuart Swanlund, guitarist for the Marshall Tucker Band.

             Scott McKenzie, the songwriter who gave us “If You’re Going to San Francisco,” isn’t wearing any more flowers in his hair, and songwriter Hal David will be feeling no more raindrops falling on his head. Joe South, the seventies singer-songwriter, passed away, as did Dorothy McGuire Williamson of The McGuire Sisters; Andy Williams, who along with singing “Moon River” once hosted a surprisingly funny TV variety show; disco drummer Brad Parker, who died in the middle of a show; sixties r&b singer R.B. Greaves; well-known studio guitarist Big Jim Sullivan; country singer Dave Dudley, who was best known for his trucker songs; free jazz sax player John Tchicai; B. B. Cunningham Jr. of Jerry Lee Lewis’s band, who appropriately enough died in a shootout in a bar; and German composer Hans Werner Henze.

            Natina Reed, the r&b singer and sometime actress, was hit by a car. (Lots of people hit by cars this year—you noticing that?) And you can’t get much more death metal than Mitchell Lucker, guitarist for the death metal band Suicide Silence, who died in a motorcycle accident on Halloween. Bill Dees, the songwriter who helped bring us “Pretty Woman” died in 2012, along with Pulitzer-winning composer Elliot Carter; Major Harris, the singer who had a hit with “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”; Cleve Duncan of The Penguins, who had a hit with “Earth Angel”; sixties r&b singer Billy Scott; composer Richard Robbins; Earl 'Speedo' Carroll of The Cadillacs; Mexican-American singer and TV actress Jenny Rivera, who died in a plane crash, and the jazz piano great Dave Brubeck.

            Part of me wants to think that in comparison to the above, writers and publishers as a group got off fairly easy this year (and every year) because we’re a heartier, more stalwart breed. In all likelihood it’s simply because no one notices or cares when we die.

            Among those who were noticed this year were Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s son, translator, and the executor of his estate; Berenstein Bears co-author Jan Berenstein; Hilton Cramer, art critic and founder of The New Criterion; esteemed Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes; novelist and screenwriter Nora Ephron; Donald J. Sobel,, the man behind the Encyclopedia Brown series; self-help author Stephen R. Covey; and famed sixties feminist poet Adrienne Rich.

            I guess Suzy Gershman, author of the Born to Shop travel guides, really finally did shop till she dropped. Essayist and NPR favorite David Rakoff is now pushing up daisies, and so are Harry Harrison, the science fiction author who’s novel “Make Room! Make Room!” became the basis for Soylent Green; Gabriel Vahanian, who wrote God is Dead; the great Paul Kurtz, who did all thinking people a good and great service when he founded The Skeptical Inquirer magazine; bestselling cultural historian Jacques Barzun; popular seventies writer Ellen Douglas; popular Australian writer Bryce Courtenay; David Oliver Relon, co-author of Three Cups of Tea, who committed suicide after charges were made that he’d fabricated much of the book; Russian poet and novelist Vasily Belov; and bestselling self-help writer and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar who, well, just ran out of motivation, I guess.

            In a surprising development, nearly as many journalists died in 2012 as plain old writers. It’s unclear why, unless it can be taken as a metaphor for what’s happening to news coverage these days.

            Respected national news TV correspondent Richard Threlkeld was another victim of vehicular violence, and groundbreaking photojournalist Eve Arnold passed away at age 99. New York Times Mideast correspondent Anthony Shadid succumbed to health issues, and though he wasn’t a real journalist, the death of conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart had some people talking about him like he was some kind of religious figure. Gil Noble, beloved host of a long-running black issues TV show, passed away, and so did Ebony magazine managing editor Terry Glover; the venerable, hard-bitten and two-fisted Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame; blogger Erica Kennedy; Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist William Raspberry; my former colleague Alexander Cockburn; and former New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger.

            Like the people in most of these categories, fine artists generally don’t make the news when they get promoted to glory, but there were a few this time around who deserve our recognition, like French comics artist and Heavy Metal magazine co-founder Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius; bland but incredibly popular American painter Thomas Kincaid; sometimes controversial but still incredibly popular children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak; and often-mocked but still successful seventies sports painter Leroy Nieman.

            Only a driblet of comedians stopped laughing this year, but that driblet included some sad losses. (Presumably out of work) Bush impersonator Steve Bridges passed away, as did Firesign Theater’s great Peter Bergman and Al Franken’s too often underappreciated writing partner from those early SNL days, Tom Davis.

            Then of course there are those figures who don’t easily fit into the standard categories but who nevertheless still touched our lives while they were breathing, even if we didn’t always know their names.

            George McGovern may have never made it to the White House, but he was a good friend of Hunter Thompson’s, developed some solid hipster credibility, and found a way to stay in the news into his nineties. And now he’s dead, just like Chuck Colson, who had his own problems with Nixon as White House chief counsel during the Watergate hearings; Maxwell Keith, who had Nixon trouble too as Charles Manson’s attorney; Jill Kinmont, the crippled skier whose inspiring story, um, inspired the book and movie The Other Side of the Mountain; and the inventor who gave us the two-flipper pinball machine, Steve Kordek.

            Also among those we lost in 2012 were Eugene Polley, who helped make Americans fat and lazy slobs by inventing the TV remote; pro wrestler Chief Jay Strongbow; hairdresser to the stars and beauty products logo Vidal Sassoon; failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork (the guy with that wild beard and no sense of humor); Eduard Khil, “The Trololo Man”; Rodney King, who caused nothing but trouble even after the L.A. riots; Sylvester Stallone’s son Sage (who OD’d); Brooke Shields’ mom and former manager Terri, who had no qualms about whoring out her young daughter; Sylvia’s soul food restaurant founder Sylvia Woods; that snakey old Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who conned an awful lot of dumb white kids; co-inventor of the bar code and minion of Satan Norman Woodland; famed shark photographer Ron Taylor; simply fabulous drag queen Antoine Ashley; politician (but I won’t make any drag queen references) Arlen Spector; Mad Libs publisher Larry Sloane, who now sits at the right hand of God; Mouseketeer Bonnie Lynn Fields; Gen. Norman (Stormin’ Norman) Schwarzkopf; Houston McCoy, one of the two Austin cops who took credit for shooting Charles Whitman; and Memphis-based clothier Bernard Lansky, who helped develop Elvis’ early style.

            While putting together last year’s list I noticed a number of unexpected coincidences—people who were related somehow. Enough so’s that you’d notice, and enough to prompt me to create a new “Dead Pairs” category. I thought it would be a one-shot deal, but maybe I simply wasn’t paying attention all those other years because this time around I noticed them again.

            For instance, Cosmopolitan magazine founder Helen Gurley Brown died. Now, she was married to high-powered movie producer (the late) David Brown. And David Brown’s partner in the movie production business was Richard Zanuck who—you guessed it—also kicked in 2012.

            That may seem like I’m stretching it some, but try this one on for size: Fans of Welcome Back, Kotter actually lost two of the Sweathogs this year. Robert Hegyes, who played the Puerto Rican Jew Juan Epstein, and trained Shakespearean actor Ron Palillo, who played the extremely dysfunctional Arnold Horshack, both died. Yet John Travolta continues to make movies.

            Iron Butterfly fans had cause to mourn as well this year, with the news that neither guitarist Larry Reinhardt nor bassist Lee Dorman would again walk this land.

            Mel Stewart directed any number of pictures, but is probably best remembered for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the original musical version with Gene Wilder). David Kelly, meanwhile, was a busy Irish character actor who will likely be best remembered for playing Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the Tim Burton remake with Johnny Depp). Both are currently riding in that Great Glass Elevator in the sky, where they can spend eternity debating which version was better.

            The old Andy Griffith Show not only lost George “Goober” Lindsey (who played, um, Goober), but Andy Griffith himself, who for my money will always be best remembered for his slimy turns in Face in the Crowd and Pray for the Wildcats.

            Finally in an almost spooky turn, we lost both the first man to walk on the moon and the first American woman in space—Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. If ever there was a time for the space program conspiracy theorists to get to work, this is it.

            As every year, I’d like to take a few extra moments here at the end to pause for a number of people who passed away this year who had some special meaning for me. While each of them deserves a much longer memorial than I can offer here, I’d still like to say my own small thanks to some folks who should forever have “The Great” appended before their names.

            Ben Gazzara was one of those character actors with a face and a voice that almost required him to play sleazy but charming types, which he did quite well in everything from Tales of Ordinary Madness to Killing of a Chinese Bookie to The Big Lebowski. He moved easily from slick Hollywood productions to small independent art films, and damn he was good.

            Speaking of character actors whose voices and faces spoke volumes, R. G. Armstrong had a long and fine career playing, more often than not, angry, drunken rednecks. Either rednecks or judges—he played a lot of stern judges, too. But at the same time he was in perhaps more films about Satanists than any other single actor. I never understood that, but whenever I saw his name in the credits I knew it was something I had to watch.

            I was proud to have known Barney Rossett, probably the single most important publisher this country has ever seen. Because of his willingness to fight for the First Amendment and go to the mat for writers he loved, we can now read Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, Jean Genet, Ionesco, and so many others. And because he was willing to extend that fight to include films like I Am Curious (Yellow), we can now see all the porn we want! He was a remarkable, remarkable man.

            I was also lucky enough to have known Southern novelist Harry Crews, a two-fisted writer and (at one time anyway) drinker whose tough, often ugly tales of people just trying to get by under remarkable circumstances earned him a solid (though I hate this term) cult following. Something he once said to me will never go away:  “I always thought I’d be better than I am.” But for some of us, it hardly got any better.

            Novelist, essayist, and polymath Gore Vidal was a man of strong and often controversial opinions which he spoke bluntly and openly and with a good deal of humor, without the slightest fear of who might be offended. A brilliant and uncompromising thinker, perhaps the last of his breed, and a man who is sorely needed in this world of lies and artifice.

            From the moment I first heard his recording of Schubert’s Lieder back when I was in high school, German opera singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau immediately became my favorite tenor, especially his performances of Wagner. Unlike, say, Pavarotti or Placido Domingo, he never allowed his art to be cheapened by reducing himself to the level of a mere “entertainer.” He stayed true to the end, and he was the best. So unlike those other prancing clowns.

            Despite playing around with some big and complex ideas, the fact that Ray Bradbury wrote simply and—more damning still—was labeled a science fiction writer, he was never taken very seriously. He was someone for teenagers to read for awhile until they grew up. But there was such a range to his work that to dismiss him that way seems almost criminal. Stupid and blinkered at the very least. Few people wrote about childhood like Bradbury, and the fact that he admitted publicly that though he was in his seventies he was really just a kid who still loved dinosaurs and King Kong likely didn’t help his cause. Yes, he had the sales and the movie deals, but damn it he deserves our respect.

            What can you say about Ernest Borgnine? From Marty to The Wild Bunch, from Willard and The Ghost of Flight 401 to The Devil’s Rain, Borgnine was Borgnine, unmistakable and inimitable and never anything less than a joy to watch. Remember when actors used to have interesting faces?

            The loss of all these people does not bode well for the culture at hand or the culture to come. They were unique and fearless, they had the courage to be what they were whether or not the masses loved them or hated them for it.

            Of all the losses this past year though, I must confess I don’t think I’ll miss anyone more than the astonishing Susan Tyrrell. I had a terrible crush on her dating back, oh, probably 30 years or more. It didn’t matter if she was playing a bloated, washed-out alcoholic (Fat City), an evil queen of the Underworld (Forbidden Zone), or an explosively sexy hooker in black stockings and a garter belt (Tales of Ordinary Madness, in which she appeared opposite Ben Gazzara, making them another lost pair)—all she had to do was say “steak an’ eggs” in that throaty whisper of hers, and I was hopelessly hooked.

            If I may, on a personal note I would also like to mention Dr. Fred Kersten, a man who, without realizing it, was a profound early influence on me. When I was in high school he was my best friend’s dad, a professor of philosophy, a world-renowned phenomenologist, a musical scholar (especially opera), and one of the most frighteningly brilliant men I’ve ever met. Fred knew everything about everything, he was the one who introduced me to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and was the reason I decided to study philosophy. But for all that, I also admired him for his personal style, his way of approaching the world, and his wicked low-key humor. When I was young I always wanted to be Fred Kersten, or at least impress him in some way. I never achieved the former, and seriously doubt I ever achieved the latter, but not a week has gone by these past decades since we were in touch that I haven’t thought of him, and word that he had died hit me very hard. We just don’t see people like him anymore.

            So it’s with a twinge of sadness that we say goodbye to all these hundreds of people—so many greats were lost this year, so many people with an art and an air about them that has become so rare in our present world and will likely never be recreated again—offering them, for what it’s worth, a final tip of the hat and a final, thankful farewell.


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