SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
January 11, 2015

2014: When the Stars Came Out to Die

 

So far as I’m able to figure, this is the eighteenth year now I’ve been keeping a tally of the famous and not so famous who’ve joined the ranks of the decomposing over the previous twelve months, most of whom would never make it onto your mainstream “dead celebrity” lists. The names are always different, but the one constant at play is that the minorly and majorly notable will keep shuffling off this mortal coil at more or less the same rate as the rest of us schlubs. What does seem to change on an annual basis, however, is the focus. The music and movie industries are always hit hard, mostly on account of the sheer populations involved. Things start to get a little weird, though, when you begin to notice a lot of pro wrestlers are dying, or a lot of porn stars, or inventors, or that an unlikely number of people who are connected in some way are dying around the same time.

            The same sort of thing happened this year, though it didn’t become obvious until I began looking at the list closely. But we’ll get to that.

            Speaking of decomposing, the music died for an awful lot of people this year, including those titular favorites Jay Traynor of Jay and the Americans, Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers, and Paul Revere of, yes, Paul Revere and the Raiders. Famed conductors Loren Maazel and Claudio Abbado both set down their batons as well. Texas singer-songwriter Steven Fromholz was shot and killed after dropping his gun while hunting, and Jersey Boys guitarist Jeff Ray was struck by a train while sitting on railroad tracks posing for pictures.

            Riz Ortolani, the man who composed the incongruously romantic score for the gut-churning film Cannibal Holocaust died in January, as did that obnoxious, self-righteous Pete Seeger, who should’ve been devoured by cannibals. We also lost reggae singer William "Bunny Rugs" Clarke; early punk rock producer and manager Marty Thau; German New Wave pioneer and Trio guitarist Gert “Krall” Krawinkel; Maria von Trapp, last of the original singing von Trapps (so you can begin humming now); Bill Haley guitarist Franny Beecher;  acclaimed flamenco guitarist Paco de  Lucia; country singer and musical comedian Tim Wilson; influential swing clarinetist Buddy DeFranco; and The Monks’ frontman Gary Burger, who was a screaming wild man despite the robes and haircut. Or maybe because of them.

            Drummer and sometimes actor Joe Lala’s heart pounded out its last beat. The Rolling Stones had a rough early December, losing  two sidemen in two consecutive days: collaborator-keyboardist  Ian McLagan and sax player Bobby Keys. We also have to bid a sad farewell to sloppy GWAR frontman Dave Brockie; “Dueling Banjos” composer Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith; singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester; Puerto Rican Salsa legend Cheo Feliciano; country singer Kevin Sharp; hip hop artist DJ E-Z Rock; rapper Cahron Childs; and  famed (if not exactly beloved) crooner Jerry Vale;.

            Jazz vocalist Little Jimmy Scott and hard bop pianist Horace Silver both closed their last gig in 2014, as did Carole King’s songwriting partner Gerry Goffin; singer Johnny Mann; eternal (well, almost) Vegas entertainer Legendary Steve Rossi; Al Green’s songwriter and guitarist Teenie Hodges; R&B singer Bobby Womack; influential jazz bassist Charlie Haden; and that pasty-faced blues guitar maestro, Johnny Winter.

            Guitarist Dick Wagner wore his share of makeup when he was playing with Alice Cooper and KISS, but now he’s wearing a different sort of makeup, and probably too much rouge. Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick kicked, and so did (insert your own joke here) Survivor lead singer Jimmy Jameson; big band leader Gerald Wilson; Cosimo Matessa, the record producer who made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Four seasons producer and popular gay songwriter Bob Crew; jazz-funk pioneer Joe Sample; Grand Ole Opry favorite George Hamilton IV; dance music poet and vocalist the Space Ape, aka Stephen Samuel Gordon; Jack White keyboardist Ikie Owens; Manhattan Transfer founder Tim Hauser; Raphael Ravenscroft, who played the big sax solo on the hit song “Baker Street;” unlikely pop star Joe Cocker; one-time British pop sensation Alvin Starburst; Wayne Static, frontman for the metal band, um, Static; flamenco guitar  king Manitas de Plata; early hip hop figurehead Big Bank Hank; and Motown singer Jimmy Ruffin

 

The music business may have had a rough go of it in 2014, but that may make sense given the whole industry is dying. But the movie and TV industries, which seem to be going gangbusters (that Sony foofarilla aside), couldn’t seem to keep that sneaky ol’ Reaper away from their doors either. Barbara Lawrence, who appeared in Oklahoma! and Gone With the Wind’s Alicia Rhett both fluttered away into the darkness. So did Saul Zaentz, the Oscar-winning producer responsible for Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the great Run Run Shaw, who together with his brother introduced the world to the joys of Homg Kong chop-sockey movies. We also lost versatile TV actress Carmen Zapata and British sitcom star Roger Lloyd Pack. TV viewers of a certain generation might start feeling decidedly older upon hearing we lost Gilligan’s Island’s Professor Russell Johnson,  The Brady Bunch’s housekeeper Ann B. Davis, and Dave Madden, who played The Partridge Family’s manager Reuben Kincaid. Sadder still, it’s merely a matter of time now, and not much of it at that, before we find ourselves in a Munchkinless world, what with the passing of the last of the original female Munchkins, Ruth Duccini.

            Legendary sitcom creator Ben Starr learned the hardest of all the Facts of Life (one of the shows he created) at age ninety-two. Also gone are reality show contestant Roy Garber; Pierre Jalbert of Combat! fame; Gordon Hessler, producer of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Cry of the Banshee, and other favorites; The Taking of Pelham 123 director Joseph Sargent; former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Tom Sherak; award-winning Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso , known for his  massive historical epics; Arthur Rankin, Jr., who as one-half of Rankin-Bass helped traumatize millions of children around the world with his animated holiday specials; sixties cult star Christopher Jones of Wild in the Streets; Maximilian Schell, star of Judgment at Nuremburg, The Black Hole, and so many other films both great and otherwise; Little House on the Prairie’s shopkeeper Richard Bull; and Gabriel Axel, the Oscar-winning Danish director of Babette’s Feast.

            Even if there wasn’t exactly a national day of mourning, the monkeys and lions weren’t going loop-de-loop last February with the news Shirley Temple had croaked. Ralph Waite, who played the unusually mellow patriarch of a farming family on The Waltons, decided to take a dirt nap, and Jim Henson’s son John, though he gave it the ol’ college try, finally decided to stop doing second-rate impressions of his dad for good. We also said goodbye to character actress Mary Grace Canfield, best known for her role on Green Acres; British writer and actor Jeremy Lloyd of Are You Being Served?; busy character actor Booth Colman of Star Trek and Planet of the Apes;  Miss America turned (a sort of) actress Mary Ann Mobley;  Christopher Malcolm, who played Brad in the original stage production of Rocky Horror; writer-director-actor-comedian Harold Ramis, who went from Second City to blockbusters like Stripes and Ghostbusters; and Roger Hill, who had a brief but memorable turn as Cyrus in The Warriors, if you can dig it.

             It was a rough year for seventies game show hosts, with the passing of both Jeff Edwards and Dating Game host Jim Lange; Hiroshima Mon Amour director Alain Resnais was fitted for a pine box, as was Sheila MacRae, who played Alice in the sixties revival of The Honeymooners; Basketball Diaries director Scott Calvert; Luise Rainer, the first actress to win back-to-back Oscars;  Hogan’s Heroes’ Cynthia Lynn; Wendy Hughes from My Brilliant Career; Captain Video star Richard Coogan; voiceover king Hal Douglas, who launched a thousand movie trailers; British cooking show host Clarissa Dixon Wright; venerable cinematographer Oswald Morris; Homeland actor James Rehorn; Errol’s widow Patrice Wymore-Flynn, who also appeared in the original Ocean’s 11; and Lorenzo Semple Jr., creator of the 1966 Batman TV series.

            The house lights went down for Harry Novak, the one-of-a-kind exploitation film producer and distributor who gave us The Creeper. Things also went dim for British actress Kate O’Mara, who appeared on Dynasty; King Kong Escapes co-star Rhodes Reason; screenwriter Everett De Roche; Christine Cavanaugh, who provided the voice of Babe the talking pig; reality show contestant Eric Hill, who died while paragliding; Bob Hoskins, who gave so many memorable turns in the likes of Brazil and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?; TV veteran Efram Zimbalist Jr. of The F.B.I.; iconic Israeli filmmaker Assi Dayan; Les Carlson, who was so very good in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome; and Oscar-winner Malik Bendjelloul, director of Searching for Sugarman.

            The Rebel Without a Cause curse rolled inexorably onward with the death of Beverly Long. There was probably no curse involved, but it was still sad to hear of the passing of award-winning cinematographer Gordon Willis, who shot The Godfather and so many other films. Jazz singer Herb Jeffries made movie history when he suggested and then later starred in a series of what would be the first Black Westerns, in which he played a singing cowboy named Harlem. 2014 also saw the passing of Austrian-born actor Karl Heinz Boehm from Peeping Tom; Joan Lorring, nominated for an Oscar for her performance in The Corn is Green; The Young Ones’ unforgettable Rik Mayall; Sabrina’s Martha Hyer; the deeply respected Ruby Dee; the great character actor Eli Wallach, who appeared in everything from Spaghetti Westerns to crime films to horror movies and was always swell; writer-actress Mary Rodgers, who wrote Freaky Friday; and Meshach Taylor from Designing Women.

            Low-key writer-director-actor Paul Mazursky did a little bit of everything, from writing and directing films like Harry and Tonto and Enemies, A Love Story to lending his voice to Kung Fu Panda 2, but always very quietly. Now he’s about as low-key as he’s likely to get. Also on the quiet side these days are Bob Hastings of McHale’s Navy; To Kill a Mockingbird’s Rosemarie Murphy; Dick Jones, who provided the original voice of Pinnocchio; David Legeno of the Harry Potter movies, who died of heat stroke in Death Valley; actress and singer Elaine Stritch; the always splendid and resilient James Garner of Maverick and The Rockford Files; young suicidal actress Skye McCole Bartusiak; actor and video game producer Peter Marquard; sixties Japanese-American actor James Shijeta; TV producer Robert Halmi Sr.; groundbreaking cinema verite documentary filmmaker Robert Drew; and the wildly great Dick Smith, undisputed king of Hollywood makeup effects.

            Onscreen, Marilyn Burns was the only unsuspecting victim to survive The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but forty years later real life caught up with her. It also caught up with one of my favorite low-budget producers Menachem Golan, but not before he gave us cinematic wonderments like Lifeforce, Barfly, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. We also lost Ed  Nelson of Peyton Place fame; Emmy-winning soap actor Charles Keating; Game of Thrones’ J.J. Murphy; generally undistinguished character actress Arlene Martel, who will nevertheless always be held dear by the hardcore geek crowd for having played Spock’s bride-to-be on the original Star Trek; Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton; the esteemed and award-winning actor-director Richard Attenborough, who was probably kicking himself to the very end for that Jurassic Park nonsense; black TV producer and documentary filmmaker William Greaves; Western director Andrew V. McLaglen; and the imposing but always fun Richard Kiel, who was born to play James Bond villains and Bigfoot.

            The laughs were even more sparse than usual around the Saturday Night Live set this past year with the loss of alumnus Jan Hooks and the inimitable Don Pardo, who’d been the show’s announcer from the very first episode. British actor Donald Sinden found himself on the slab, and so did actor Stefan Gierasch, who appeared in dozens of films from The Hustler to Carrie; Darrell Zwerling, who likewise appeared in dozens of films from Grease to Wild at Heart; Wagon Train’s Denny Miller; singer Polly Bergen, who co-starred in Cape Fear; Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer; incompetent but deeply earnest cable access talk show host Skip E. Lowe; Don Keefer, who will always be remembered as the guy who whispered bad thoughts into the corn in that Twilight Zone episode; Trinidadian singer-dancer-actor Geoffrey Holder, who seemed to be everywhere you looked and listened in the seventies and eighties; Broadway actress Marian Seldes; character actress Sarah Goldberg, who appeared on Seventh Heaven and House; Elizabeth Peña, who played important roles in Jacob’s Ladder and La Bamba; and young Misty Upham, who was recently in Frozen River and Django Unchained.

I was saddened to hear of the death of L. M. Kit Carson, whom I’d met in the East Village a few times many years back, long before I knew he was an actor and director who’d also co-written Paris, Texas. Playing Doc on Fraggle Rock sure didn’t help Gerard Parks, who’s now pushing up weird-looking daisies. Gone as well are great character actor Edward Herrmann of Reds, The Wolf of Wall Street, and a thousand other movies;  prolific character actor Dick Schaal of The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!; Carol Ann Susi, best remembered by the dummies for her work on The Big Bang Theory, though to me she’ll always be Carl Kolchak’s secretary in The Night Stalker; David Watson, who had the thankless job of being the only actor apart from Roddy McDowall to play Cornelius in a Planet of the Apes film; Warren Clark, who had a long and fine career playing grumpy types on British TV, but really made his mark as Dim in A Clockwork Orange; Beckett’s favorite actress and co-star of The Omen Billie Whitelaw; The Addams Family’s Pugsley Ken Weatherwax; Japanese movie star Ken Takakura; and one-time sharp Second City comedian turned overrated and bafflingly respected middlebrow film director Mike Nichols.

 

 All of that may have been more or less expected, but it was a surprise to note how many writers, and notable ones at that, kicked in 2014. Of course if the deaths of so many musicians mirrored the death of the music industry, taking stock of the current state of publishing the real surprise is that we didn’t lose thousands more writers.

            Gone, for instance, are British novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, known for her rambling family sagas; business author and TV host George Goodman; famed Argentine poet Juan Gelman; Pulitzer-winning poet Maxine Kumin; East Village poet, novelist and scenester Maggie Estep; Brooklyn magazine writer John Cocchi, who was found drowned; British comic writer Sue Townsend; fantasy novelist Grahame Joyce; Norman Bridwell, author of the Clifford the Big Red Dog books; Canadian short-story writer  Mavis Gallant; black poet and author Sam Greenlee, who wrote The Spook Who Sat by the Door; Flowers for Algernon author Daniel Keyes; Up the Down Staircase author Belle Kaufman; and Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author of the best-selling book How We Die, who found out just how right or wrong he was.

            At this point you might be saying to yourself, “Poets? Short Story writers? So what’s the big deal? Who’s gonna miss them?” And for the most part I’d likely agree, but then you have to realize we also lost activist and poet Amiri Baraka; famed author and naturalist Peter Matthiessen; popular poet (and how rare is that these days?) Maya Angelou; Nobel-winning South African author Nadine Gordimer; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel-winning author of One Hundred Years of Solitude; Thomas Berger, author of Little Big Man and so many other novels; bestselling British mystery novelist P.D. James; and Al Feldstein, the writer and editor who made MAD magazine what it was, for which I will be eternally grateful.

 

            Tangential to the writers, and not counting those who were beheaded or killed in botched rescue attempts, among the ranks of journalists and sort-of journalists, we bid adieu to radio talk show pioneer Bob Grant; respected and long-time TV journalist Garrick Utley; three-time Pulitzer-winning photojournalist  Michel du Cill;  reporter and author of the bestselling Fatal Vision Joe McGinnis; Richard C. Hottelet, the last of Murrow’s Boys;  veteran TV reporter Bruce Morton; Fox News reporter Dominic Di-Natale, who committed suicide; and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who had the courage to run with both the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate story, and changed American history as a result. If only we still had a few more like him.

            One of the other interesting twists this year was the notable lack of deaths in the worlds of professional wrestling and porn. In fact there were so few I was forced to combine them into one category, which I believe is a first. No matter—they’re pretty much the same thing anyway.

Playboy’s Miss February 2006 Cassandra Lynn Hensley was found dead in her LA home (yes, yes, yes, I’m well aware Playboy is about as close to porn as the Saturday Evening Post, but I was desperate). Famed lady wrestler of the fifties Mae Young was pinned for the last time, as was legendary porn actress turned porn publisher Gloria Leonard; the WWE’s Sean O’Haire; porn director Jake Malone, who dove off a bridge;  and James Helwig, better known to wrestling fans as the Ultimate Warrior.

 

            I dunno, maybe the world is simply becoming a less funny place. Or maybe it’s becoming so funny in and of itself we no longer need comedians to point it out for us. In any case we sure lost a lot of them in 2014, more than I can ever remember losing in a single year before. Sure the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers earned a lot of headlines, mostly as a result of their shocking and unfortunate final circumstances. But along with those two the laughter also went silent for Australian comedian Bill Kerr, who appeared in The Year of Living Dangerously; comedian-writer-actor Eddie Lawrence, better known as The Old Philosopher; stand-up comedian John Pinette, who made his mark on TV history playing the overweight carjacking victim in the final episode of Seinfeld; James “Jimmy Mac” MacNair, the comic who died in the same wreck that seriously injured his friend Tracey Morgan; the hugely popular Mexican comedian and TV personality Chespirito, who inspired The Simpsons’ Bumblebee Man character; sort-of comedian and talk show regular David Brenner (I’m sorry, but he was simply never funny); and Creaky the Clown, reportedly the world’s oldest at eighty-nine, so we can all breathe a little easier now that he’s gone.

 

            Then of course there are all the others, the people who certainly made their mark on the world while they were here, but often in ways that didn’t allow them to be fitted neatly into some larger category.

            No less important than the musicians and actors and porn stars are people like famed rodeo clown Quail Dobbs, who died in January at age seventy-two. The game’s over for Ralph Baer, who invented the world’s first video game console, thus hastening the speedy decline of civilization. Also missing from the table are former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; anti-segregation protester and one of the Greensboro Four, Franklin McCain; rugged and outdoorsy Eric Lawson, who was the Marlboro Man in print and TV ads for years; Glenn McDuffie, the sailor in that iconic WWII Times Square kiss photo; fashion designer and Mick Jagger girlfriend L’Wren Scott, who is rumored by some to have died from autoerotic asphyxiation; Bob Geldof’s antic-prone fashion model daughter Peaches; Packers great and local Green Bay personality Fuzzy Thurston; Hasbro executive Donald Levine, generally known as the father of G.I. Joe; Teddy Ruxpin creator Ken Forsse; and former Vietnam P.O.W. Jeremiah Denton, who blinked the word “torture” in Morse code during a forced taped confession to send a message to American authorities. 

            The geek world was deeply saddened by the loss of doughy and creepy sci-fi artist H.R. Giger, whose paintings graced dozens of book covers and movie posters, and who was responsible for the overall production design of Alien. Stan Goldberg, the artist responsible for establishing  the unmistakable look of Archie comics, is now resting peacefully in the Riverdale Cemetery. The art world also lost eccentric and wealthy child molester Stanley Marsh III, who was repeatedly misidentified in obituaries as the man responsible for the Cadillac Ranch installation (which was in fact conceived and executed by the members of the Ant Farm collective). Speaking of side notes to the art world, we also lost fabulous Warhol Superstar Ultra Violet, as well as legendary hippie Stephen Gaskin, founder of one of the largest and best-known communes of the era; Reagan press secretary James Brady, who became an outspoken gun control activist after being shot in the head by John Hinckley; Will Radcliffe, creator of the Slush Puppy; Comer Cottrel, inventor of the Jheri Curl kit; Sy Berger, creator of Topp’s baseball cards; former Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier; model, actress, and central player in England’s Profumo Affair Scandal Mandy Rice-Davies; former Miss America and longtime NYC political player Bess Meyerson; David Greenglass, the spy who helped finger the Rosenbergs; fashion designer Oscar de la Renta; and Tom Magliozzi, co-host of NPR’s Car Talk.

            Finally, as usual, there are a few people who passed on over the course of the year who, for very personal reasons, I would like to set aside for special attention. There are a few undeniable greats in the list above, and while those listed below might not all be generally accepted as universally great, they were to me.

            I always had a bit of a crush on Lauren Bacall. At least in those first two films she made with Bogart. I’m not alone in that—she was sultry and sexy, she had a great husky voice and there was a palpable electricity between them. I admit I lost a bit of interest later as it became apparent she really wasn’t much of an actress, but as she got older and disappeared from films a funny thing happened. As she entered her sixties and seventies that old spark returned. I can’t say what it was, exactly, a quiet, dynamic charisma that had no tolerance for bullshit or the stupid. I can understand that. And besides, as the years passed, her voice, if it changed at all, only got better.

As the founder of Something Weird Video, movie geek Mike Vraney did more than simply salvage the films of Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis for geeks like me (and I suppose a new generation). He also introduced me to a number of genre and exploitation obscurities (bizarre horror films, head-scratching low-budget juvenile delinquent and sexploitation numbers, and things that simply shouldn’t exist in a rational and upstanding universe) I had never heard of before. But he went beyond even that. I don’t know where he found most of these things, but he packed each disk with mind-boggling short films that could often put the feature to shame. Who knew, for instance, there were so many softcore shorts about Bigfoot? Something Weird was clearly a labor of love for him, and he gave the freaks in that subsubculture, eternally searching for films like this, more than our money’s worth. I don’t know how many Something Weird releases I have in the library here, but I’m thankful for all of them.

            Yes he got a lot of press and there was a general outpouring of annoying grief and dismay when Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed. Why would someone that talented, an Oscar winner even, do such a thing, right? Well I don’t know and I don’t care. Truth be told I wish more contemporary Oscar winners would off themselves, useless, generic bits of flotsam that they are. But I’d been noticing Hoffman since the Nineties, from small supporting roles in the likes of Scent of a Woman, The Big Lebowski, and Happiness to his later showcases, and even if I hated the films in question, he was always interesting and authentic in a schlubby kind of way. He didn’t look like anyone else, he wasn’t a pretty boy, he didn’t sound like anyone else, and for all his distinctness, he was a chameleon onscreen. We don’t have any actors like that anymore, and with his passing I’m just given one more reason to completely stop caring about modern films.

            Although they each deserve their own lengthy entry, I’m going to lump them all together here.  Scott Ashton of The Stooges, Tommy Ramone of the Ramones, and Bob Casale of DEVO all passed on this year, and together they represent a history, an evolution of the punk rock that meant so much to me when I was first discovering how pissed I was at the world. The Stooges took the garage rock of the mid-sixties and amplified everything about it, from the sound to the subject matter to the performance style. It was terrifying, painful madness at the time, and almost completely ignored. But they reached the people who needed it, and inspired the next generation. Fortunately that generation included Tommy Ramone, first drummer and producer for the band that scraped pop music to the bone, reduced it to three chords and sped it up, creating a whole new genre of songs about mental defectives, male prostitutes, and horror movies. Then a couple of years later along came DEVO, who pushed the sound in new directions but maintained the attitude, taking the dangerous step of adding philosophy and mythology to the mix, as well as sharp social criticism and a wacky sense of humor. Together the three of them influenced and inspired millions, but no one was ever able to touch them. Now all the original Ramones are dead. Half of DEVO is dead. And, well, I guess Iggy’s still around. And that’s just baffling.

Having said all that, it might seem a little strange to raise a toast to Casey Kasem, the inescapable voice of American Top 40, but there you go. If I turned on the radio as a kid, there was Casey Kasem. If I tuned into Saturday morning cartoons, there was Casey Kasem. If I watched animated holiday specials like Here Comes Peter Cottontail, there was Casey Kasem. Even as I got older and went to see movies like The Dark or put on albums by avant-garde bands like Negativeland, there was Casey Kasem. People talk about Dick Clark, but since I never watched American Bandstand he was never a factor in my developing cultural consciousness, but Kasem was everywhere. He was the true voice of my generation, the inescapable voice that defined mainstream pop culture in the seventies and eighties. For better or worse, I owe him a debt of gratitude. It’s just a shame his final weeks had to be such an ugly circus.

            When it comes to the early days of television, people always trot out the likes of Milton Berle and Red Skelton, but for my money there was no one funnier than Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows. Surrounded by top-notch comedians like Carl Reiner and a writing team that included Neil Simon and Woody Allen, he introduced American TV audiences to the wild world of comic improvisation and unpredictability. He was as sharp-witted as they come, and a monstrous influence on the direction of American comedy. That’s why it always pissed me off that people, even in his mostly overlooked obituaries, tended to focus on his drinking. He deserved so much more than that, and now that I think of it his bitterness in later years was well-earned. He was one of the very greats.

            Okay, by most accounts of people who’ve worked with him, Mickey Rooney was not always the most pleasant fellow to be around. That’s neither here nor there. To me his early Andy Hardy films are neither here nor there either. But as he grew older it became more clear Rooney was not only a sharp comedian among comedians (I’ve heard stories about his interactions with Jonathan Winters), but a surprisingly good actor and an extremely smart man who didn’t shy away from making fun of his own reputation. I remember getting well over an hour into the early eighties weirdie psychological horror film The Manipulator before realizing that was indeed Mickey Rooney in the lead. That’s the film (along with Drive a Crooked Road) that convinced me he was much more the actor than anyone gave him credit for. After that, say what you will, I became a big Mickey Rooney fan.

            Finally, and with lingering sadness, I have to once more make note of the passing of Steve Kersten, one of my oldest friends, who died unexpectedly in 2014. Over thirty-plus years our friendship had its ups and downs, but we always circled back around again and found it was as if nothing had ever happened. I may have talked about any number of comedians above, but Steve put them all to shame. He was one of the funniest and kindest people I’ve ever known, and I was proud he was my friend. Not a day goes by still that I don’t think of him.

            So to Steve and all those hundreds of others, each of whom left his or her mark on the planet before skipping away leaving us a little poorer, I raise a final toast and offer a final word of thanks. Except maybe to that righteous dick Pete Seeger.

 

With special thanks to Gary Hertz for his invaluable research.

 

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