by JIM KNIPFEL
January 13, 2019
Peggy Sue Got Buried Not Long Ago: The Dead Celebrities of 2018
While I’m hesitant to say Death exactly took a holiday in 2018, compared with the torrent of celebrity mortality that so marked 2016 and 2017, I think it’s fair to conclude Death at least went part-time this past year. Not only are the numbers down, but as throughout the rest of the country, all those things you assumed you could always count on can no longer be counted on. The standard Elvis category is absent this year, all those dozens of aging soap opera stars who traditionally kicked during the course of any given year kept breathing, and we didn’t even see the usual slew of thematic franchise-related die-offs that so regularly strike the likes of Disney or Star Trek. Christ, when porn doesn’t even rate its own category, you know something’s gone askew in the universe. My guess is Death not only cut back to half-time, he took on an apprentice who still has a bit to learn.
That said, it was still, as ever, a mighty interesting year, Reaper-wise, with it’s share of unexpected turns and guest appearances. As ever, fuck those tepid mainstream year-end obit lists. We all know Aretha is dead, but did CNN include the inventor of the wind-up radio? Did MSNBC bother to pause and remember Anal Cunt’s guitarist? I thought not, which is why I do this every year.
So off we go yet again, and for all the things that changed this year, some things remain immutable. One unflinching truth is that the movie and TV industries always get walloped hardest, and 2018 was no exception.
That cute but deadly Peggy Cummins, who starred as the carnival sharpshooter turned bank robber in the seminal 1950 noir film Gun Crazy, started the year off with a bang, which only seems appropriate in retrospect. Dick Van Dyke’s younger brother Jerry, himself a comic TV actor of fairly little note, died soon afterward, as did Darlanne Fluegel, star of To Live and Die in LA and several other Eighties crime thrillers; original Mouseketeer Doreen Tracey, who later went on to become Frank Zappa’s publicist; Forties MGM starlet Jean Porter; young Australian actress Jessica Falkholt, who died in a car wreck; and Hugh Wilson, who created “WKRP in Cincinnati” before co-writing and directing a few too many Police Academy movies.
While the James Bond franchise took a savage beating in 2017, the Angel of Death went a little easier this past year. That doesn’t mean 007 got away unscathed however, with the loss of Lewis Gilbert, who along with directing Alfie also helmed two Bond pictures, and Eunice Gayson, the very first Bond girl, who appeared in two Bond films herself. In related news, Peter Wyngard, the British actor whose stylish Bondian character Jason King helped inspire Austin Powers, has downed his last martini, and Verne Troyer, the miniscule actor who came to prominence playing Mini Me in the Austin Powers films, is now buried in a very small grave.
Oscar winner Dorothy Malone, who teamed with Bogart for that remarkable bookstore seduction scene in The Big Sleep before going on to star in the “Peyton Place” TV series, went toes-up in January, and was joined three months later by her “Peyton Place” co-star Tim O’Connor.
Meanwhile Hollywood’s oldest living actress Connie Sawyer, who in recent years had appeared on “Seinfeld” and “The Office,” finally decided to retire the hard way at 105. Olivia Cole, who appeared in the “Roots” and “The Women of Brewster Place” miniseries, wasn’t nearly that old, but decided to, um, “retire” as well, and so did Warren Miller, who found his niche making lighthearted documentary films about skiing; character actor Frank Adonis, who was in Goodfellas and Raging Bull; “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” TV series star Robert Dowdel; former “Glee” TV star Mark Salling, who hanged himself after being slapped with kiddie porn charges; TV series “Mad About You” co-star and Olympia Dukakis’s husband Louis Zorich; production designer Terence Marsh, who won an Oscar for his work on Doctor Zhivago; Dame June Whitfield of TV’s “Absolutely Fabulous” fame; “Frasier” and Barton Fink co-star John Mahoney; groundbreaking female TV executive Lin Bolen; actor, magician and all-around wonderful guy Ricky Jay; TV actor Reg E. Cathey, best known for his turns on “House of Cards” and “The Wire” series; the occasionally great John Gavin, who appeared in the likes of Spartacus and Psycho before becoming Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico for some reason; film composer Johann Johannsson, who wrote the scores for The Theory of Everything and a few other pictures; Tony-winning Broadway actress Jan Maxwell; Nanette Fabray, who won a Tony and an Emmy before spending the bulk of her career doing a lot of commercials and game shows; British actress Emma Chambers of Notting Hill fame; and Bollywood’s first certified female superstar, Sridevi.
I’m sure we all remember those sad days back in late January when the flags flew at half-mast and the UN declared an international week of mourning to mark the passing of Simon Barnes, who played Tinky-Winky on “Teletubbies.” Alas, no such officially sanctioned outpourings greeted the loss of Disney animator and voice actor Bud Lucky, who worked on The Incredibles and the Toy Story pictures; the esteemed and straight-faced David Ogden Stiers, best known for his arrogant stick in the mud role on TV’s “MASH”; Boston TV personality Frank Avruch, arguably the best-known of all the country’s Bozo the Clowns; “Chicago Fire” TV actress DuShon Monique Brown; one-time golden boy TV producer Steven Bochco, who had a real string of hits there in the Eighties and Nineties with shows like “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue” and “L.A. Law”; Sister Wendy Beckett, the unlikely and occasionally saucy host of BBC art history documentaries; and poor Dolores Taylor, longtime partner of that crazy Tom Laughlin and co-star of all his crazy Billy Jack movies.
If I knew more about anime, I’m sure I’d be able to come up with something clever and witty to say about famed anime director and co-founder of Studio Ghibl Isao Takahata, but I don’t and he’s still dead. Susan Anspach, who co-starred with Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, is now nestled six feet under the clover, as are Oscar-winning filmmaker Milos Forman who, coincidentally enough directed Mr. Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest just a couple of years later; Tony winning director and choreographer Donald McKayle; former Marine drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey, who made such a splash in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket before spending the rest of his acting career playing the same character; Pamela Gidley, who played Theresa Banks in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; Oscar-winning film editor Anne V. Coates; legendary Italian director Ermanno Olmi, who gave us Tree of Wooden Clogs; familiar TV actor Joseph Campanella, who starred in the unfortunate Willard sequel, Ben; Margot Kidder, who was so great in the Siamese twins mystery Sisters long before Superman came along and ruined everything; 102-year old (former) stage actress Patricia Morison, who made a name for herself starring in the original Broadway run of Kiss Me, Kate; famed movie poster artist Bill Gold, who gave us so many iconic one-sheet images for the likes of Casablanca and The Sting; Western star Clint Walker; TV’s “Young and the Restless” star Elizabeth Sung, the first of only two soap stars to make this year’s list; Robert Mandan, star of the comedy series “Soap” (which only half counts); and the great and inescapable genre stalwart William Phipps, who was in Five, The Twonky, Invaders from Mars, War of the Worlds, Snow Creature, and pretty much every science fiction film made in the Fifties.
It was a pretty rough year for Mel Brooks, I gotta say, with the deaths of his longtime (and Oscar-nominated) film composer John Morris, his Broadway choreographer Alan Johnson, and Gary Beach, who won a Tony for his performance in the stage adaptation of The Producers.
British director Michael Anderson may have given us the original Logan’s Run, but at this point his chances for renewal are looking pretty slim. Things aren’t looking much brighter for Hugh Dane, who played a security guard on “The Office”; “Sons of Anarchy” actor Alan O’Neill; Jackson Odell, who was a regular on “The Goldbergs”; “EastEnders” star Leslie Grantham; Clint Eastwood regular Sondra Locke, who co-starred in The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact, and a bunch of others; revered Repo Man cinematographer Robby Müller; “Land of the Giants” star Deanna Lund, who also appeared in two Elvis pictures; director Claude Lanzmann, who made the breathtaking Holocaust documentary Shoah; teen heartthrob turned cult film sensation Tab Hunter; Thirties musical comedy star Mary Carlisle; “Facts of Life” star Charlotte Rae; legendary and often controversial Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci; “Spongebob Squarepants” creator Stephen Hillenburg; screenwriter and script doctor Gloria Katz, who did what she could for that godawful Star Wars script; TV’s “F Troop” and “Mama’s Family” star Ken Berry; Tony-winning stage actor and Working Girl star Philip Bosco; Stefan Karl Stefansson, who played Robbie Rotten on the kid’s show “Lazy Town”; Oscar-winning and oddly respected screenwriter William Goldman who, for every Papillon or Marathon Man he gave us, he also gave us three stinkers like Magic; playwright Neil Simon, about whom pretty much the same thing could be said; sycophantic celebrity reporter Robin Leach, host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”; and TV sit-com actress turned successful populist director Penny Marshall.
In Cold Blood and Walking Dead star Scott Wilson has recently come to a much more intimate understanding of both concepts, while the list’s second and last soap actress, Peggy McCay of “Days of Our Lives,” has come to a better understanding of irony. Oscar-winning film composer Francis Lai, who inflicted that execrable Love Story theme on the world is now, thankfully, yes, decomposing, as are Katherine MacGregor of “Little House on the Prairie”; “E.R.” actress Vanessa Marquez, who was shot and killed by police; the great James Karen, who starred in Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster and Return of the Living Dead as well as Samuel Beckett’s one and only film, FILM; Oscar-winning Platoon producer Arnold Kopelson; The Hate You Give writer and director Audrey Wells; claymation artist Will Vinton, who for better or worse brought the California Raisins to life; one time Biggest Star in the World Burt Reynolds; “Bob Newhart Show” co-star Bill Daily; and Tony-nominated actress and singer Marin Mazzie. The one lonely porn star on this year’s list was Olivia Voltaire, who died of an overdose at age twenty-three. Sadly, after years of rumors and false reports, it was finally confirmed that Jerry Maren, the true last of the original Munchkins, has indeed come to that unexpected dead end in the Yellow Brick Road.
Americans sure do—or at least did—love their reality shows. Given there was in fact nothing “real” about them, I always took them to be little more than examples of Situationist theory pushed to giddy and dispiriting new heights. I never paid them any mind, and pointedly ignored the deaths of reality show performers when compiling the annual lists. I mean, it wasn’t like any of these people had any outstanding skills, talents or charisma worth remembering, right? But this year in particular, with long-standing fundamental categories like Elvis and porn stars vanishing, it somehow only makes nauseating sense that reality shows would bully their way into an inescapable category all their own. So reluctantly we note the hopefully agonizing deaths of “Wicked Tuna” star Nicholas “Duffy” Fudge.
Joel Taylor from the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” series,
Skipper Blake Painter from “The Deadliest Catch,” Richard “The Old Man” Harrison from The History Channel’s “Pawn Stars,” and Brian Lancaster, who appeared on some MTV reality show or another whose name I never bothered to jot down.
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That lazy old Grim Reaper had a lighter touch with the music industry in 2018 as well, with only a single Elvis-related fatality, and most classic rock bands left relatively unmolested. Or maybe everyone has already died. The one thing that held true was the old musician’s dictum—namely, drummers are expendable. So let’s start there.
Legendary session drummer Ndugu Chancler, who can be heard on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” lost the beat for good, and was joined by Plugz and Social Distortion drummer Charlie Quintana; Mickey Jones, who played drums for Dylan and others before becoming a character actor; James Brown’s slightly less funky drummer John ‘Jabo’ Starks; early Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana; and Pantera drummer and co-founder Vinnie Paul.
Unfortunately it wasn’t just drummers. Original Motorhead guitarist Fast Eddie Clark, last surviving member of the initial lineup, found himself holding aces and eights, and tragically, so did Buzzcocks vocalist Pete Shelley. Studio owner Rick Hall, who forged what came to be known as The Muscle Shoals Sound, has recorded his final track, as have Moody Blues co-founder and flute player Ray Thomas; Queen of the Blues Denise LaSalle; Mikio Fujioka, guitarist for the Japanese band Baby Metal; Sixties French pop singer France Gall; Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan; modern Gospel legend Edwin Hawkins, who had a massive godly hit with “Oh, Happy Day”; Chicago rapper Fredo Santana; Austin punk Mike Carroll of Poison 13; Jim Rodford, who played bass for The Kinks and Zombies before going on to co-found Argent; and the Father of South African jazz Hugh Masekela.
I was never a big fan of The Fall back in the day, but I was still saddened to hear that front man Mark E. Smith had kicked. He was such a rare and fearless public asshole. Country singer Larry White, who had a hit with “Now I Know,” has settled down for a long dirt nap, together with Holocaust survivor and noted jazz guitarist Coco Schumann; Temptations lead singer Dennis Edwards; rapper Lovebug Starski, one of about three dozen people credited with coining the term “hip-hop”; Nineties country singer with a very old school style, Daryle Singletary; songwriter and lyricist Norman Gimbel, who wrote the theme for “Happy Days” and translated the lyrics to “Girl from Ipanema”; beloved crooner Vic Damone; Barbara Ann Alston, who co-founded girl group The Crystals; songwriter and producer Jerry Riopelle, who worked closely with Phil Spector in developing the Wall of Sound style; Harvey Schmidt, who composed the music for The Fantasticks; influential concert promoter Brian Murphy who, lord save us all, was one of the central parties guilty of turning stadium rock into a thing; album cover artist Gary Burden, who designed memorable packages for The Doors, The Eagles, Neil Young and others; rapper Craig Mack; Avengers lead guitarist Nokie Edwards; and Beastie Boys producer Matt Dike, who founded the rap label Delicious Vinyl.
Boy bands had a mighty bad year, which some might say was long overdue. Devin Lima, LFO’s lead singer, ain’t pretty no more, and Seo Min-woo, lead singer of the k-pop band 100 Percent, became the year’s first hotel room overdose. But both pale in comparison with the fate of Indonesian boy band Seventeen, after a tsunami washed away three members and their road manager in the middle of an outdoor concert. Whoa, bummer!
Pioneering free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor won’t be booking more gigs anytime soon, and neither will Yvonne Staples of the Staples Singers; Charles Neville, Neville Brothers founding member and saxophonist; Sprague Brothers guitarist Frank Sprague; Swedish electronic dance music star Avicii; Bob Dorough, who wrote all those damnably unforgettable Schoolhouse Rock songs; country punk Tony Kinman of The Dils and Rank and File; Scott Hutchison, front man for Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit, who disappeared for a few days before turning up dead; guitar fuzz pedal inventor Glenn Snoddy; Chicago bluesman Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater; Anal Cunt guitarist Josh Martin, who suffered a tragic escalator accident; rock opera composer Galt MacDermot, best known for the wildly popular hippie extravaganza Hair and a subsequent string of colossal flops; Blind Boys of Alabama founder and leader Clarence Fountain; Latin Grammy-winning pop singer Jimmy Gonzales; Fleetwood Mac’s original guitarist Danny Kirwan; Muddy Waters and Blues Brothers sideman Matt “Guitar” Murphy; rapper XXXTentacion; Grammy-nominated jazz-pop singer and star of her own short-lived variety show Nancy Wilson; Alan Longmuir, founding member of The Bay City Rollers; Black Keys bassist Richard Swift; jazz singer Morgana King, who also played Mama Corleone in The Godfather; Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin; and country singer, “Hee-Haw” star and multi-instrumental virtuoso Roy Clark.
You might say Skynyrd guitarist Ed King, who co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama,” has the smell of death upon him. Well, he’s not the only one. So does Louisiana Swamp Blues harmonicist Leslie “Lazy Lester” Johnson; swamp rocker Tony Joe White, who wrote “Polk Salad Annie”; Aaron Huff, a cruise ship entertainer who understandably jumped overboard on Christmas Day; Baba Oje of the hip-hop band Arrested Development; Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove; endearing Australian conductor and music teacher Richard Gill; legendary Russian crooner Iosef Kobzon, who’d been dubbed “The Soviet Sinatra”; Adolescents founder Steve Soto; transatlantic fusion jazz pianist Randy Weston; Jefferson Airplane co-founder Marty Balin; Chicago blues guitarist Otis Rush; iconic French singer and actor Charles Aznavour; longtime Beatles audio engineer Geoff Emerick; famed Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballé; rapper Mac Miller; Arthur Mitchell, the groundbreaking black ballet dancer who founded The Dance Theater of Harlem; and Peggy Sue Gerron, who directly inspired so many Buddy Holly hits, and later wrote a book about it.
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I’ve said it most every year, but nobody gives a shit about writers anymore. And why should they? Take a look at the culture as a whole, and we’ve clearly worn out our welcome as well as our usefulness. But dammit, that’s exactly why I make a point of including them every year. Who else is bothering to notice? I even told my wife a couple of days back that should I be hit and killed by a drunk off-duty cop before finishing this column, it’ll be up to her to add my name to the list, and come up with an appropriate joke.
You almost have to think that since author Greg Critser spent his career writing about aging, obesity, drug abuse and other such speedways to mortality, dying shouldn’t have come as that big a surprise to him. It’s unclear if the same held true for Peter Mayle, bestselling author of A Year in Provence; activist and children’s book author Julius Lester, who wrote To Be a Slave; prolific and revered science fiction novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, whose Lathe of Heaven is a personal favorite; horror novelist Jack Ketchum; Walter Skold, who founded The Dead Poets Society of America; Donald Hall, who could now join Mr. Skold’s society, considering he was once America’s Poet Laureate; author, historian and one-time Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett Jr.; bestselling romance novelist Penny Vincenzi; Anita Shreve, author of The Pilot’s Wife; noted Mexican writer Sergio Pitol, author of Mephisto’s Waltz; acclaimed Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz; Pulitzer-winning historian Edwin Burrows, who penned a sprawling history of early New York; and the great Mel Gordon, theater historian and author of the definitive work on the Grand Guignol.
Philip Roth spent the last three decades of his life absolutely convinced he was going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, so maybe it’s no coincidence that the year the Academy announced they wouldn’t be handing out the lit prize, he up and died. V.S. Naipaul actually did win the Nobel, but died anyway, which just goes to show you. Prize-winning children’s book author Richard Peck has turned in his final draft, as have Willie Lee Rose, historian of U.S. slavery; pulp writer, sci-fi novelist, critic, contrarian, polemicist and son of a bitch Harlan Ellison; Right Wing writer John A. Stormer, author of the shrill anti-communist screed None Dare Call It Treason; Hong Kong journalist and popular martial arts novelist Louis Cha; and For Colored Girls playwright Ntozake Shange.
Toward the end of the year it was reported 2018 had been one of the deadliest on record for journalists around the world, pointing up the growing dangers faced by American reporters in a culture increasingly suspicious and hostile toward them. Most of the journalists on the list were in the Middle East, but here in America journalists were still dying, even if they hadn’t been imprisoned, tortured, killed and dismembered.
Max Desfor, the Pulitzer-winning AP photojournalist who documented the Korean War, died at 104. NPR’s Carl Kasell, who finished his career hosting a comic game show, has filed his last story, and so did acclaimed journalist and newspaper editor Frank McCulloch; venerable CBS Washington correspondent Bob Fuss; legendary photojournalist David Douglas Duncan (who was 102); NBC Civil Rights correspondent Richard Valeriani; KTLA morning anchor Chris Burris, who became the year’s second hotel room overdose; young conservative writer and TV commentator Bre Payton, who was associated with The Federalist magazine until she died of swine flu; Pulitzer-winning conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer; and Ed Schultz, host of MSNBC’s “The Ed Show.”
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If possible, in this day and age artists are even more maligned than writers and journalists, yet equally important in the long run when it comes to recording and interpreting what goes on. That’s why it’s always sad to report we’ve lost the likes of esteemed American painter Ed Moses; “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” creator Mort Walker; Native American performance artist James Luna; Playboy art director Art Paul, who gave us that iconic bunny logo; pop artist Robert Indiana, creator of the equally iconic “LOVE” sculpture; and Dave Dave, the popular Vegas-based artist who’d been so horribly burned by his father when he was a child. Special note should also be given to Marvel Comics and “Spiderman” fans, as this year also saw the loss of not only “Spiderman” co-creator Steve Ditko, but the Godfather of Marvel Comics himself, Stan Lee. ’Nuff said.
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It’s hard to imagine how tough it must be for comedians in these Post-Satirical times. How do you go out onstage and crack jokes, knowing full well the world itself is going to top you before your set is finished? It seems a few venerable comedians have decided to cope with it by taking a final bow and running for the wings. Among the funnymen (and women) we lost this year were ground-breaking gay comedian Bob Smith; eternal (well, almost) Vegas standby Marty Allen; influential stand-up Barry Crimmins, subject of the recent documentary Call Me Lucky; familiar character actor, voice artist and comedian Chuck McCann; Mitzi Shore, who gave a start and a boost to damn near every contemporary stand-up you can think of as the owner of The Comedy Store; Second City co-founder Barbara Harris, who also appeared in Robert Altman’s Nashville; and the underrated actor, comedian and magician Harry Anderson, who deserves to be remembered for a hell of a lot more than “Night Court.”
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It occurs to me every time I sit down to put the annual list together that these dead celebrity round-ups work as a measure of sorts, a snapshot of everything that happened in the culture over the previous twelve months. It says something, for instance, that I was forced to include a fucking reality show section after resisting for so long. As career choices go, pro wrestling has as high a mortality rate as construction workers or demolition experts, so wrestlers have always earned their own category, but I’m hard pressed to think back on any other year when we’ve lost so many from across so many eras. That says something too, though what exactly that is I’ll leave for you to decide.
Johnny Valiant, a.k.a. “Luscious,” was bodyslammed into oblivion last year, as were long-standing WWF champion and fan favorite Bruno Sammartino; that ornery Big Van Vader; the WWE’s Matt Cappotelli, winner of the “Tough Enough” competition; Thomas Billington, a.k.a. “Dynamite Kid,” who was one half of the popular British Bulldogs tag team; that mad Russian and longtime WWF villain Nikolai Volkoff; and Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart.
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NASA lost three heroes in 2018, less than a year before we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11. Both Jim Young and Alan Beam were among the rare few who walked on the moon. In the years that followed, Young would go on to command the first shuttle mission, while Beam went on to become a highly regarded painter of moonscapes. And though she remained earthbound, NASA’s chief of astronomy, Dr. Nancy Roman, was an invaluable driving force behind the development of the Hubble space telescope.
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Before moving on to the grab-bag of notables who didn’t really fit into any standard category, I’d like to pause just a moment to remember three iconic figures who helped make New York City what it once was. Although by most all accounts Fred Bass was an unredeemable son of a bitch, he turned the Strand into what is arguably the most important, and certainly the largest used bookstore in NYC, especially with most other used bookshops going the way of the dodo. What Bass did for books, Jerry Ohlinger did for movie memorabilia. If you were looking for lobby cards or stills or movie posters, there was only one dusty, shadowed and overpacked place to go, and that was Ohlinger’s. Finally, although he could have easily been dropped into the authors section, Tom Wolfe, father of the New Journalism and author of one of the fundamental fictional portraits of NYC in the Eighties, was as much a part of the city as the Chrysler Building or McSorley’s. He was smart, hep, and one heck of a snappy dresser. Maybe it only makes sense he decided it was time to split, given what’s happened to his city, and the role played by one unnamed figure who did so much to destroy it before moving on to bigger things.
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As mentioned, there’s always a handful of stragglers who, despite avoiding easy classification for our purposes, nevertheless did something that, for good or ill, made them worth remembering, at least for a few moments.
I’m sure more than a few of us over the years started to wonder if the Rev. Billy Graham would ever die, but I’m happy to report that he peacefully stepped over into the Great Beyond in 2018, and is presently getting to know Satan very, very well. I suspect Kevin Short had a more palatable fate awaiting him in the underworld. The tall, bearded and white-robed eccentric known as WeHo Jesus was a once inescapable figure around Los Angeles, and by all accounts a very nice fellow. Under the Carter Administration, Stansfield Turner was tasked with the job of cleaning up the CIA after it was revealed the Agency was spying on U.S. citizens. Let’s just say his reforms didn’t quite take, and then he died. One-time Most Evil Man on Earth, George H. W. Bush (who as it happens ran the CIA right before Turner was brought on board), died, too, just a few months after his Not Quite as Evil wife, Barbara.
Apart from those bigwigs, we also saw the passing of Dave Toschi, chief detective on the still-unsolved Zodiac Killer case; The Pope of French Cuisine Paul Bocuse; much beloved chef, author and television personality Anthony Bourdain; Alan Abel, undisputed King of the Media Pranksters; Naomi Parker Fraley, model for the iconic WWII Rosie the Riveter poster; one-time Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who went on to greater renown as one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Ensa Cosby, who ducked out shortly before her dad, who was already having a mighty bad year, was sent off to prison; Roger Bannister, the first man to break the four-minute mile; British inventor of the wind-up radio, Trevor Baylis; fashion designer to the stars Hubert de Givenchy; another fashion designer to the stars, Kate Spade, who hanged herself with one of her own trademark scarves; brilliant celebrity astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who to be fair was going a little funny in the head there those last few years; Linda Brown, central figure in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision; anti-apartheid activist, Nelson’s widow, and generally awful human being Winnie Mandela; gay rights pioneer Dick Leitsch; Colin Kroll, co-creator of the insanely popular HQ Trivia app; that terrible Joe Jackson, patriarch of the monstrously dysfunctional Jackson Family; Frank’s first wife and Nancy’s mom Nancy Sinatra Sr.; deejay Adrian Cronauer, who inspired the Robin Williams hit Good Morning Vietnam; Black Panther Party co-founder Elbert “Big Man” Howard; Kitty O'Neil, the deaf stuntwoman and daredevil who set a land speed record; near-mythical Boston mob kingpin Whitey Bulger; Hall of Fame Green Bay Packers fullback Jim Taylor; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen; postmodern architect Robert Venturi; and Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language and was, in all likelihood, a far better and wiser creature than anyone else on this list.
As always, before dumping that last spadeful of dirt on the remains of 2018 and calling it a day, I’d like to take a few final moments here to pay special homage, in no particular order, to a few notable individuals who meant something to me personally. Please indulge me.
There’s no question that radio monologist Joe Frank owed a great debt of gratitude to Jean Shepherd, but over the course of some four decades on the air, Frank took the basic form and translated it into something uniquely his own. Along with simply telling occasionally deeply personal stories about his failed relationships and health problems, he sometimes wove Surrealist fantasies, played long phone conversations with friends, ran excerpts from Buddhist lectures, and laid it down over some of the most grating music ever recorded. Even if I found him very hard to take at times, there was no denying he was one of a kind.
No, character actor Bradford Dillman may not have been the greatest actor who ever graced the screen. He never won any Oscars, and when he died early last year the sad news was not met with any lengthy glowing accolades in the mainstream press. In fact had my friend John not tipped me off, it might have slipped under my radar completely, which is shocking. See, Dillman, a likable, wide-eyed, low-key performer, co-starred with Dean Stockwell and Orson Welles in the 1959 Leopold and Loeb picture Compulsion and later played Clint Eastwood’s bureaucratic adversary in a couple of Dirty Harry movies. In the Eighties he mostly got by doing guest spots on every TV show imaginable. But in the Seventies he was a genre regular, appearing in Guyana: Cult of the Damned, Piranha, The Swarm, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Chosen Survivors, the made-for-TV werewolf picture Moon of the Wolf, and so many others. His real star turn, however, came in Bug, in which he played an increasingly unbalanced scientist trying to establish communications with a new species of intelligent and deadly cockroach. To those of a certain cinematic mindset, seeing Dillman’s name in the credits always told you that you were in for something good. That his death went so unnoticed is almost criminal.
A few weeks before he died, I wrote a column about my Uncle Tom Gaustad. I have an awful lot of aunts and uncles, and in fact lost a number of them this past year. But among them all, Tom always had a special place as the man who, given he had RP himself, diagnosed me long before any doctor, and continued to teach me about blindness long after I lost my sight. He was a very wise and funny man.
Radio host Art Bell began as a rock’n’roll deejay in the late Seventies. In the Eighties he switched to a standard political call-in format, but after noticing his ratings jumped whenever he strayed into Far Right and conspiratorial territory, he shifted focus again. For a stretch there he was a direct antecedent to today’s Infowars. But after the Oklahoma City bombing, fearing his show might have been somehow responsible, he changed his focus again, and that’s when he really came into his own. From that point until his retirement, Art Bell’s syndicated show became a necessary stop for anyone interested in UFOs, Bigfoot, weird science, the paranormal and mysterious history. Bell’s magic was simple. Although he’d bring in True Believer expert guests and take listener calls, he’d just let them talk. He didn’t believe any of the crackpot stories himself, but he was respectful enough to never correct, mock, or in anyway denigrate his guests and listeners. If they believed, that was good enough for him, and good for ratings on top of it. There are a lot of pretenders out there nowadays, but none of them can touch the original.
Canadian actor Douglas Rain was blessed with a voice that exuded soothing reassurance. “Everything will be just fine,” he always seems to be saying, “everything is under control,” even as the house is exploding around you. This is why he was the perfect choice when it came to casting the voice of the HAL-9000 computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It could be argued the film would not have infiltrated the public consciousness quite so thoroughly had it not been for Douglas Rain. No, he was never a household name or a prolific actor, but he didn’t need to be—he will always be remembered.
From his earliest fanzine through Exit magazine, Amok Press and finally Feral House, Adam Parfrey, son of character actor Woodrow, was a writer and publisher who established himself at the epicenter of all the varied crosscurrents of the American underground, from punks and conspiracy theorists to outsider artists, cultists, nihilists, Satanists, neo-Nazis and serial killers. He was a firebrand and provocateur, who fearlessly published things no one else would touch, both reflecting and defining the darkest corners of the culture. I’ve written about Adam numerous times over the years in assorted contexts, we were friends for some thirty years, and I still regret that falling out we had a few short months before he had a stroke and died. He was a singular character, and there will likely never be another like him, no matter how much we need someone of his ilk and razor insights right about now.
I’ve written quite a bit about Hardy Fox over the years as well. As The Residents’ manager, marketing director and producer from the very beginning, he was instrumental in spreading the word about the anonymous San Francisco-based avant-pop collective, as well as maintaining the shadowy band’s mythology. Without Hardy, it’s likely they’d still be living in that little apartment above the auto body repair shop in San Mateo, recording tapes that never left the building. I’m very proud to have called him a friend.
Looking back over this comparatively short list, I have to worry a little that the lists are getting shorter simply because the world is running out of interesting and talented people worth remembering. All the more reason to raise a glass and tip a hat to all those names above, as they all helped make an increasingly unpleasant world a shade more interesting there, at least for a spell.
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