by JIM KNIPFEL
January 12, 2020
We Gotta Get Outta this Place: The Many, Many Dead Celebrities of 2019
It’s an observation more than a few people commented on as the months rolled by. Something seemed to be different this year. So many notables were dying. Of course this happens every year, but in 2019 there seemed to be a decided acceleration to the process, as if the famous were racing toward extinction faster than the snail darter. There may not have been many true cultural giants in the mix—no Sinatras or Bowies—but my goodness they just kept dropping. Let me put it this way. The first time I compiled this list some twenty-odd years ago, I think there were barely a hundred names included. I thought 2018 was extraordinary when we hit three hundred and twenty. But in 2019 we topped five hundred dead celebrities, which is a little scary. And exhausting.
Something else was going on beyond simple volume. When music industry deaths far outweigh deaths in the movie and TV industry for the first time ever, you get the sense something strange is going on. When the Dead Writer and Artist categories each give the Movies and TV category a run for its money, then something is most definitely topsy turvy. And when Dead Porn Stars disappears as a category completely, it’s a sure sign we’re in the End Times.
Okay, so that may be pushing it, but there has most definitely been some kind of climactic shift in our cultural landscape, make of it what you will.
As ever, you won’t recognize all, or even most of these people by name, but it’s entirely likely you’re acquainted in some way with what they did. This is what makes them important, even if they’re ignored by all the other year-end roundups put out by namby-pamby mainstream dumbasses. So get yourself some snacks and a pair of comfy pants—this is gonna take some doing.
Traditionally I’ve always opened with Movies and TV, as that always boasted the numbers to justify the top spot. As noted, however, things have changed, and there were a helluva lot more decomposing musicians than deleted movie stars, so we’ll start things off with a sprightly funeral dirge.
When most people hear the term “traditional music,” they think of a once-popular form now long dead. Well, much the same thing could be said of John Cohen, who co-founded the New Lost City Ramblers and spent a lifetime doing what he could to keep traditional music alive. While traditional music may still be alive, Mr. Cohen is less so. Speaking of the once popular but now dead, Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show’s drummer and vocalist Ray Sawyer hit the ultimate high hat, as did Captain and Tennille’s Daryl Dragon; Neil Young’s wife Pegi, a musician in her own right who co-founded The Bridge School; The Honeycombs’ female drummer Honey Lantree, quite the rarity in the Sixties: Dean Ford, vocalist for the Scottish band Marmalade, who had something of a hit with the single “Reflections”; Christine McGuire, oldest of the popular Fifties family act The McGuire Sisters; Howell Begle, who fought for the rights of R&B performers; minimalist composer Dennis Johnson, best known for “November,” a six-hour piece for piano; openly gay Hispanic rapper Kevin Fret, who was shot to death in Puerto Rico; soul singer Clydie King, who sang backup for the Stones, Skynyrd, and pretty much everyone else; The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Joseph Jarman; synthesizer pioneer Alan R. Pearlman; acclaimed Wagnerian singer Theo Adam; Lorna Doom, bassist for the seminal LA punk band The Germs; pop country singer and music industry trailblazer Bonnie Guitar; legendary Nashville studio guitarist Reggie Young, who played with Elvis, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings; Country Music Hall of Fame guitarist Harold Bradley, who played with Elvis and Hank Williams; session drummer Hal Blaine, who backed up Elvis, Sinatra and The Beach Boys; entertainment lawyer and mogul Robert F.X. Sillerman, who handled the Elvis estate; Memphis deejay and longtime Elvis friend George Klein ; Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Maxine Brown Russell of The Browns; and iconic African musician Oliver Mtukudzi.
Instead of winning an Oscar, more than a few listeners thought pianist Michel Legrand should have been lined up and shot for composing “Windmills of Your Mind”. Well, he may not have been shot for that affront to all that is right and good in the world, but at least he’s dead, so now we can all relax. There was decidedly less partying in the streets when we learned of the assorted passings of ballet dancer Patricia McBride Lousada, who’d been part of Balanchine’s original troupe; “Baby Come to Me” singer James Ingram; oft-sampled funk keyboardist Edwin Birdsong; Jean Guillou, whose radical compositions for organ raised a few highbrow eyebrows; Canadian pop singer Kelly Fraser, who sang in Inuit to make a point; esteemed piano accompanist Dalton Baldwin; gospel legend and civil rights activist Rev. Clay Evans; Margo Rodriguez, who together with her husband helped popularize mambo; producer Izzy Young, who presided over the Sixties folk revival as head of New York City’s Folklore Center; black ballet star Mel Tomlinson; photographer Guy Webster, who snapped iconic album covers for the likes of The Doors, The Stones and Simon and Garfunkel; photographer Robert Freeman, who snapped iconic album covers for The Beatles; one of The Beatles’ first booking managers Joe Flannery; legendary tour manager Gerry Stickells, who worked with Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and Queen; Joe Smith, the record executive who signed Jimi Hendrix, James Taylor, and Queen among countless others; LA rock promoter Jim Rissmiller, who helped spread the word about The Stones and Queen; and WFMU deejays X-Ray Burns and Frank O'Toole (neither of whom were directly connected, I’m guessing, with The Beatles, The Stones, Jimi Hendrix, or Queen).
Baltimore’s First Lady of Jazz, Ethel Ennis, was given a royal send-off. The Queen of Swing Norma Miller died too, as did Beth Carvalho, Brazil’s Godmother of Samba, the King of Surf Guitar Dick Dale, and Andre Williams, The Godfather of Rap. They were joined by mere commoners like Monkees guitarist Peter Tork; country music producer, publisher, and Monument Records founder Fred Foster; influential and deliberately controversial radio personality Don Imus; Jackie Shane, Grammy-nominated transgender soul singer from the Sixties; Marie Fredriksson, half of the Swedish pop duo Roxette; legendary country and bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman; Mark Hollis, who fronted the Eighties British electro pop outfit Talk Talk; Pulitzer-winning opera composer Dominick Argento; Andy Anderson, the black drummer who played with The Cure, Iggy Pop, and so many other indie bands; South African jazz singer, songwriter and activist Dorothy Masuka; calypso singer and songwriter Irving Burgie, who gave us “Day-O” and other hits; original Flamin’ Groovies singer Roy Loney; composer, conductor, and former Mr. Mia Farrow Andre Previn; Moog pioneer Gershon Kingsley, who composed the snappy novelty hit “Popcorn”; and Keith Flint, lead singer for The Prodigy.
Survivor’s bassist Stephan Ellis can no longer live up to the band’s name, and even though they were never members of Survivor, neither can songwriter, producer, and record label founder Hugh Fordin; composer and pianist Jacques Loussier, known for his jazzy interpretations of Bach; rockabilly cult favorite Sleepy LaBeef, who became an icon without ever having an original hit; Ranking Roger of English Beat and General Public; Danny and the Juniors’ David White; Grammy nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was gunned down outside his own clothing store; up-and coming rapper Juice Wrld, who died after a seizure in an airport; gospel and house music singer Kim English; Abbey Simon, known as a pianist’s pianist; O’Jays co-founder Bill Isles; country music legend Earl Thomas Conley; Tony-winning Hello Dolly and La Cage Aux Folles composer Jerry Herman; tuba virtuoso Sam Pilafian; Rhino Records executive Gary Stewart; opera singer Charity Tillemann-Dick, who died at thirty-five after two double-lung transplants; Irish soprano Heather Harper, known for her interpretations of Benjamin Britten; John Mann, who fronted the Canadian band Spirit of the West; Congolese musician Fan Fan; Hawaiian producer and composer Jack de Mello; immigration judge Susan Beschta, who went by the name Susan Springfield as part of the Seventies punk band The Erasers; Charles Barksdale, co-founder and bass vocalist for Chicago doo-wop group The Dells; Jimmy Cavallo, front man for Jimmy and The Houserockers, the first all-white rock band to play The Apollo; Alabama 3’s Jake Black, who wrote The Sopranos theme song; songwriter Allee Willis , who wrote the Friends theme song; Popular studio percussionist Emil Richards, best known for providing the finger-snapping on The Addams Family theme; jazz clarinetist Sol Yaged; depressive cabaret singer Baby Jane Dexter; revered singer and guitarist Leon Redbone; Guadalcanal Diary co-founder Jeff Walls; Tony Glover, master of the blues harmonica; New Orleans mainstay Dr. John; New Orleans R&B mainstay Dave Bartholomew; famed Louisiana guitarist 'Lil' Buck' Sinegal; Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys; Jim Pike, co-founder and lead singer of The Lettermen; rock manager Elliot Roberts, who handled Neil Young and a bunch of other notable acts; Jeff Austin, co-founder and mandolinist for the Yonder Mountain String Band; Gary Duncan of the once-popular Bay Area psychedelic outfit Quicksilver Messenger Service; Brazilian Bossa nova pioneer João Gilberto; Jack Renner, who founded the jazz and classical record label Telarc; Persuasions lead singer Jerry Lawson; South African music legend Johnny Clegg; Art Neville of The Neville Brothers (who, swear to God, dies every year); L.A. area musician and producer Ras G ; indie singer songwriter David Berman of The Silver Jews; Village People co-founder Henri Belolo; noted early music cellist Anner Bylsma; Canned Heat bassist Larry Taylor; Celso Pina, Mexico’s acclaimed Accordion Rebel; in-demand indie roots rock session guitarist Neal Casal; Funkadelic album cover artist Pedro Bell; Vaughan Oliver who, in designing album covers for The Pixies, The Breeders, and Cocteau Twins, created 4AD Records’ signature look; pianist and songwriter Donnie Fritts, who blended soul and country; the Great Scott Walker, singer of majestic hepcat despair; jazz trumpeter and rare female bandleader Clora Bryant; Ruth Anderson, a groundbreaker in early electronic music; and songwriter LaShawn Daniels, who penned monster hits for Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Beyonce.
“Two Tickets to Paradise” singer Eddie Money finally got to take that trip, though it seems he went alone. Young country singer Kylie Rae Harris’ star was rising fast in Nashville, right up until that whole “fatal drunken car accident” business. Southern soul and pop session guitarist Jimmy Johnson wasn’t behind the wheel, or even in a car at the time, but he’s strummed his last heartfelt lick, as did unsung female blues guitarist Beverly Guitar Watkins; beloved Spanish pop crooner Camilo Sesto; Mexican crooner Jose Jose; The Cars gangly front man Ric Ocasek; Memphis jazz pianist and band leader Harold Mabern; Pulitzer-winning composer Christopher Rouse, whose modern classical works were influenced by rock; Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter; revered French Horn player Myron Bloom; legendary soprano Jessye Norman; influential early rapper Jimmy Spicer; growling and beloved punk rock fixture Kim Shattuck of The Muffs; Jack Sheldon, jazz trumpeter, Merv Griffin sidekick and, most important of all, Schoolhouse Rock vocalist; genre-mixing pianist Larry Willis; wildly influential drummer Ginger Baker of Cream and The Ginger Baker Trio; original Skynyrd bassist Larry Junstrom, who later played with .38 Special; Country star Kane Brown’s drummer Kenny Dixon; K-Pop star Sulli; K-Pop star Goo Hara; K-Pop star Cha In Ha; George Chambers, bassist for the psychedelic soul outfit The Chambers Brothers; famed country music radio show host Bob Kingsley; Latin jazz saxophonist and composer Ray Santos; Little Feat singer and guitarist Paul Barrere; and the Great Neil Innes, the multi-instrumentalist and song parodist who worked with Monty Python and co-created The Rutles. I once passed on the chance to go ride the Go-Karts with him at Coney, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since.
And that’s just for starters. You might want to take a bathroom break before moving on—we’re going to be here awhile.
Although it came in second this year numbers-wise, as ever the movie and TV industry witnessed a flood of mortality, with actors, writers, directors and producers across the board finding themselves abruptly cancelled without warning.
Albert Brooks’ brother Bob Einstein, who made a name for himself as disaster-plagued daredevil Super Dave Osborne, attempted one last stunt that went really, really wrong. Boston traffic reporter turned character actor Joe Stapleton, who appeared in Mystic River and Manchester By the Sea, found himself snarled in that Final Traffic Jam on the thruway. Character actor Michael J. Pollard, nominated for an Oscar for his role in Bonnie and Clyde, holed up in his last hideout, along with noted low-key Indian director Mrinal Sen; Hong Kong director Ringo Lam, whose City of Fire turned out to be far more influential than he could’ve imagined; Rosenda Monteros, so memorable in The Magnificent Seven; Lee Mendelson, executive producer behind those beloved Peanuts TV specials; Mary Kay Stearns, who starred in the 1947 proto-sitcom Mary Kay and Johnny; Mungau Dain, the Oscar-nominated star of Tanna, about his Pacific island village; Verna Bloom, who despite roles in High Plains Drifter and The Last Temptation of Christ, will always be remembered as Dean Wormer’s wife in Animal House; St. Elsewhere and Northern Exposure creator John Falsey; Hello Dolly’s Carol Channing; Tony Mendez, the former CIA agent whose experiences inspired the film Argo; Andy Vajna, the Hungarian-born producer of Rambo, Total Recall, and other mind-numbing Eighties crap; TV, nightclub and Broadway comedian Kay Ballard; Bill Cosby accuser Louisa Moritz, who appeared in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Young and the Restless star Kristoff St. John; Julie Adams, best remembered as the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s love interest; inescapable TV commercial actor Joe Sirola; Carmen Argenziano from Stargate SG-1; Mable Lee, the Tap Dancing Queen of 1930s short subjects; Donald Smith, the anti-abortion zealot who produced the creepy cult classic The Silent Scream; German actor Bruno Ganz, who appeared in Wings of Desire before playing Hitler in Downfall; director Stanley Donen, who gave us musicals like Singing’ in the Rain and On the Town; Morgan Woodward, who played the field boss in Cool Hand Luke; and The Munsters’ original Marilyn, Beverly Owen;
The great if irascible Jonas Mekas was an experimental filmmaker, curator, historian and (after a night of dumpster diving behind a recently shuttered movie studio) co-founder of NYC’s Anthology Film Archive. He spent a lifetime preserving lost, forgotten, and misbegotten films, but alas could not do the same for himself. Luke Perry, who played a teenager on Beverly Hills 90210 while in his thirties, apparently dropped his elixir of youth, which smashed on the bathroom floor. That was that for him. The exact same thing happened to his 90210 alumnus Jed Allan; actress Lisa Sheridan of Halt and Catch Fire; Sanford and Son’s Nathaniel Taylor; Danny Aiello from Do the Right Thing, Jacob’s Ladder and Once Upon a Time in America; Katherine Helmond, who was so splendid in both Soap and Brazil; poor, drunken Jan-Michael Vincent of Hit List, Damnation Alley, and some inexplicably popular television show about helicopters; Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island producer Leonard Goldberg; Alice co-star Philip McKeon, who played Linda Lavin’s smart-assed son Tommy; Will & Grace actress Shelley Morrison; Universal Studios chief Sidney Sheinberg, who championed Steven Spielberg in the early Seventies; former Universal, Viacom and HBO chief Frank Biondi Jr.; busy character actor Richard Erdman, who appeared in Stalag 17 and The Twilight Zone; director Jonathan Miller, who starred in Beyond the Fringe; film editor Norman Holland, who worked on Sophie’s Choice; Barbara Hammer, who made experimental erotic lesbian films (!); pioneering French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda; producer and executive Michael Lynne, who turned Fine Line studios around; Claudine Auger, the Bond girl in Thunderball and the first French actress to appear in the franchise; Tania Mallet, the Bond girl in Goldfinger; Nadja Regin, who was also in Goldfinger and From Russia With Love, but not as a Bond girl; David Picker, the studio chief behind the Bond and Beatles films; Oscar-winning Spotlight producer Steve Golin; and prolific actress and regular Gene Autry co-star Fay McKenzie;
After a quick side trip to pick up The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Georgia Engel and Valerie Harper, that ol’ Grim Reaper spent his share of time this past year touring Disney Studios, which always fills my heart with glee. In the process, he put the finger on original Mouseketeers Dennis Day and Karen Pendleton, Minnie Mouse voice actress Russi Taylor, and unusually young and popular Disney Channel star Cameron Boyce. While the Reaper was up to all that, Satan himself came around and finally snatched Ben Kinchlow, that long-running and endlessly insufferable co-host of The 700 Club. In sadder news, we also lost character actor Seymour Cassel, who appeared in so many John Cassavetes films; Bibi Andersson, who appeared in thirteen Ingmar Bergman films; iconic French New Wave actress Anna Karina, who appeared in seven Jean-Luc Godard films; Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch; The Getaway and McCabe and Mrs. Miller producer David Foster; Barbara Schultz, a producer responsible for any number of serious and topical TV dramas; former boxer Bradley Welsh from Trainspotting 2; Chuy Bravo, actor and sidekick on the Chelsea Lately talk show; Ken Kercheval, who played JR’s rival on Dallas; Jim McMullan, who was also on Dallas; the swell and Oscar-nominated Sylvia Miles from Midnight Cowboy and so many other things; futurist designer Syd Mead, who helped create the worlds we saw in Blade Runner and Tron; Lonesome Dove screenwriter Bill Wittliff; Oscar-nominated Boyz N The Hood director John Singleton; Larry “Flash” Jenkins from Fletch and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; experimental filmmaker Phil Solomon; Peter Mahew, who will always and forever be remembered for playing Chewbacca; Tony winning actor Richard Easton; David Winters, the dancer and choreographer who appeared in West Side Story; composer Sid Ramin, who orchestrated the music for West Side Story; five-time Tony winning Broadway producer Terry Allen Kramer; and Barbara Perry of the Dick Van Dyke Show.
These past few years have been tough ones for Twin Peaks and 2019 was no exception, with both Peggy Lipton and Linda Porter finding themselves wrapped in plastic. Singer and actress Doris Day was right, and the future wasn’t hers to see. Popular German actress Hannelore Elsner waved auf wiedersehen, as did Oscar-winning Paper Moon screenwriter Alvin Sargent; Samoan actor Pua Magasiva, who played the red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger; Emmy and Tony-winning actor Ron Liebman from Slaughterhouse Five, Norma Rae and Angels in America; Jack Burns, the fourteen-year-old ballet dancer and child star who appeared on Outlander and a few BBC shows; playwright Roger Hirson, who had a hit with Pippin before realizing there was much more money in TV; flashy populist Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli; Sixties hepcat British filmmaker Peter Whitehead, who worked with The Rolling Stones; the Great and hugely influential photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, who made films with the Beats and, yes, The Stones; experimental animator Suzan Pitt, whose short, “Asparagus,” was screened along with Eraserhead during the latter’s initial midnight movie run; Ben Barenholtz, who actually created the midnight movie phenomenon at NYC’s Elgin Theater; Paul Benjamin from Do the Right Thing and other films; creepy villainous character actor Billy Drago from The Untouchables; ALF actor Max Wright; Susan Bernard from the timeless Faster, Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill!; Laugh-In’s inimitable Arte Johnson; Tony-winning Martin Charnin, who will burn forever for creating Annie; Sam Bobrick, who will burn even longer for creating Saved by the Bell; Oscar-nominated Italian actress Valentina Cortese from Truffaut’s Day for Night; Denise Nickerson, who was somehow not nominated for an Oscar for playing Violet in Willie Wonka; TV actress Stephanie Niznik, best remembered for Everwood and Star Trek; William Morgan Sheppard, who also appeared on Star Trek, as well as Doctor Who and Mad Men; Star Trek actor Robert Walker, Jr.; Barbara March from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine; her Deep Space Nine alum Aron Eisenberg; René Auberjonois, who was also a Deep Space Nine regular as well as co-star of the 1976 King Kong; D.C. Fontana, a rare female member of the original Star Trek writing team; Seinfeld’s Charles Levin, who went missing and was later found dead in Oregon; the Great Albert Finney, whose brilliant turns in the likes of Under the Volcano and The Dresser landed him in the Pantheon; The Fly and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea’s David Hedison; legendary Broadway producer Hal Prince; longtime Saturday Night Live lighting director Phil Hymes; D.A. Pennebaker, the influential documentary filmmaker who made the Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back; Oscar-winning Italian costume designer Piero Tosi; Spartacus producer Edward Lewis; and iconoclastic French director Jean-Pierre Mocky.
Taiwanese-Canadian actor Godfrey Gao of Mortal Instruments died on the set of a Chinese game show, proving he wasn’t an immortal actor. Peter Fonda may not have been gunned down by rednecks, but for my money he should’ve been. Who Framed Roger Rabbit animator Richard Williams was censored this past year, not unlike the always entertaining Rutger Hauer of Nighthawks, Blade Runner, and a personal favorite, Blind Fury; Italian bodybuilder-turned-actor Franco Columbu, who was in a bunch of pictures with his pal Arnold Schwarzenegger; Emmy-winning Pinky and the Brain writer Gordon Bressack; Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks; Carol Lynley of The Poseidon Adventure and Vigilante; Jeff Fenholt, who played Jesus in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar; Lolita and Night of the Iguana star Sue Lyon; Scorsese collaborator and screenwriter Mardik Martin, who gave us Mean Streets and Raging Bull; actor Brian Turk of TV’s Carnivale; Tony-winning Broadway and TV actress Phyllis Newman; and, sadly, Jessica James, the only porn star on this year’s list.
For as long as it’s been on the air, it’s amazing how many people involved with The Simpsons from the early days are still alive. Well, I guess you can scratch producer J. Michael Mendel off that list. Wildly flamboyant comedian Rip Taylor finally ran out of confetti. Karate Kid co-star Robert Garrison found himself flat on the mat for good, as did movie title credits designer Wayne Fitzgerald; Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated and groundbreaking singer and actress Diahann Carroll; the Great Robert Forster, who brought such a spark to Medium Cool, Alligator, Mulholland Drive and countless other films; character actress Anna Quayle, best remembered for her turn in A Hard Days Night; movie poster designer Philip Gips; Bill Macy, who gave such a memorable turn as a demon on Millennium but will always be remembered as Maude’s husband Walter; producer Al Burton, who helped develop shows like Mary Hartman and One Day at a Time; Days of Our Lives star John Clark; storied film producer Robert Evans, who brought Chinatown and The Godfather to the screen despite being completely insane; actor and comedian John Witherspoon; Same Time, Next Year playwright Bernard Slade, who went on to create The Partridge Family; Marvelous Mrs. Maisel actor Brian Tarantina; Ann Crumb, who was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s go-to American actress; Virginia Leith, who will always be remembered for The Brain That Wouldn’t Die despite having been in Kubrick’s first feature; Holocaust survivor Branko Lustig, who went on to become the Oscar-winning producer of Schindler’s List; French actress and singer Marie Laforêt; and thirteen-year-old Broadway sensation Laurel Griggs.
For the past few decades, as we all know, writers haven’t received much by way of respect, or even recognition. I mean, what did they do, anyway, right? So they strung words together, so what? Any fool can do that. It’s not like they did anything worthwhile, like putting on a funny costume to star in a comic book movie or something important like that. Hell, when writers died they rarely even got obituaries—they were just dumped in Potter’s Field and forgotten. But as noted at the beginning, something weird happened this year, and suddenly when even minor and pointless writers died, people were taking notice. So much so this category suddenly swelled, becoming the biggest Dead Writers entry ever. I can’t explain it, and I’m not sure I want to. Maybe with the population growing increasingly illiterate, people are starting to think writers have superpowers or something, but not the kind that keeps them from dropping dead.
It’s pretty ironic that novelist Brian Garfield, author of Death Wish and its sequel, Death Sentence, took the plunge into oblivion as the year got underway. What Hollywood did to his book, and what his book therefore became in the public consciousness, would make any writer ache for the void. Popular children’s book author John Burningham joined him in that void, as did feminist journalist and novelist Francine du Plessix Gray; prize-winning poet of the natural world Mary Oliver; Holocaust survivor George Brady, whose experiences inspired the children’s book Hana’s Suitcase; British author, editor and memoirist Diana Athill; The Shell Seekers author Rosamunde Pilcher; historian Robert K. Massie, author of bestselling biographies of Russian aristocrats like Nicholas and Alexandria and Peter the Great; children’s book writer Jan Wahl, whose stories for the little crumb crushers were illustrated by the likes of Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, and Norman Rockwell; conservative historian and author Gertrude Himmelfarb; C.Y. Lee, bestselling author of Flower Drum Song; French author and illustrator Tomi Ungerer, who released both children’s books and erotica; Heidi Toffler, Alvin’s wife and the uncredited co-author of Future Shock and other works credited to her husband; Southern novelist Elizabeth Spencer, author of The light in the Piazza; novelist Andrea Levy, who wrote about the experience of Jamaican immigrants in England; Betty Ballantine, who as the head of Bantam and Ballantine Books helped popularize the paperback; gay romance writer Patricia Warren; novelist Dr. Theodore Rubin, who popularized psychoanalysis in the mind of the American public; finger-popping word jazz poet Ken Nordine; prolific and hugely popular military novelist W.E.B. Griffin; Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins, who went on to write novels about sports; and former pitcher Jim Bouton, author of the bestselling baseball tell-all Ball Four.
Jeraldine Saunders’ memoir about life on a cruise ship went on to inspire The Love Boat, which is reason enough to be glad she went down with all hands this past year. Literature professor and Confessions of a Lady Killer novelist George Stade failed his final exam, and so did art historian John Richardson, who penned a four-volume biography of Picasso; prize-winning poet W. S. Merwin; prize-winning poet Linda Gregg; Da Chen, whose memoir Colors of the Mountain chronicled his family’s persecution during China’s Cultural Revolution; Barbara Testa, the librarian who raised a ruckus in the literary world when, over a century after it vanished, she discovered Mark Twain’s handwritten manuscript for the first part of Huckleberry Finn in her attic; children’s author Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, known for her Nate the Great series; bestselling children’s book author Andrew Clements, known for his YA novel Frindle; Mrs. Caliban author Rachel Ingalls; Star Trek novelist Vonda McIntyre; War of the Roses author and playwright Warren Adler; playwright Mark Medoff, who gave us Children of a Lesser God; Belle of Amherst playwright William Luce; science fiction author Gene Wolfe; Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief at Knopf and a giant in the publishing world; Jesuit priest-turned-novelist John L'Heureux; bestselling Christian author Rachel Held Evans; and Chuck Kinder, the novelist who inspired Wonder Boys.
Herman Wouk, the bestselling author of thick, sprawling populist historical novels like War and Remembrance and The Caine Mutiny, died at 103. Children’s book author Judith Kerr , who wrote The Tiger Who Came to Tea, made it to 95 before deciding it was time for a quick dirt nap. Former Random House publisher Robert L. Bernstein, who went on to found Human Rights Watch, was 97 when he noticed some daisies needed pushing. Controversial Reagan biographer Edmund Morris didn’t make it quite that long, but kicked nevertheless, and the same can be said for Cold War spy novelist Anthony Price; National Book Award-winning novelist Larry Heinemann, whose work focused on the Vietnam War; Charles Reich, author of the countercultural standard The Greening of America; Paris Review publisher Susannah Hunnewell; Judith Krantz, bestselling author of sleazy women’s novels; brassy New York literary editor and publisher Elizabeth Sifton, with whom I had more than a few drinks over the years; Brenda Maddox, who wrote biographies of women who never received the attention they deserved; feminist author Marilyn Yalom, who wrote histories of the breast and what it means to be a wife; foreign correspondent-turned-novelist Ward Just; actress and playwright E. Katherine Kerr; Andrea Camilleri, author of the popular Inspector Montalbano series; Nicholas Kittrie, Pulitzer-nominated author of books about international law and morality; LSD-touting counterculture guru Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now and several other books of New Agey nonsense; George Hodgman, author of the bestseller Bettyville; prolific novelist, journalist and critic Martin Mayer; Nobel laureate (for some unknown reason) Toni Morrison; influential black novelist Paule Marshall; children’s book illustrator Charles Santore; biographer and editor James Atlas; Dorothea Benton Frank, who wrote bestselling novels though I’m hard-pressed to name one; Peach Tree Road author Anne Rivers Siddon; poet Jane Mead; author and editor Sol Stein, who worked with James Baldwin and Dylan Thomas; satirical German author Günter Kunert; Belfast-born Irish poet Ciaran Carson; poet and novelist Kate Braverman, who found inspiration in L.A.’s underbelly; bestselling romance novelist Johanna Lindsey, known for her lusty pirate stories and Fabio cover art; prolific experimental writer Stephen Dixon; Carol Brightman, who wrote books about Mary McCarthy and The Grateful Dead; esteemed author Ernest Gaines, who wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; publisher Walter Minton, who fought for the right to release Lolita and Fanny Hill in the States; feminist author Kate Figes, who wrote about family; anti-P.C. literary and social critic Harold Bloom, whom I hated in the Eighties but have since come to respect deeply; and the Great John Giorno, whose Giorno Poetry Systems brought poetry to life and a new hipster audience with films like Poetry in Motion, compilation albums like Smack My Crack, and recordings of William S. Burroughs, Laurie Anderson and so many others.
Although there’s been a bit less talk this year about the worldwide war on journalism and journalists, reporters everywhere are still risking their lives to get the story out, and far too many are still making that final deadline. Among those who filed their last byline this past year were pioneering TV news correspondent Sylvia Chase; influential Vogue fashion editor Babs Simpson; Pulitzer-winning humorist and columnist Russell Baker; popular TV consumer reporter David Horowitz; Wall Street Journal reporter and Blue Latitudes novelist Tony Horowitz; Jake Phelps, who edited the punk skateboard magazine Thrasher; Art Kunkin, who founded the countercultural Los Angeles Free Press in 1964; Washington Post foreign correspondent and editorialist Karl E. Meyer; groundbreaking female foreign correspondent Georgie Anne Geyer; Present Tense editor and anti-war author Murray Polner; Mike Sheehan, an NYPD cop at the center of the Central Park 5 case who went on to become a local TV crime reporter; drunken, mob-loving, semi-literate New York Post columnist and Rupert Murdoch tool Steve Dunleavy; 60 Minutes producer Katherine Textor; NBC correspondent Jack Perkins; legal affairs reporter and Court TV anchor Fred P. Graham; fierce liberal voice Cokie Roberts, who made the leap from NPR to network TV; veteran TV news correspondent Sander Vanocur; and rarely satisfied cultural critic John Simon.
Like writers, 2019 also witnessed a wholly unprecedented uptick in the number of artists who called it quits. Perhaps, just given the state of the world, they came to realize that paint on canvas wasn’t going to change anything anymore, wouldn’t for a good long time coming, so just gave up. Or maybe they saw dying as a symbolic bit of performance art in response to an insane world, who knows?
In any case, the shutter has closed for the last time for noted cat photographer Walter Chandoha; artist, choreographer and Steve Buscemi’s wife Jo Andres; ceramic artist John Mason; Nicola L, perhaps best described as a feminist multimedia functional pop artist; May Stevens, whose paintings were inspired by her antiwar activism; feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann; conceptual artist Susan Hiller; Robert Ryman, a minimalist painter known for his white canvases; legendary California tattoo artist Rick Walters; Lyle Tuttle, considered the father of modern tattooing; pop artist Don Nice, known for his paintings of the Hudson River; Guatemalan muralist and printmaker Rina Lazo, who worked with Diego Rivera; whimsical French Surrealist sculptress Claude Lalanne; Woody Vasulka, early video artist and co-founder of famed NYC performance space The Kitchen; abstract artist Mavis Pusey; popular portrait painter Everett Raymond Kinstler; Joe Overstreet, the African-American artist and activist; famed Harlem graffiti artist Stan 153; influential hip-hop graffiti artist Phase 2; Mexican Expressionist Francisco Toledo; pioneering Abstract Expressionist Ed Clark; groundbreaking female Abstract Expressionist Mary Abbott; celebrity photographer Raeanne Rubenstein; celebrity photographer Terry O'Neill; Ken Heyman, who was less a celebrity photographer than a photographer of famous people; and perhaps the most significant artist of the lot, Dan Robbins, who invented paint-by-numbers.
It was roughly thirty years ago that both the literary and art establishments started taking the latest generation of comic books seriously, with the Times adding a graphic novels category to their bestseller lists and MoMA hosting exhibits of Art Spiegelman’s work. But it was only in the last few years the deaths of comic artists and cartoonists began receiving enough attention to earn their own category here, and like other unlikely categories, the numbers keep increasing.
Comic book artist Tom Lyle, who worked for both DC and Marvel on titles like Spiderman and Robin, has drawn his last set of colorful tights. Popular Japanese manga artist Monkey Punch no longer has to wait for the death blow, and neither do Tom Spurgeon, a writer and reporter who covered the comic book industry; eternal New Yorker cartoonist Dana Fradon; comic strip editor and developer Lee Salem, who helped bring Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes to life; legendary comic book artist, writer and editor Ernie Colón , who co-created Swamp Thing; and Gavin Wilson, a cartoonist known for his extremely dark sense of humor.
Speaking of dark humor, I guess I wasn’t all that surprised by this past year’s dead comedians. In fact I fully expect this category to explode in the coming years. I mean, you pay attention to the news, who the fuck needs comedians anymore, right? Their jobs have been outsourced to non-professionals, so what’s left to do but give up the habit of breathing? That’s what comedian and TV writer Kevin Barnett decided. British comedian Ian Cognito opted to exchange stand-up for lay-down by literally dropping dead onstage. Brody Stevens, who appeared in The Hangover films, can no longer hear the laughter, and neither can Comedy Store founder (and Pauly’s dad) Sammy Shore; Angelo Lozada, who used to warm up Daily Show crowds; Philly-based Comedy Central comedian Chris Cotton; and Kip Addotta, who appeared on The Midnight Special, Dr. Demento, and The Tonight Show.
For the last several years, we’ve lost enough of my childhood heroes from the space program to justify an astronaut section. Perhaps with the golden era of U.S. manned space flight fading away as the corporations take over, perhaps with so many of the astronauts anyone would remember already gone, the category became another of the few that dwindled this year. But damn it, I love this category and can’t let it go.
To help mark the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, Christopher Kraft, Mission Control director and NASA’s first flight chief, splashed down for good, together with Skylab and shuttle astronaut Owen Garriott; physicist-turned-UFO nut Stanton Friedman; and cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who was the first man to walk in space, a full four years before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. So there.
Ah, but if the other categories were full of surprises, do this annual list as long as I have, and you learn soon enough and with no little gratitude that you can always count on pro wrestlers. Other categories may come and go, but Dead Wrestlers are a universal constant, given that the mortality rate among wrestlers tops that of cops and construction workers, bless their steroid-addled souls. So this past year, Ethel Johnson, a rare black lady wrestler from the Fifties who, unknown to wrestling fans, often grappled with her own sister in the ring, went through the ropes one last time. WWF champion Pedro Morales took the three count. The unforgettable WWE villain King Kong Bundy just couldn’t break that full nelson. Legendary Harley Race, known as the King of the Ring, was dethroned with extreme prejudice. WWE Hall of Fame announcer 'Mean' Gene Okerlund has feigned shock and outrage over the flagrant use of an illegal hold for the last time. Mexican wrestler Silver Fox lost his final match about as badly as humanly possible by dying in the ring, and Ashley Massaro, one-time WWE Superstar who went on to become a contestant on Survivor, hanged herself, which just goes to show.
Speaking of reality shows, it was with great reluctance last year I was forced to add Dead Reality Show Contestants to the list. It’s with even more reluctance that I bring it back this year, but the numbers made it necessary. So bear with me and let’s get this over with.
Fatima Ali, a contestant on the reality cooking show Top Chef, is dead. Neal James, Banjo Man on the Animal Planet reality show Call of the Wildman, is dead. Not surprisingly, Sean Milliken, focus of the reality show My 600-Pound Life, is dead. Treasure hunter Dan Blankenship, who appeared on the reality show The Curse of Oak Island, is dead. Troy Shafer, of the reality show Nashville Flipped, is dead. Beth Chapman, of the popular reality show Dog the Bounty Hunter, is dead. Suzanne Wong, host of the reality show House Hunters, is dead. Rudy Boesch, a popular contestant on the first season of the reality show Survivor, is dead. Finally, Jim Fowler, Marlon Perkins’ bitch on that pre-reality show reality show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, is dead as dead can be, and it didn’t even involve wrestling an anaconda in a mud pit.
Now with that nonsense out of the way—I mean for god sakes I might as well include my neighbor Pete’s uncle on the list—it’s time to pay a little attention to those mortal souls whose worldly exploits didn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories. Oddly, this time around the Others section is a bit slimmer than usual. Go figure.
In January, Lessie Brown, believed to be the oldest person in the U.S., died at age 112. Roughly ten months later, C. P. Crawford, believed to be the oldest person in the U.S., died at age 112. In between the two, Masazo Nonaka, believed to be the oldest person in the world, died at age 113. We also lost Arvin Overton, believed to be the oldest living U.S. WWII vet, who died at 112, and Werner Gustav Doehner, believed to be the oldest living survivor of the Hindenburg disaster, who was merely ninety.
Legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, who once refused to sign an autograph for me, is now nestled forever in the Frozen Tundra, where he was joined by his backup quarterback and future member of the Packers coaching staff Zeke Bratkowski. The lights went out for Sixties flash in the pan actress, model and singer Genevieve Waite, as they did for Australian celebrity model Annalise Braakensiek; insane conspiracy theorist and perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche; insane billionaire and two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot; super-wealthy socialite and fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt; super wealthy socialite and child molester Jeffrey Epstein; super-wealthy socialite and acquitted wife-killer Claus von Bulow; pretty wealthy drug kingpin and American Gangster inspiration Frank Lucas; Gambino crime family boss Frank (Franky Boy) Cali; Colombo crime family boss Carmine “the Snake” Persico; paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren, who inspired the Conjuring movies; paranormal investigator Rosemary Ellen Guiley, who didn’t; Charles Van Doren, the smart cookie at the center of the Fifties quiz show scandal; and Robert Earle, host of TV quiz show College Bowl.
George Mendonsa, the sailor in the iconic Times Square VJ Day kiss photo, is now kissing dirt, along with fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld; celebrity chef Carl Ruiz; Rosie Ruiz, winner of the Boston Marathon for about ten minutes, until everyone realized she’d just jumped in there at the end; celebrity auto executive and Reagan era icon Lee Iacocca; Felix Rohatyn, who saved New York City from complete financial collapse in the Seventies; master architect I. M. Pei; disciple of Satan George Laurer, who invented the UPC bar code; internet sensation Grumpy Cat; Johnny Thompson, known as the Magician’s Magician; famed sports publicist Shelly Saltman, who was once famously beaten with a baseball bat by Evel Knievel; Danny O’Day ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson; original Marlboro Man Robert Norris; Edward Dee, who invented Smarties, those little roll candies everyone hates; and George the Snail, a Hawaiian tree-dwelling snail and the last of his species, which seems as appropriate and telling a way to end things as could be.
Before I shamble off to begin obsessively compiling next year’s Book of the Dead, as ever I would like to take a moment here at the end to pay homage to a few notable notables we lost this past year who were particularly notable to me personally.
Dick Miller made his film debut in Roger Corman’s 1955 Western Apache Woman in which, thanks to extreme budget constraints, he found himself playing both a cowboy and an Indian. Over the next sixty years he would become not only a Corman regular and a regular in the films of Corman alumni like Joe Dante, but a legend among fans of low-budget indie movies. You could always count on Miller, with that face and that voice, to bring a little comic relief to the goings on, whether playing a picky flower-eater in Little Shop of Horrors, an accidental and bumbling beatnik sculptor in A Bucket of Blood, or a confused cop in Rock’n’Roll High School. He didn’t have many starring roles, —he usually only appeared in one or two brief scenes, but he was always unforgettable.
I’ve written quite a bit about maverick director and screenwriter Larry Cohen over the years, and still regret never getting the chance to talk to him. After creating and writing the Body Snatchers-inspired TV series The Invaders in 1967, Cohen went on to direct a few memorable blaxploitation pictures like Hell Up in Harlem before writing, producing and directing a string of indie horror and sci fi films for which he will forever be remembered. It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q: The winged Serpent, The Stuff, The Ambulance and other films were marked by Cohen’s knack for genre-mixing, social commentary and a sharp sense of humor. Even trying to slap labels on them is tough. It’s Alive may be a horror movie about a killer baby, but it’s also a conspiracy film and a wicked commentary on the media’s ability to destroy the lives of innocent citizens. As a screenwriter in the Eighties and Nineties he teamed up with William Lustig for the Maniac Cop films and Uncle Sam, all of which were unmistakably Cohen films at heart. He was a one of a kind, and I only hope someone eventually gets around to making some of the dozens of unproduced scripts he left behind.
Okay, so he made a few live action comedy stinkers with Don Knotts for Disney, but there were moments from Tim Conway’s Carol Burnett Show sketches that still leave me hooting—and I’m not talking about him and Harvey Korman cracking each other up. There were a few instances (“Fire!…Fire in the barn!”) when it was clear he was ad-libbing, and it was genius. Last time I saw him onscreen was the post-credits sequence in the documentary The Aristocrats in which he revived his old man character, and that one very long, very slow bit made the whole film for me. Sure he was gentle and inoffensive and mainstream, but goddammit I loved that Tim Conway.
Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnstin’s careers began very differently. In the mid-sixties Erickson co-founded the psychedelic metal band The 13th Floor Elevators. The band was around about five years, releasing albums on Columbia before Erickson went solo and started writing songs about old horror movies. In the Eighties Johnston was the very model of the outsider musician, making countless tapes on a cheap cassette recorder in his bedroom. Although he wasn’t exactly what you’d call proficient on any instrument, he had an uncanny knack for coming up with some outrageously catchy tunes, with lyrics that focused on his personal life and problems. But as they approached the end of their lives, it was increasingly obvious Erickson and Johnston were pretty much the same person. Both lived in Austin, both had long histories of mental, legal and health issues (both had been diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic), both had spent long stretches in institutions, both were reluctantly forced to return to live performances, both were beloved by the hipster crowd, and both had become obese. I’ve always been an Erickson fan, but was wary of Johnston, if only because he was being championed by the likes of Sonic Youth, who clearly saw him as a kind of funny sideshow act, what with his being a naive mental patient with dreams of rock stardom. But damn if his first album. Hi, How Are You?—a collection of some of those bedroom recordings, hasn’t been stuck in my head for three decades now. There have been any number of mentally ill outsider musicians to come along over the years (like Larry “Wild Man” Fischer), but Erickson and Johnston had a real spark to them, and will always hold a unique spot in the annals of indie music. That they died the same year didn’t surprise me at all.
When he died, the obituaries for Rip Torn focused on his recent roles on popular TV sitcoms and movies like the Men in Black franchise. They completely ignored a busy career that began in the Fifties, that he’d worked with everyone from Elia Kazan to Norman Mailer to Norman Jewison to Larry Cohen, and that he was perhaps Hollywood’s last great hell raiser. Drunkenly breaking into a bank in his later years thinking it was his house was child’s play compared with some of his younger exploits. I ran a long Rip Torn retrospective and obit of my own elsewhere in which I detail some of these things, but suffice it to say Torn was one of the unsung greats, a freewheeling individualist, and he didn’t give a good goddamn what you or the cops had to say about it. And he was a great actor on top of it all, with a snaggle-toothed leer that could give you chills.
I honestly wasn’t all that aware of Paul Krassner until long after his heyday. It was my friend and first editor Derek Davis who pointed me to Krassner’s wicked satirical magazine The Realist, which quickly became not only a favorite publication, but a profound inspiration. His jabs at the Kennedy assassination and the Disney Corporation got him in a world of shit, and he didn’t care. He was smart, savage, funny as hell, and like Lenny Bruce a fighter for a free speech that included the right to shock and offend, and he didn’t care who. When we were at The Welcomat, Derek actually hired Krassner, then in his sixties and destitute, to write for us. So I’m proud to say we wrote for the same publication at the same time, even if we never met. Sadly, though not shockingly given his general approach, Krassner spent the last decades of his life scratching by, just struggling to cover the rent and eat. But that’s what we do to our geniuses.
Speaking of The Welcomat, when I started writing for them, there was another music critic on the staff named Peter Stone Brown. He was an older, craggy, chain-smoking misanthrope who wrote about folk and country, dropping Dylan references into nearly every sentence. Peter was an obsessive Dylan scholar and a musician in his own right, though it must be admitted his own music and style owed more than a little to his idol. He made me what were then bootlegs of bootlegs of Dylan’s first two electric performances, and in exchange I passed along an obscure little matchbox-sized book of quotations from Dylan’s Christian period my friend Don had helped publish. Pete and I worked together for years, and though he remained adamantly private, which I respect, over time I came to recognize a solid sense of humor beneath the gruff facade. We even offered each other jokes to include in the pieces we were working on.
Well, Peter died of pancreatic cancer this past year, and though we hadn’t spoken in ages, I’m going to miss that ornery old coot. In his honor after hearing the news I pulled out his one and only album, Up Against It, and gave it one last spin.
Despite almost a decade of playing tough guys on TV by then, when Sid Haig played Ralph, the scrawny, creepy youngest sibling of a family of inbred cannibals in Jack Hill’s timeless 1968 low-budget black comedy Spider Baby, who could have known he would grow up to be Sid Haig? Haig was a hulking, bald and bearded busy character actor, playing mostly villainous roles in an endless string of action films, thrillers, TV shows and exploitation movies. He was an inescapable screen presence, appearing in everything from Point Blank to The Big Bird Cage to Galaxy of Terror to Kill Bill, exuding a sinister menace that couldn’t always hide a goofy sense of humor. He was clearly having a fine time being Sid Haig. Unlike most character actors who just quietly vanish until we hear about their deaths twenty years after they’d appeared in anything, Haig lucked into a late career resurgence, starring in a trilogy of Rob Zombie homages to the kind of grind house pictures that had always been Haig’s bread and butter. Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Zombie’s movies, I was mighty happy to see Haig gaining a whole new audience of youngsters. And his evil clown character, Capt. Spaulding, was pretty fucking great.
Poet, novelist, essayist, historian and tireless researcher Nick Tosches was the best there was, or ever will be—a writer I always wanted to be, but never will. Well, now he’s taken his rightful spot at the table with Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Beckett and Sophocles. That’s all there is to say about it. I’m deeply honored to have known him, however briefly.
And with that, as ever, I offer a humble tip of the hat to all of the above, each of whom did what they could to make this stinking world a bit more tolerable and interesting. With their passing, the whole wretched mess has lost a bit more life and a bit more value. They will never be replaced. Most of them, anyway.
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