by JIM KNIPFEL
January 8, 2017
2016: The Exodus
I thought it was bad enough that last year ended with the untimely and unexpected death of Lemmy. That right there should have been enough to carry us for a good two or three years. Little did I know it was merely a harbinger of what lay ahead in the coming months. Witnessing what all the hell else was going on in the world, you almost get the idea it was a conscious exodus, all these artists and interesting folk who did what they could, but given the clear historical trajectory at play, realized it simply wasn’t enough, the war was lost, the morons had won. Better to get while the getting was good rather than stick around and watch it all swirl straight down the crapper.
Screw those namby-pamby lily-livered mainstream year-end lists of dimmed luminaries. They think it’s a big damn deal when they can list twenty-five dead celebrities. Pish-posh, I say! Do your damned research, dummy! This year marks the twentieth iteration of the annual Dead Celebrity list, and boy howdy boy, what a doozy it was. As ever, while I do note the passing of assorted monumental figures like Bowie, the real focus is on those people who may not have been household names, but whose lives did leave an indelible if almost anonymous footprint on the terra. So given it’s a monster list this year, let’s strap in and get to it.
For a spell there in the early months of the year, it almost seemed as if the movie and TV industry, whose losses traditionally made up the lion’s share of the death list, might actually be dwarfed in 2016 by other categories like, say, pro wrestlers or commercial pitchmen, but then it caught a second wind and reclaimed its rightful spot at the top.
It was a very bad year for all the sci fi geeks out there, with the loss of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: The Next Generation visual effects designer Gary Hutzel; Babylon 5 star Jerry Doyle; the new Star Trek franchise’s Chekov, Anton Yelchin, who was run over by his own car; and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Barry Jenner. Ironically, with the mega-ballyhooed release of the latest film earlier this year, no other sci-fi franchise was hit harder than Star Wars. A few days before the year ended, Carrie Fisher, who much to her horror, will always be remembered as Princess Leia, went over to the Dark Side. The Force was no longer with R2D2 himself, stunt midget Kenny Baker, nor was it with Tony Dyson, the man who designed R2D2 in the first place; TV actor Jason Wingreen, who provided the voice of Boba Fett; or voice actor Erik Bauersfeld, who played Admiral Ackbar.
Speaking of silenced voice actors, we also lost Disney’s Robin Hood Brian Bedford; Joe Alaskey, who was Mel Blanc’s successor at Warner Brothers; animator and voice actor C. Martin Croker, best known for his work on Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast; and the great Janet Waldo, who was the voice of not only Judy Jetson, but Penelope Pitstop and Josie and the Pussycats as well.
Don Franks of the La Femme Nikita TV series curled up for the big sleep this year, and so did actress, singer, and the late Carrie Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds; actress, screenwriter, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother Barbara Turner; actress, model and Jennifer Aniston’s mother Nancy Dow; Tyrus Wong, the long-time Disney artist who created Bambi; legendary award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; Pat Harrington, best known for playing that horndog building super on One Day at a Time; MASH’s Father Mulcahy William Christopher; character actor Richard Libertini from Fletch; David Margulies, who played the Mayor in Ghostbusters; Alice Drummond, who played the librarian in Ghostbusters; Alan Rickman from Die Hard and the Harry Potter movies; Grizzly Adams himself Dan Haggerty; and the remarkable Angus Scrimm, who only joined the acting game late in life but immediately became immortal as The Tall Man in the Phantasm films.
Seventies and Eighties prime-time TV would have been a vastly different landscape had it not been for network executives and producers Garry Marshall, Grant Tinker and David Angell, who gave us Happy Days and all its spinoffs, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and all its spinoffs and Cheers and all its spinoffs respectively. And now they’re all dead as dead can be. We also lost Noreen Corcoran of TV’s Bachelor Father; Sheila Sim, who appeared in a number of Richard Attenborough films; Andrew Sachs, who played Manuel on Fawlty Towers; veteran character actor Frank Finlay; Pixar screenwriter Daniel Gerson; former child star Tommy Kelly, who came to brief prominence in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; popular Fifties child actor Billy Chapin from Night of the Hunter; Punky Brewster’s TV dad George Gaines; Raiders of the Lost Ark cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; The Commitments’ Johnny Murphy; Frank Kelly, star of the BBC’s Father Ted series; Gil Hill from Beverly Hills Cop; Tony-winning actor George S. Irving; ex-boxer Tony Burton, who went on to become a busy character actor, including playing a trainer in the Rocky films; famed Emmy-winning stage actor Fyvush Finkel, star of Picket Fences; and lesser-known TV actress Lisa Masters, whom authorities believe committed suicide.
Although I will always remember her for that unexpected cameo at the beginning of Shakes the Clown, millions of slugs will remember Florence Henderson as Carol, the domineering and drug-addicted mother on The Brady Bunch. But among sit-com fans, the loss to The Brady Bunch couldn’t compare with the blow suffered by Barney Miller, which lost both Ron Glass and Abe Vigoda who, despite his roles on both that show, his own spin-off, and the fucking Godfather, spent the last four decades of his career best known for simply still being alive. But in this year’s Sit-Com Death Race, no one could hold a funereal candle to The Patty Duke Show, which lost not only show regulars Eddie Applegate and William Schallert, but star Patty Duke herself, who had a big hit with this in between The Miracle Worker and Amityville IV.
Production designer Paul Sylbert, who’d won an Oscar for his work on Heaven Can Wait, apparently reconsidered this past November. Rocky Horror and Monty Python and the Holy Grail producer Michael White (insert your own appropriate Python death joke here), as did Broadway and TV actress Martha Wright; Western and The Green Slime star Robert Horton; Dr. Giggles and Darkman villain Larry Drake, who will be better remembered for playing a retard on L.A. Law; The Rockford Files’ Joe Santos; The White Shadow’s Ken Howard; veteran Fifties actress Rita Gam; beloved comedian and innovative TV star Garry Shandling; Peter Brown from countless TV Westerns and soap operas; the Nineties’ incarnation of Sesame Street’s Mr. Hooper, David L. Smyrl; TV actor Ricard Bradford; Earl Hamner Jr., creator of The Waltons ; Tony-nominated actress Anne Jackson; and busy British actress Adrienne Corri, best known for her turn as the unfortunate Mrs. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange.
Guy Hamilton, who directed four of the James Bond films, finally earned his license to croak this past year, as did Bond production designer Ken Adam. For that matter, even though they didn’t have anything to do with the Bond franchise, so did Japanese actress Michi Kobi of Twelve to the Moon; Doris Roberts of Everybody Loves Raymond and every other sit-com ever made; Abel Fernandez from the original Untouchables TV series; Major League co-star Margaret Whitton; Van Williams, who donned the mask for the Sixties’ Green Hornet TV series; Roman Polanski’s producer Gene Gutowski; actress and TV pitchwoman Julia Meade; Alan Young, cursed to forever be remembered as Mr. Ed’s human; the great Burt Kwouk, so unforgettable as Inspector Clouseau’s eternal manservant and nemesis Cato; Beth Holland, the dim-witted diner waitress Vera on Alice; busy comic character actor Marvin Kaplan, who was also an Alice semi-regular; and legendary British character actor Peter Vaughan, whose seventy-five year career in the business was capped with a recurring role on Game of Thrones.
If you’ve seen a lot of Troma films, then you’ve undoubtedly seen obese and bespectacled Joe Fleishaker, who had roles in every major Troma release from the late-Eighties onward. If you’re like me, with each subsequent appearance you found yourself thinking, “Christ, how is he still alive?” Well, we can now all stop asking that question. Green Acres and The Queen of Outer Space star Zsa-Zsa Gabor, who blighted the future of the culture by being famous for being famous, died at long last at age ninety-nine. About time, too, as I’d been calling her The Queen of Under Dirt for the past decade. In an interesting and suspicious twist, her adopted son, Oliver Prince Anhalt, died two weeks later at age forty-five, so there goes his inheritance. Angela Paton, who appeared in Groundhog Day, kicked as well, as did The Commish regular Theresa Saldana; Italian actress Marina Malfatti, best known for The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave; Mihaly “Michu” Meszaros, who played ALF; The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Ann Morgan Guilbert; Varsity Blues actor Ron Lester; Spaghetti Western regular Bud Spencer; Bewitched’s Dr. Bombay Bernard Fox; Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate director Michael Cimino, who was too good and too brilliant for the American film industry and so had to be destroyed; Noel Neill, who wasn’t, but who did play Lois Lane on TV’s original Adventures of Superman; French actress Michele Morgan, who co-starred with both Sinatra and Bogart and won the first best actress award at Cannes; Tony-nominated Sweet Charity star John McMartin; Kiss of the Spider Woman director Hector Babenco; actor, photographer, and Warhol Superstar Billy Name; Marni Nixon, who ghost-sang for the tone-deaf stars of The King and I and West Side Story; Lakota chief and actor David W. Bald Eagle, who was in Dances With Wolves; St. Elsewhere’s Sagan Lewis; MGM musical singer/actress Gloria DeHaven; and Swedish actress Gita Hall of The Gun Runners.
Fans of the Coen Brothers lost two notable faces this year—David Huddleston, who though in countless films and TV shows will always be remembered as the wheelchair-bound Big Lebowski himself, and the great and sleazy Jon Polito, who despite all his other roles will be remembered for the mark he made in so many of the Coen’s films, including, yes, The Big Lebowski. Director Arthur Hiller, who was going to burn in Hell for making Love Story before redeeming himself with The In-Laws, made his long goodbyes this past year, as did Law & Order star Steven Hill; the always splendid straight-faced comic actor Jack Riley of The Bob Newhart Show; Hugh O'Brian, who starred as TV’s Wyatt Earp; director Leslie Martinson, who gave us Batman: The Movie and P.T. 109; Sleepless in Seattle’s Kevin O’Morrison; Ricky Harris, who played Malvo on Everybody Hates Chris; cartoon director Gordon Hunt of Jetsons and Scooby Doo fame; Murphy Brown’s John Hostetter; Kim McGuire, who became an unlikely overnight sensation after playing Hatchet Face in John Waters’ Cry Baby; Charmian Carr, who played the oldest daughter in The Sound of Music; nightclub singer Fran Jeffries, who performed a dance routine in The Pink Panther; overrated L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson; Terence Bayler, who appeared in both Monty Python and Harry Potter films; Thirties singing child star Bobby Breen; actor and comedian Alan Thicke from Growing Pains and so much else; and Bill Nunn, who was such an unforgettable screen presence as Do the Right Thing’s Radio Raheem.
Given their long-running and long-winded nature, it’s only to be expected you’re going to lose a couple of enduring and doddering soap stars over the course of any given year, but this year along with soap veterans James Westmoreland, Barbara Tarbuck, Joseph Mascolo, Anthony Addabbo, Patricia Barry and Larkin Molloy, we also lost Agnes Nixon, who created All My Children and several other insufferable wastes of everyone’s valuable time. Respected theater director Gordon Davidson is presently putrefying, as is acclaimed Polish film director Andrzej Wajda; New York Undercover’s Thomas Mikal Ford; Gary Dubin, who had roles in both The Partridge Family and Jaws 2; actor and stand-up comedian Kevin Meaney; actress and James Earl Jones’ wife Cecilia Hart; The Amazing Spiderman’s Michael Massee; Dick Latessa, who won a Tony for his role in the Broadway production of Hairspray; Simpsons writer and producer Kevin Curran; Oscar-nominated costume designer Janet Patterson; legendary Hollywood talent agent Norman Brokaw, who counted Elvis and Marilyn Monroe among his clients; award-winning actress Tammy Grimes; Land of the Giants star Don Marshall; Julie Gregg, who played Sonny Corleone’s wife in The Godfather; the lovely Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, best known to US audiences (well, the geeky ones anyway) for her role in the 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula; Weekend at Bernie’s co-star Don Calfa; and Keo Woolford from that ill-conceived reboot of Hawaii Five-0.
We also lost the great and always mesmerizing Fritz Weaver, who was not only in Seven Days in May and several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone, but Marathon Man, Creepshow, and Demon Seed to boot. Coincidentally, just a week or two before Fritz Weaver called it a day, we also lost the equally great and mesmerizing Robert Vaughn who, despite his starring role in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., spent much of his career playing conspiratorial villains. I mention them together here because Vaughn sort-of co-starred with Fritz Weaver in Demon Seed, providing the voice of the evil, super-intelligent, power-mad and sex-crazed computer Proteus IV.
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As bad a year as it was for the movie and television industry, it was arguably an even more devastating year for music, particularly classic acts, if only tangentially.
Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood, who went on to produce monstrously popular (and sometimes merely monstrous) music-themed films like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, decided staying alive was no longer feasible. Speaking of the Beatles, they might likely be remembered today as a poor man’s Kinks had it not been for producer George Martin, who struck that endless, resonant piano note for the last time. For that matter, Wings guitarist Henry McCullough has decided to simply let die, and Allan Williams, the Beatles’ first manager, went toes up as well. And yet Paul McCartney still lives! You explain it.
Not a year goes by that a few more of the remaining souls from the Elvis cult aren’t plucked away either. This year was no exception, with the deaths of malingerers like Grammy-winning producer and songwriter Chips Moman, who penned a few ditties for Elvis and Dusty Springfield; Elvis band member Scotty Moore, who can be heard on “Hound Dog” and so many other fundamentals; and Elvis friend, tour manager and Memphis Mafia kingpin Joe Esposito.
The music, and everything else for that matter, also died for country singer songwriter Mark Gray, who provided Alabama with a couple of big hits; Backroad Anthem vocalist Craig Strickland; singer-songwriter Mack Rice; Grammy-winning upright bassist Rob Wasserman; blues guitarist Long John Hunter; jazz pianist Paul Bley; famed iconoclastic conductor Pierre Boulez, whose Marxist interpretation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle pissed off so many uptight music lovers; Swing Era pop singer Kitty Collin; Cuban trumpet legend Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros; soul singer Otis Clay; Brett Smiley, star of the original Broadway production of Oliver! who went on to become a glam rocker; and country singer Red Simpson, best known for his trucker songs.
An awful lot of people were mighty upset to hear Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey was eating a little dirt, but I can’t say as I cared that much. Never did like them. I’m sorry, but the same goes for the equally deceased Prince, aka The Artist Formerly Known as “Alive.” You didn’t see a third of the outpouring of grief and tributes those two got when the news broke Jefferson Airplane lost both founder Paul Kantner and original member Signe Toly Anderson. And I won’t even mention the sad public silence that accompanied the passing of Mott the Hoople drummer Del Griffin; Sixties Bay Area psychedelic folk musician Dan Hicks; Sense Field vocalist Jon Bunch; Maurice White, founding member of Earth, Wind & Fire; jazz composer and arranger Jimmie Haskell; R&B singer and Prince protege Vanity; bluesman L.C. Elmer; Country Music Hall-of-Famer Sonny James; or even all the members of Viola Beach, who along with their manager drove off an open drawbridge while on tour promoting their first single, um, “Swings and Waterslides.”
Sha Na Na’s Lenny Baker won’t be singing “Duke of Earl” again anytime soon, and though I’m not sure any of them ever sang “Duke of Earl,” neither will Joey Feek of the pop country duo Joey + Rory; Smith vocalist Gayle McCormick; pop singer Gogi Grant, who had a hit with “The Wayward Wind”; Frank Sinatra Jr., who tried really hard; Fifties doo-wop singer Lee Andrews; Latin jazz sax player Gato Barbieri; Andy “Thunderclap” Newman, who had a hit in the Sixties with “Something in the Air”; longtime host of the syndicated “Rockline” radio interview show Bob Coburn; Joe Ligon, founder of the Grammy-winning gospel group Mighty Clouds of Joy; country songwriter Andrew Dorff; trumpeter Wayne Jackson, who played with Otis Redding and Sam and Dave; the God of Hellfire himself Arthur Brown; bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley; Bernie Worrell, founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic; musician and Skynyrd cousin Jimmie Van Zant; and three months after David Bowie died we lost his drummer, Dennis Davis
Along similar lines, we not only lost musician and Merle Haggard songwriter Freddy Powers—we lost the unfathomably great Merle Haggard himself.
Bassist Greg Lake is pushing up daisies, and Keith Emerson shot himself. Guess there go Palmer’s plans for the big Emerson, Lake and Palmer reunion tour.
Liza Minelli’s ex-husband, music producer David Gest, bade a fond farewell and got the hell out of here, as did Cajun musician and songwriter Gib Guilbeau; Billy Paul, the Grammy-winning R&B singer who gave us “Me and Mrs. Jones”; Papa Wemba, the undisputed King of Rhumba Rock; country singer Guy Clark; the much revered Julius La Rosa; original Beastie Boys member John Berry; original Megadeth drummer Nick Menza, who died onstage while performing with his new band; pop singer and sublebrity Christina Grimmie, who was gunned down after a show; Surfer Blood guitarist Thomas Fekete; Prince B, lead singer of the R&B group PM Dawn; country singer Bonnie Brown of The Browns; the great Alan Vega of dangerous No Wave luminaries Suicide; famed Blue Oyster Cult and Clash producer Sandy Pearlman; Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain; New Orleans jazz singer Ruby Wilson; guitarist Padraig Duggan, co-founder of the Celtic group Clanad; folk singer Glenn Yarbrough of The Limeliters; jazz vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson; Nine Inch Nails keyboardist James Woolley; Fabulous Thunderbirds bassist Preston Hubbard; Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt; Three Doors Down guitarist Matt Roberts, who was found in the proverbial hotel room; George Michael of Wham!, Wham UK, a solo career and hundreds of sordid headlines involving rest stop bathrooms; and boy band impresario Lou Pearlman, who cursed us all with the likes of The Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, damn him anyway.
Revered jazz harmonica player Toots Thielemans has tooted his last note, and so have beloved Mexican crooner Juan Gabriel; esteemed jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder; Fred Hellerman, last surviving member of The Weavers; ska pioneer Prince Buster; Lewis Merenstein, the man who produced Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”; rapper Carlos “Shawty Lo” Walker, who died in a car crash; Buckwheat Zydeco founder Stanley Dural; Grand Ole Opry star Jean Shepard; radio host Oscar Brand, whose “Folksong Festival” gave a start to all kinds of notables over the years; conductor Neville Marriner, who founded popular baroque ensemble The Academy of St. Martin-in the-Fields; songwriter Rod Temperton, who wrote Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”; Joan Marie Johnson Faust, founding member of girl group The Dixie Cups; and Don Ciccone of The Four Seasons.
Billy Miller, co-founder of the influential Norton record label, Phil Chess, co-founder of the influential Chess record label, and Bob Krasnow, credited with revitalizing Elektra Records in the Eighties, have all spun their last platters. Pete Burns, Dead or Alive’s lead singer, finally has his answer, as do studio guitarist Al Caiola; legendary songwriter and musician Leon Russell; eighties country singer Holly Dunn; famed jazz pianist and sometime singer Mose Allison; Mentor Williams, the songwriter and producer best known for “Drift Away”; Grammy-nominated soul and funk singer Sharon Jones; Sixties pop singer Bobby Vee; country songwriter Claude “Curly” Putman, who gave us “The Green Green Grass of Home”; wildly influential French electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey; pop singer Kay Starr, who had a hit with “Wheel of Fortune”; David Mancuso, host of the long-running disco radio show “The Loft”; and record executive Tony Martell, who signed ELO and Joan Jett.
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I know precious few people revere writers anymore, and fewer still pause to note when they die, and maybe that helps explain why the above-mentioned exodus was expressed most deeply and clearly across the board in the literary world from high to low.
On the lower end of the scale, British novelist Margaret Forster, author of Georgie Girl, ostensibly went out of print, as did Young Adult author Lois Duncan, whose I Know What You Did Last Summer was turned into a semi-popular slasher film franchise; middlebrow writer Pat Conroy, who hit it big with The Prince of Tides; bestselling celebrity biographer Wendy Leigh; British novelist Richard Adams, whose bunny epic Watership Down was all the rage back in the Seventies; former pot smuggler Howard Marks, whose Mr. Nice became a bestseller; Gloria Naylor, whose Women of Brewster Place was hugely popular in certain circles; diplomat and To Sir, With Love author E.R. Braithwaite; Rev. Tim LaHaye, who now, we hope, realizes his Left Behind series was all bullshit; Working-class British Jewish playwright Arnold Wesker; crime writer, and wife of comedian Patton Oswald, Michelle McNamara; and children’s book author Anna Dewdney.
If that had been it, so what? Who cares, right? But we also lost reporter and author Michael Herr, who wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and W.P. Kinsella, whose novel Shoeless Joe was adapted for the movies as Field of Dreams. Alvin Toffler, whose pop sociology bestseller Future Shock caused quite a stir in the early Seventies, lived just long enough to see how very wrong he was about everything.
And even if that was it, that was the extent of the writers we lost, it would have merited little more than a shrug. But then Harper Lee finally died earlier this year, and the floodgates opened. Can’t say I was ever all that smitten with To Kill a Mockingbird, but there’s no denying the impact it had. Plus I admired her decision to leave it at that single book and furthermore stay mum on the subject for the next six decades. She might well still be alive today had she not let herself be bullied and conned into releasing that fucking prequel and making a couple of public appearances.
After Lee fled this mortal coil, she was soon followed by Pulitzer-winner James Alan McPherson; famed Nazi hunter and author Elie Wiesel; author and painter Max Mannheimer, who was a Holocaust survivor himself; respected Irish novelist William Trevor; playwrights Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Peter Shaffer (Equus, Amadeus), whose works, while very different in style, still helped define the age; esteemed philosopher Umberto Eco, whose unlikely bestselling medieval detective story sold millions to readers who liked to pretend they knew what the hell he was talking about; and the great Jim Harrison, who should be remembered for far more than Legends of the Fall. And that’s why we should pause and sincerely mourn the writers who died this year.
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It was a mighty bad year for journalism on nearly every front, from the presidential campaign to the hoo-hah over what was being called “fake news,” but there’s no denying a few had a far worse year than most. Robert Flick, for instance, the NBC producer who survived the ambush at the Guyana airstrip that preceded the Jonestown Massacre, couldn’t survive the Trump campaign. Chicago-based syndicated radio show host Doug Banks signed off for the last time, as did syndicated call-in show host Dr. Joy Brown; fast-talking blowhard John McLaughlin, the often very funny host of The McLaughlin Group; NPR Morning Edition host Steve Julian; and PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill, whom I’m guessing was mighty relieved to get the hell outta Dodge.
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Every year as I pull the list together, I somehow begin with the impression that giving dead professional wrestlers their own separate category all those previous years had been a mere fluke. Just a momentary statistical glitch. Then I get to the end once more and realize nope, the mortality rate among pro wrestlers really is much higher than for most professions. Which I guess only makes sense.
So this past year “Iron” Mike Sharpe took the three-count, and was tag teamed by Axl Rotten, Mr. Fuji, and Chyna, the most popular lady wrestler to come out of the WWE since The Fabulous Moolah. And though they weren’t exactly pro wrestlers as generally defined, former UFC champ Kevin “The Monster” Randleman was body-slammed for good, as was Lee Reherman, who’d performed as Hawk on American Gladiators.
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Then there are all the others, those notable and irreplaceable figures who, while often not as well-known as some of those above who fit neatly into one of the pre-ordained categories, nevertheless made an absolutely unique contribution to the culture. Strange thing is, many of them seemed to gravitate together into sub-subcategories all their own.
Take computers, for instance. The world as we know it would be a very different place today (and for some of us a much better place) had it not been for philosopher and artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, who hit the Escape key. And where would we be without Raymond Tomlinson, a man widely credited with having invented email? Perhaps recognizing his crimes against humanity, he decided to power down as well. And though not as well-known as those others, software entrepreneur Doug Walker died in a hiking accident.
It was also a bad year for NASA, with the deaths of John Glenn, the first man to orbit the earth, and former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who (as happened to so many of his fellow astronauts) went a little UFO nutty after his experience in space. On top of that, everyone’s holding their breath, waiting to hear the status of Buzz Aldrin. And though he wasn’t an official astronaut in the NASA sense, Riley Martin was able to parlay his experience as an alien abductee into a career as an author and radio show host.
The underrated punk band Angst once famously asked “Does Nancy perform acts of oral copulation?” referring of course to Nancy Reagan. It wasn’t an idle question, as during her acting days the future First Lady was rumored to offer the best blowjobs in Hollywood. But I guess now the answer to Angst’s question would be “not any more.” the same holds true for former Attorney General Janet Reno, former Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, former insane Toronto mayor Rob Ford, and former Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
The Sixties simply wouldn’t have been the Sixties as they’re remembered today if it hadn’t been for Muhammad Ali, miniskirt inventor Andre Courreges, beehive hairdo creator Margaret Vinci Heldt, or stalwart, high-profile anti-war protesters like Tom Hayden and Daniel Berrigan.
Porn star Amber Rayne died after a cocaine overdose. Porn star Carla Mai died after being pushed out a window at a party. And Playboy model Katie May died of a stroke at age thirty-four.
One-time BMX superstar Dave Mirra, apparently realizing he had no other skills at his disposal, committed suicide. Mob wife and reality show performer “Big Ang” Angela Raiola got whacked by the Reaper, as did Sunny Balzano, legendary owner of Red Hook literary tavern Sunny’s; Howard Stern regular Joey Boots; Henry Heimlich of maneuver fame; food writer Stacy Fawcett, who was stabbed to death by her son as part of a murder-suicide; London subway announcer Phil Sayer, who made “Mind the Gap” a household phrase; infomercial psychic Youree Dell Harris, better known to gullible rubes as Miss Cleo; anti-feminist activist and right-wing kook Phyllis Schlafly; famed drag queen entertainer The Lady Chablis; Greta Zimmer Friedman, the nurse being kissed by the sailor in the iconic Times Square photo; popular golfer and pitchman Arnold Palmer; influential comic book artist Steve Dillon; and Charles Schultz’s friend and fellow cartoonist Linus Maurer, who was the inspiration for Peanuts’ Linus Van Pelt. Good grief!
If, like me, you tend to believe that far more than the movies, the music, the literature, the politics, or even pro wrestling, at it’s core American culture has always been defined by marketing and advertising, then the obituaries of 2016 were certainly cause for a raised eyebrow or two.
K-Tel pitchman Philip Kives, the man who popularized the phrase “but wait! There’s more!” has cashed his last residual check; and so have Mister Softee jingle composer Les Waas; advertising exec Bill Backer, who was responsible for the iconic “I Want to Teach the World to Sing” commercials for Coca-Cola; Richard Trentlage, who wrote the Oscar Meyer Wiener jingle; Solo Red Cups creator Robert Leo Hulseman; and Michael “Jim” Delligatti, who invented the Big Mac. For god sakes, even Crazy Eddie died! If not for these individuals, there simply wouldn’t be an American culture, and with their passing we can now conclusively declare American culture is as dead as they are.
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Finally, as per tradition every year, I would like to take a few quiet moments to remember a couple of figures whose passing held special personal significance.
There’s little use in trying to add to the mountain of words spilled following the deaths of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. I have nothing new to add, save to say both had a profound impact on me. One side note, however. The night news of Cohen’s death broke, a local radio announcer noted “Hallelujah” was the most covered song in history. I’m sorry, not to be disrespectful or anything, but doesn’t it seem, I dunno, “Jingle Bells” might have been recorded by a few more artists?
When I was a teenager, I was a nearly obsessive fan of the later incarnation of the Bob and Ray radio show. There was simply something about their straightforward deadpan enthusiasm and sheer straight-faced silliness that struck my brain at the perfect angle. Later, thanks to my friend Derek, I became an equally obsessive fan of their first incarnation decades earlier, and cannot overstate the influence they had on my way of thinking. So it was with great sadness I heard Bob Elliott had died this past February at age ninety-two. Next time I head back to Wisconsin, I will make a point of mentioning his name in Sheboygan.
Among American character actors of the past half century, few have earned my respect like the great George Kennedy. As with the equally great Ned Beatty, there was a stretch there when he seemed to be in absolutely everything—Earthquake, Cool Hand Luke, all the Airport films, The Human Factor, Just Before Dawn, and on and on. An odd thing, too, given Kennedy was about a foot taller than is usually considered seemly for an actor. He was charming and easygoing in his sometimes gruff way, could play wacky comedy as easily as suspense thrillers, and again like Beatty always seemed to be playing himself. Although he rarely got top billing, one of the few times he did remains a personal favorite: the mid-Seventies made-for-TV movie A Cry in the Wilderness, in which he plays a man having an extremely bad day.
I’ve written about Morley Safer before, especially this past spring after he died. He stands far above all the names mentioned in this year’s Dead Journalists section as an old school, tough-as-nails, hard-drinking reporter who wrote remarkably well, was extremely well-read, and didn’t give a shit what anyone had to say about booze or cigarettes, which were his primary diet. Plus he wanted to kidnap one of my cats, and I don’t blame him. With his loss, we are now left even more in the hands of corporate stooges calling themselves “journalists” for reporting as fact what was in the press releases they were just handed.
Just as I can’t overstate the influence Bob and Ray had on me, consuming MAD magazine voraciously as a kid most definitely sent me off in several wrong directions from which there was no return. Bless them. And among the Usual Gang of Idiots, cartoonist and writer Jack Davis was perhaps the most recognizable and warped of the lot. To my generation, losing Jack Davis was akin to losing our Breughel—he showed us all how ridiculous, absurd, silly, ugly and just plain dumb the world really was.
Speaking of cartoonists named Jack, who among us couldn’t help but snatch up and save Jack Chick’s pocket-size comics whenever we found them? They were our Tijuana bibles. He may well be the singular most important artist of his generation. It was via his fire and brimstone cautionary tales that many of us learned about the searing hellfire that awaits, well, pretty much everyone who collected Jack Chick comics. There was a time when Jack Chick evangelical tracts seemed to magically appear everywhere you went—the subway, public bathrooms, even waiting on ATM machines, the devil was everywhere, they warned. He was ready to pluck us up whenever we gave into temptation, and we were all fucking doomed unless we were born again. And what did we all learn from this? That Satan was a lot more fun than Jesus, that’s what. Which has always left me thinking Chick was in fact an undercover Church of Satan operative. Now that he’s gone, where in the hell are we supposed to find our spiritual guidance?
The only thing that made me sadder than hearing Gene Wilder had passed on was seeing how the obituaries summed up his career. To hear the mainstream press tell it, Wilder had been in three pictures: Young Frankenstein (though most neglected to mention he’d also written it), Willy Wonka, and then a decade later Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor. Okay, yes, those first two anyway are fundamental, and maybe I didn’t really expect anyone to mention his small role as a sort-of hostage in Bonnie and Clyde, his brilliant turn as the titular dung salesman in 1970’s Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, or his re-teaming with Zero Mostel for a film version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, but I was shocked to see how many neglected to even mention The Producers. I mean, what the fuck? He was an absolutely unique screen presence, a character actor at heart who could easily take the lead with his trademark blend of gentle kindness and neurotic hysterics. And there’s no denying that while Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka from the Tim Burton adaptation was much closer to Roald Dahl’s Satanic original, Wilder was and ever shall be the one true Willy Wonka, and that’s all that matters. Best of all, he was a fellow Wisconsinite.
Herschell Gordon Lewis spent most of his filmmaking career from the late Fifties through the Seventies making Nudie Cuties and sexploitation films which edged into Russ Meyer territory. But a handful of over-the-top early Sixties horror films like Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red pushed the boundaries way back with then-unheard-of explosive onscreen bloodshed and gore. His horror films presaged the splatter films to come, and because of that Lewis will always be remembered as the Godfather of Gore. Today his use of cow tongues (and other entrails) and buckets of red corn syrup may seem quaint, especially within the ultra low-budget context. but at the time he was a visionary, a trailblazer, and wildly influential. To this day he remains, along with the likes of Meyer, Ed Wood, and Ray Dennis Steckler, a member of the Pantheon of low-budget visionaries who made indie films Hollywood could never imagine—until of course they realized there was money to be made with those buckets of red corn syrup.
Growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t have the good fortune to encounter John Zacherle until much later in life, but I certainly witnessed his influence. Beginning in 1971, I stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch Eerie Street, a weekly horror movie cavalcade hosted by a creepy chubby guy in a cape who called himself “Alexander.” Oh, the films I saw, from Island of Terror to The Neanderthal Man. A few years after Alexander went off the air he was replaced by a Goth chick calling herself Misty Brew, who herself was later replaced by Ned the Dead. Every big and little town in America, it seemed, offered a late night horror movie show hosted by a wisecracking zombie, witch, or vampire who would interrupt the film to make dumb jokes or play out dumb sketches. From Vampira to Elvira to SCTV’s Count Floyd to Ernie Kovacs’ Auntie Gruesome, local TV horror hosts are an important if too often neglected part of the American cultural landscape. And we have the Cool Ghoul to thank for that. Beginning in the mid-Fifties in Philly before moving to NYC, Zacherley, as his onscreen persona was known, pioneered the format that would come to be copied by so many, and he did it for a good long time. In fact the last time I saw him (hosting a Halloween broadcast of Tarantula) he had to have been close to ninety and was still the Undisputed King. Being a ghoul and all, no one expected he would ever actually die, but alas he did this past October at age ninety-eight. At least he went to the tomb (for real this time) knowing he’d made more of an impact on the world than most politicians or Tom Cruise.
Of all the figures we lost last year, all these hundreds of people who remained mostly anonymous while their ideas, creations and performances quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) shaped the culture and world as we know it, perhaps no single loss was so great or so tragic as the death of Satire. Given the events of the previous twelve months, Satire is now as officially infeasible as breathing is to everyone listed above. For centuries Satire struggled and fought the good fight, even as the world in general did what it could to top it every time. From Aristophanes to Jonathan Swift, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Saturday Night Live, Satire took the powerful down a peg or two quite neatly and effectively. But alas in the end the world won, there’s no longer any way to take the piss out of the pompous with a craftily directed impression or mocking zinger, no way to out-absurd what already exists. Maybe it only seems fitting MAD magazine’s Jack Davis would find himself dead right around the same time Satire suffered that fatal stroke. It was a deeply disheartening loss for all of us and our descendants. So even as I, for the twentieth year running, tip my hat in gratitude to the efforts of all those listed here to somehow make the planet a bit more interesting, I ask that god (or something) have mercy on our souls (whatever those are), because we are so fucking doomed. But at least it’ll be entertaining.
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