by JIM KNIPFEL
January 7, 2018
Gridlock on the Highway to Hell: The Dead Celebrities of 2017
To this day, people continue to pay homage to some of the monumental cultural icons we lost in 2016, like David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen. I can’t honestly say that a year from now there will be any kind of similar mainstream outpouring for much of anyone on the 2017 list, but it was still a mighty bad year for James Bond, pro wrestling and AC/DC fans, gossip columnists, astronauts, feminists and anyone unlucky enough to be dubbed “The Godfather” of anything. If we start that nuclear war with North Korea in the coming months the 2018 list is gonna be a doozy, but as things stand I was damned close to being able to turn the 2017 list into one of those desktop “Death-A-Day” Calendars.
No, most of these people were not household names, and not many of them will be included in the Dead Celebrity lists slapped together clumsily by CNN or People magazine, but nearly all of them made an impact for good or rotten, and most all of them left a little something behind that made the world a more lively place.
In terms of the movie and television industry, it was a fairly devastating year when it came to some of the most fundamental touchstones of modern horror. The year opened with the death of George Kosana, who made such an impression as the no-nonsense sheriff in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. And wouldn’t you know it? Just a few months later we lost the great George Romero, who directed Night of the Living Dead, a few too many sequels, and some superb horror films that had nothing to do with the living dead. Despite his best efforts, he will always be remembered as The Godfather of Zombie Movies. After writing and directing 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre—a seminal film that would inspire a thousand low-budget splatter films without one-tenth the style or panache—Tobe Hooper went on to direct so many other notable and not-so-notable films including The Mangler, Salem’s Lot, Poltergeist (in theory anyway) and, ironically enough now, Lifeforce. Satan finally called up his contract with Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, who parlayed his connection to the blockbuster film adaptation of his book into work directing a few pictures of his own, including Exorcist III and the Ninth Configuration. And just as a small sampling of what kind of lasting impact these directors have had, we also lost stuntman John Bernecker, who worked on TV’s outrageously popular (if hardly original) Walking Dead series, and Evan Helmuth , who played a priest in the Exorcist ripoff The Devil Inside.
Ji-Tu Cumbuka, an actor who appeared in Roots and Harlem Nights, has bedded down for the big sleep, as has former child star Blake Heron, who was in the movie Shiloh and not much else; Oscar-winner Martin Landau, who appeared in countless films and TV shows but remains perhaps best remembered for his villainous turn in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; educational TV pioneer Jeffrey Hayden , who as it happens was married to Landau’s NXNW co-star Eva-Marie Saint; Meatballs’ camp director Harvey Atkin; Richard Anderson, who was so good in The Night Strangler but will always be remembered for his role on The Six Million Dollar Man; Dick Gautier, who was so good on When Things Were Rotten but who will always be remembered as the robot on Get Smart!; respected Bollywood character actor Om Puri from Gandhi and City of Joy; respected Bollywood actor and director Shashi Kapoor, who appeared in a few American films himself; Hee-Haw co-creator and producer Sam Lovullo; America’s one-time sweetheart Mary Tyler Moore, whom I always suspected in real life was much more like her character in Ordinary People; and TV’s Mannix, Mike Connors, who got his start in Roger Corman’s early films; Esteemed British actor John Hurt, who starred in 1984’s The Elephant Man, a great production of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and even a few comic book movies has taken that long final bow, and so has esteemed American actor John Heard (whom I always confused with John Hurt), who appeared in The Deer Hunter and C.H.U.D., together with his C.H.U.D. Co-star, radio and TV fixture Jay Thomas.
Sixties Doctor Who actress Deborah Watling is presently lost somewhere between dimensions, the same fate having befallen Perry Mason’s Barbara Hale; Oscar-nominated French actress Emmanuelle Riva; soap actor Mark LaMura of All My Children; soap actor Peter Hansen of General Hospital; Richard Hatch, star of TV’s original Battlestar Galactica; British stage actor Alec McCowen; TV writer and producer Bruce Lansbury; Canadian character actor Christopher Wiggins from The Swiss Family Robinson; the great Luis Bunuel’s son, filmmaker JUAN-LUIS Bunuel; and Judge Joseph Wapner , who did such damage to the culture as a whole when he presided over The People’s Court.
It’s hard to believe anyone connected with The Sopranos is still alive, the rate they’ve been getting whacked since the show ended. Apparently a few were left, enough anyway to make this year’s list. So Star Frank Vincent got bumped off, as did restaurateur and show semi-regular Frank Pellegrino and producer Brad Grey. In more recent years The Sopranos’ body count has been all but matched by the equally bloody Game of Thrones, which this year lost actors Neil Fingleton and Roy Dotrice, as well as veteran cameraman Mark Milsome.
Most filmgoers who can tell him apart from Bill Pullman probably best remember Bill Paxton from his turns in Titanic or any number of mainstream high-profile blockbusters, but for me he’ll always be the star of Galaxy of Terror. By the same token most Americans remember that little freckle-faced Erin Moran as Joanie Cunningham on Happy Days, but to me she’ll always be the co-star of, yes, Galaxy of Terror. However you care to think of it, they’re both dead now, just like that smug Robert Osborne , inescapable host of Turner Classic Movies; club owner Fred Weintraub, who produced the Woodstock movie and reputedly discovered both Bruce Lee and Woody Allen; Alfie Curtis, best known for his uncredited role in the original Star Wars’ cantina scene; Jack Harris, producer of The Blob; Chuck Barris, who claimed he was a CIA assassin at the same time he was creating game shows of questionable taste like The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show; Fifties actress and singer Lola Albright; vaudeville child star Rose-Marie, who went on to become a Dick Van Dyke Show and Hollywood Squares regular; Lawrence Montaigne, who played two roles on the original Star Trek series; blacklisted actress and screenwriter Jean Rouverol; Golden Globe-winning Austrian actress Christine Kaufmann; Darlene Cates , who appeared in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?; actress-singer Chelsea Brown from Laugh-In; British actor Tim Pigott-Smith of Jewel in the Crown; Tony-winning actress and singer Linda Hopkins; famed Hollywood agent Sandy Gallin, who counted Michael Jackson and Dolly Parton among his clients; Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, who got his start directing the likes of Caged Heat and Crazy Mama for Roger Corman before going on to Silence of the Lambs; and one-time actor Michael Mantenuto, who appeared in that hockey movie Miracle, but that’s about it.
Back in the Thirties, Adrian Booth appeared opposite The Three Stooges in a few films, so how she made it to a hundred before breathing her last is anyone’s guess. Over the years actor Michael Parks has worked with directors Larry Cohen, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, so how he made it to seventy-seven before breathing his last is nothing short of a miracle. Virile and prolific character actor Powers Booth, who played Jim Jones in the TV miniseries The Guyana Tragedy, drank the proverbial Kool-Aid this past year, and was joined around the vat by John Cygan, who played a detective on TV’s The Commish; Heather Menzies-Urich from The Sound of Music and TV’s Logan’s Run; “The Robert Redford of Soviet Cinema,” Oleg Vidov ; heiress-turned-actress Dina Merrill, who appeared in The Sundowners and Operation: Petticoat; Robert Michael Morris from TV’s The Comeback; Elena Verdugo, who played a nurse on Marcus Welby, MD; Ann-Margret’s husband and 77 Sunset Strip star Roger Smith; Monty Hall’s wife and Emmy-winning TV producer Marilyn Hall, and, as fate would have it, game show host Monty Hall himself, who apparently wasn’t able to make that final deal.
Football player-turned-actor Bernie Casey appeared in Revenge of the Nerds and a few other films before diving into that ultimate end zone. Football player-turned-actor Keith Loneker appeared in Lake View Terrace and a few other films before making the same plunge. Although I’m not sure if any of them ever played professional football, a bunch of other people went out of bounds too, like former Paramount Studios president Earl Lestz; actress Glenne Headly, who appeared in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and numerous other films; actress, model, and former Keith Richards girlfriend Anita Pallenberg; portly comic actor Stephen Furst of Animal House and St. Elsewhere fame; John G. Avildsen, Oscar-winning director of Rocky and The Karate Kid; Ghostbusters II’s Baby Oscar, Henry John Deutschendorf II; Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist from the original film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; famed stuntman and longtime Steve McQueen body double Loren Janes; Italian actress Elsa Martinelli from The Indian Fighter; True Blood star Nelsan Ellis; Groucho’s daughter Miriam Marx Allen, who edited You Bet Your Life and a collection of his letters; beloved voice actress June Foray who, among so many things will be best remembered for providing the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel; Heather North, the voice of Scooby-Doo’s Daphne for some three decades; Peter Sallis, who voiced the Wallace and Gromit films; Jack Keil, creator and voice of McGruff the Crime Dog; Bob Givens, one of the last of the original Bugs Bunny animators; Oscar-winning documentarian Murray Lerner, who captured the moment Dylan went electric; legendary French actress Jeanne Moreau; legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux; award-winning stage and screen actress Mariann Mayberry; Robert Hardy from the Harry Potter films; Barbara Cook, star of the original Broadway production of The Music Man; Ty Hardin, star of TV Western Bronco; actor, writer and director Joe Bologna, best known for My Favorite Year; Sonny Landham, who appeared in Predator and 48 Hours; ubiquitous British TV presenter and all-around entertainer Bruce Forsyth; and Thomas Meehan, the Tony winner who wrote Annie and The Producers.
Troubled boxer-turned-entertainer Jake LaMotta, immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, went down in the final round, as did Chuck Lowe, who gained fame playing Morrie Kessler in Scorsese’s Goodfellas. I don’t think glamorous TV actress Anne Jeffreys ever appeared in a Scorsese film. But she’s dead anyway, and so are British soap actress Liz Dawn; Bob Schiller, the TV writer responsible for so many episodes of I Love Lucy and All in the Family; Ironside’s Elizabeth Baur; John Dunsworth , star of TV’s Trailer Park Boys; busy character actor Brent Briscoe; Soap and Benson star Robert Guillaume; Lou Grant co-star Jack Bannon; Veronica Mars actor Brad Bufanda) who perhaps understandably jumped off a building); John Hillerman, best known for playing Higgins on Magnum, P.I.; Three’s Company and stage actress Ann Wedgeworth; The Cosby Show’s Earle Hyman; singer and Touched By an Angel star Della Reese; Peter Baldwin, who appeared in all sorts of Italian horror movies before becoming an Emmy-winning TV director; Jim Nabors, who always wanted to be remembered as a singer but who will always be remembered as Gomer Pyle; Ron and Clint’s dad Rance Howard, who was an actor in his own right; Dances With Wolves and Fargo actor Steve Reevis; Max Clifford, the British celebrity publicist known as the King of Spin, who died in prison after being convicted of molesting underage girls; famed producer Martin Ransohoff, who gave us The Cincinnati Kid and Catch-22; famed producer Howard Gottfried, who gave us two of my favorite Paddy Chayefsky films, Network and Altered States; and the sadly unheralded writer-director Ken Shapiro, who made such an indelible and lasting impression on the cultural landscape with his groundbreaking sketch comedy film The Groove Tube. If not for Shapiro, there would have been no SNL, SCTV, Animal House or Airplane!, and today American comedy would be a very different beast.
Apart from The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, a couple other beloved franchises received a double-whammy or worse this year. Maybe it makes sense that as the hugely popular revival of Twin Peaks came to a close, it would lose two notables who were there from the beginning, namely Warren Frost , who played Doc Hayward and the great, great Miguel Ferrer, who portrayed Dale Cooper’s nemesis Agent Albert Rosenfield. Ferrer also appeared in Lynch’s On the Air and so many other things, always playing the same irascible, sharp-tongued son of a bitch. And the Biff! Pow! 1966 Batman TV series lost star Adam West (who had a lot of fun these past several years playing himself on The Simpsons and Family Guy), as well as Francine York, who appeared in one episode playing Bookworm’s henchwoman.
No single film or TV franchise was hit harder in 2017 than James Bond. I never liked James Bond as much as I always thought I should. Still, I couldn’t help but notice as not only Bond himself, Roger Moore, decided to simply let die, but so did character actor Clifton James. Who appeared in two Bond films; Israeli actress Daliah Lavi from Casino Royale; Molly Peters, the Bond girl in Thunderball; and German actress Karin Dor from You Only Live Twice, though I guess now the joke’s on her.
In that fat, sweaty line between the movie and music industries, there is of course Elvis, whose once bottomless supply of associates and hangers-on always made him a subcategory unto himself. As the years roll on with so many people dying along the way, it seems that once-bottomless supply has grown a bit shallow. It’s not dry yet, but we did have to do a bit of stretching this year to maintain Elvis as a Dead Celebrity category. Actor and close Elvis friend Red West has been returned to sender, as have Suzanna Leigh, Elvis co-star in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Russian tenor Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who likely never met Elvis but nevertheless came to be known as The Elvis of Opera; and Johnny Hallyday, whose French covers of American pop songs of the Sixties led him to be dubbed The French Elvis. Funnily enough, Hallyday’s status towered far above the King’s in Paris, and when he died it was unofficially declared a national day of mourning.
As is always the case, the amps were snapped off and the instruments packed away forever for dozens and dozens of people across the musical spectrum.
It was the year the music died for Cadillac Tramps lead singer Mike “Gabby” Gaborno; conductor and arranger Buddy Bregman; jazz and pop singer (and Rat Pack satellite) Buddy Greco, who was the first to have a hit with “Lady is a Tramp”; Hawaiian ukulele legend Eddie Kamae; Larry Steinbachek, Bronski Beat co-founder and keyboardist; Nigerian-born funk pioneer William Onyeabor; veteran opera singer Roberta Peters; folk singer songwriter Maggie Roche of The Roches; punk singer and guitarist Karl Hendricks of Sledgehammer; Ronald “Bingo” Mundy of The Marcels, who had a hit with “Blue Moon”; Mott the Hoople bassist Peter Overend Watts; the occasionally not annoying Tom Petty; and Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker.
Guitarist Tommy Allsup could run but he couldn’t hide, and fate finally caught up with him for missing Buddy Holly’s plane that night. It was a rough year for Krautrock pioneers Can, with the loss of both influential drummer Jaki Liebezeit and composer-bassist Holger Czukay. Bad as that may seen, it was an even worse year for iconic Southern rock in general. Molly Hatchet lost both bassist Banner Thomas and lead guitarist-co-founder Dave Hlubek. Meanwhile, after Allman Brothers co-founder and drummer Butch Trucks shot himself in the head, Greg Allman just up and died. So we can all hope that’s it for their annual two week-stint at The Beacon Theater.
Two decades before The Ramones had a minor hit with “Do You Wanna Dance?,” Fifties R&B singer Bobby Freeman had a much bigger hit with it, and now he’s as dead as they are. Asia bassist John Wetton won’t be playing any more state fairs anytime soon, and neither will Those Darlings singer Jessi Zazu; renowned country music roadie Ben Dorsey; Sonny Geraci, whose band The Outsiders had a hit with “Time Won’t Let Me”; easy-listening jazz and pop singer Al Jarreau; venerable Mississippi bluesman Leo Bud Welch; Parliament and Ohio Players producer and keyboardist Walter “Junie” Morrison; James Brown’s funky drummer Clyde Stubblefield; jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, known as The Godfather of Fusion; Allan Holdsworth, who was apparently a lesser but still influential jazz fusion guitarist; soul singer, songwriter and producer Leon Ware; “I’ll Be Your Everything” singer Tommy Page; famed ukulele player and studio bassist Lyle Ritz, who worked with everyone from Ray Charles and Tina Turner to The Beach Boys; Joni Sledge of Sister Sledge of “We Are Family” fame; Grammy-winning record producer Tommy LiPuma; Grammy-winning blues harmonica player James Cotton; and the greatest of them all, Chuck Berry. That fucking Glen Campbell and David Cassidy (see below) received more coverage than Chuck Berry, whose death was noted with a blink and a shrug, is another sure sign we’re in the End Days.
Boston’s original drummer, John “Sib” Hashian, keeled over in the middle of a set on a “Legends of Rock” cruise. Electronic music innovator Ikutaro Kakehashi, who gave us synthesizers, drum machines and MIDI, thus making the world safe for talentless hacks who can’t play a note, recognized the evil he’d wrought and died of shame. Jazz sax great Arthur Blythe has tooted his closing notes, and so have Louisiana-born Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks; “Angel Baby” singer songwriter Rosie Hamlin; Paul O'Neill, founder of pioneering prog rock band Trans Siberian Orchestra; guitarist J. Geils of his own titular band; singer and comedian Keely Smith, who worked with and later married Louis Prima; Toby Smith, co-founder and keyboardist for the funk band Jamiroquai; studio musician Bruce Langhorne, who reportedly inspired Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”; Motown songwriter Sylvia Moy, who reportedly helped make Stevie Wonder a star; “Everybody Plays the Fool” singer Cuba Gooding, Sr.; Kevin Garcia, bassist and co-founder of the indie band Grandaddy; and Mario Maglieri, owner of the legendary Sunset Strip rock club Whiskey A Go Go, where The Mentors may well have put on the greatest show of their career.
Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell offed himself. So did Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington. So did Jonghyun, lead singer of the popular Korean boy band Shinee. Guitarist Bruce Hampton, founder of the Hampton Grease Band and long help up as The Godfather of Jam Bands, dropped dead onstage during a seventieth birthday tribute in his honor. Mazzy Star drummer Keith Mitchell didn’t check out quite as dramatically as any of those guys, but check out he did, along with Corki Casey O'Dell, the groundbreaking female guitarist who played with Duane Eddy; Faith No More singer Chuck Mosley; Americana singer Jimmy LaFave, cited for defining what came to be known as the Red Dirt Music sound; Nigel Grainge, the record executive who discovered Sinead O’Conner; Bobby Taylor, the producer who discovered The Jackson Five; Prodigy, who was one-half of the hip-hop duo Mobb Deep; Maroon 5 manager (and actor Jonah Hill’s brother) Jordan Feldstein; jazz pianist Geri Allen; Afghan Whigs guitarist Dave Rosser; Gary DeCarlo, the singer who inflicted “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” on the world; multi-talented avant-garde musician Kelan Phil Cohran , who played with Sun Ra and co-founded The Artistic Heritage Ensemble; influential avant garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd of the New York Art Quartet and other outfits; longtime Prince drummer John Blackwell Jr.; South African musician and singer Ray Phiri, who appeared on Paul Simon’s Graceland album; country guitarist and producer Billy Joe Walker Jr.; Michael Johnson, who had a big hit with “Bluer Than Blue”; The Cajun Hank Williams himself, D.L. Menard; jazz guitarist Chuck Loeb, who played with Stan Getz; and Steppenwolf keyboardist Goldy McJohn.
If you look back on it with clear eyes, you realize Glen Campbell only had a tiny smattering of hit songs (though admittedly “Rhinestone Cowboy” was pretty inescapable for about two years). But the early Seventies being what they were, it was enough to earn him his own primetime variety show and a couple of movie roles. Then all that ended, and he became a crazy bitter drunk. Then the dementia started creeping in. Now he’s dead as a doornail. But he’s not alone, wandering those dirty sidewalks of the afterlife with rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess; musician and Natalie Cole’s son Robert Yancy; Jo Walker-Meador, who headed the Country Music Association for nearly three decades; popular Big Band singer Bea Wain; noted rock and jazz guitarist John Abercrombie; Don Williams, the Gentle Giant of Country Music; jazz singer Kevin Mahogany, known for his rich baritone; Broadway composer Michael Friedman; soul singer Charles Bradley; Bunny Sigler, the singer who helped establish the Philadelphia Sound in the Sixties; jazz drummer and vocalist Grady Tate; Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie; Marilyn Manson’s founding guitarist Daisy Berkowitz; guitarist Al Hurricane, The Godfather of New Mexico Music; longtime Celtic Frost bassist Martin Eric Ain; and the legendary Fats Domino, who helped define what rock’n’roll would come to be.
If Fats Domino helped define rock’n’roll in those embryonic years, I knew plenty of stoner metal kids in junior high who would Argue to their last breath that AC/DC perfected it for time immemorial. All those jean jacket patches can’t be wrong, right? Well, AC/DC had a mighty rough year of it, as two of the Young brothers took that onramp feeding into, yes, the highway to hell. Songwriter and producer George Young passed away in October, with band co-founder Malcolm Young following less than a month later. Songwriter and musician Roger Ferguson may not have been as well known as AC/DC, but he’s now just as cold and stiff, as are Pagans front man Mike Hudson; Keith Wilder, singer for the disco band Heat Wave, who had a big hit with “Boogie Nights”; free jazz pianist Muhal Richard Abrams; Bowie and Elton John arranger Paul Buckmaster; “Everlasting Love” singer Robert Knight; Fred Cole, who founded the iconic Portland-based punk band Deadmoon; rapper Lil Peep ; country singer Mel Tillis, who exploited his stutter to great comedic effect; Hawkwind synth pioneer Michael “Dik Mik” Davies; singer David Cassidy, who never quite escaped his Tiger Beat past as the star of TV’s The Partridge Family; innovative jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks; power pop favorite Tommy Keene, who played with Velvet Crush and Paul Westerberg; The White Knight of Soul, Wayne Cochran; Mitch Margo, whose doo-wop boy band The Tokens had a big hit with their reworked version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”; guitar great Mundell Lowe, who played with Charlie Parker and The Everly Brothers; Smithereens singer-songwriter Pat DiNizio; Uncle Wiggly’s William Berger, who had been an adored on-air fixture for decades at Jersey City-based free-form radio station WFMU; and rock photographer Bob Seidemann, who captured iconic images of Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and so many others from around the San Francisco scene of the late Sixties.
Although writers and luminaries from around the publishing world always provide numbers enough to earn their own category every year, in 2017 they seemed to be shuffling off this mortal coil at an unusually brisk pace. Maybe it was because the industry had finally and officially been declared brain dead and pulled off life support, or maybe the current administration left them so perplexed and disheartened they simply could no longer see the value of stringing words together. Who knows? Whatever the explanation, the book has been closed on British poet Tom Rayworth; comic novelist Jay Cronley, who wrote Funny Farm and so many others; Newberry-winning author Paula Fox; children’s book and romance writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal; Robert James Waller, who created such a sensation, annoying as it was, with his Bridges of Madison County; Caribbean poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott; Robert Silvers, founding editor of The New York Review of Books; British crime writer Colin Dexter, who gave us the Inspector Morse series; Clifford Irving, who perpetrated the Howard Hughes memoir hoax, wrote a book about art forgers, and was one of the subjects of Orson Wells’ brilliant documentary F For Fake; outrageously prolific pulp writer Chet Cunningham; Robert M. Pirsig, author of the unexpectedly popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; William Powell, author of the notorious, often banned and absolutely essential Anarchist Cookbook; cookbook author and David Letterman’s mother Dorothy Mengering, few of whose recipes called for black powder; acclaimed author and socialite Jean Stein, who jumped out of a Manhattan high rise window; Pulitzer-winning playwright A.R. Gurney, who wrote about rich white people; the astonishing and fundamentally American author, actor and playwright Sam Shepard, who didn’t waste his time writing about rich white people; socialist activist, historian and author Bill Pelz; Paddington Bear author Michael Bond; science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, one of whose stories inspired the film A.I.; award-winning playwright Janusz Glowacki; playwright Bernard Pomerance, who gave us the brilliant Elephant Man; Pulitzer-winning poet John Ashbery; feminist author Kate Millett, who wrote the groundbreaking Sexual Politics; Feminist author Nancy Friday, who raised more than a few eyebrows with her groundbreaking My Secret Garden; The World of Henry Orient author Nora Johnson; bestselling mystery writer Sue Grafton; esteemed postmodernist William Gass, best known for his novel The Tunnel; the great J.P. Donleavy, author of The Ginger Man; and lawyer Jeremy Hutchinson, who made things cool at last, at least for a little while there, when he defended Lady Chatterley’s Lover against obscenity charges in court, and won. I expect the ruling to be overturned sometime in the next two years.
I guess given the current state of things I was less surprised to note the number of seasoned old school journalists who decided to pack it in this year, but things did take an interesting and telling turn as the months wore on.
Venerable Village Voice columnist and staunch First Amendment defender Nat Hentoff, who could be provocative, cantankerous, and aggravating as all hell at turns (and bless him for it), decided to take a dirt nap, perhaps realizing the war was lost. Same with the great Jimmy Breslin, whose wit, insight, street smarts and two-fisted style made him such an inimitable New York fixture. Adventurous and fearless British correspondent Clare Hollingworth, the first journalist to report German tanks had rolled into Poland in 1939, gave up the ghost, along with liberal Fox News commentator Alan Colmes; respected film critic Richard Schickel; eternal (well, almost) sportscaster Dick Enberg; Pulitzer-winning journalist and historian Roger Wilkins (and how many of those are left?); Emmy-winning TV journalist Gabe Pressman; longtime New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross, who counted Hemingway and J.D. Salinger among her circle of friends; magazine mogul S.I. Newhouse, who published The New Yorker, Vogue, and so many others; and Hugh Hefner, whose Playboy empire really meant something there for a long spell.
But here’s where things take that interesting turn, because not only did despicable Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes gasp his last, so did long standing Variety publisher Syd Silverman; Hollywood Reporter editor Frank Barron, who wrote comedy for radio, scripted cartoons, and created TV Westerns before moving into questionable journalism; entertainment reporter and celebrity tell-all ghostwriter Digby Diehl; and Liz Smith, queen of the New York gossip columnists. Make of it what you will.
Comic book geeks had reason to mourn this past year, with the loss of former Marvel Comics CEO James Galton, Marvel legend (and one of its first two full-time employees) Florence Steinberg, Swamp Thing co-creator Bernie Wrightson and Wolverine co-creator Len Wein.
The laughter went dead silent for a few titans of stand-up comedy, along with a few unsung titans, and a few others along for the ride. Comedian and outspoken Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory couldn’t find anything to laugh about anymore, so decided to split the scene when we needed him most. Same with Gary Austin, founder of LA’s influential Groundlings improv group; New Zealand comedian and satirist John Clarke; writer, stand-up comic, and Eddie’s much funnier older brother Charlie Murphy; SNL and SCTV’s Tony Rosato, who to be honest was never all that funny; comic and TV actor Bill Dana; voice actor and Match Game regular Patti Deutsch; overweight stand-up Ralphie May; the legendary Shelley Berman, who had been appearing on Curb Your Enthusiasm there at the end, and a couple of others I’ll get to later.
California-based Sixties guerilla artist Lynne Westmore Bloom, famed for painting Malibu’s Pink Lady, went toes up this past year. The art world also lost famed Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz; Juxtapoz magazine co-founder and tireless champion of outsider art Greg Escalante; and the great Basil Gogos, whose cover paintings for the likes of Eerie, Creepy, and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines helped make them so damnably irresistible.
Although the rotting cadavers are usually dropping out of the Disney Corporation fast and furious enough to justify their own hefty category most years, in 2017 they only supplied two: pioneering Imagineer (and former Walt Disney assistant) Marty Sklar and artist Francis Xavier Atencio, who co-wrote the catchy theme song for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
Ah, but you can always count on pro wrestling! People talk about the mortality rates among construction and sanitation workers, but there’s no business on earth quite so death prone as professional wrestling, and last year proved it yet again. Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka took the three count, and so did Ivan “The Russian Bear” Koloff and lady wrestler and Howard Stern regular Nicole Bass. Hitting a little closer to home, legendarily despised, loudmouthed manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who had been such a fixture of the Seventies wrestling scene, died of tongue cancer, appropriately enough. Sadder still, we also lost pro wrestler-turned occasional actor George “The Animal” Steele, who interestingly enough played pro wrestler turned occasional actor Tor Johnson in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic.
Then of course there are all those others, those people we lost who are remembered for doing one thing, and one thing that doesn’t fit easily into any of the above categories but which nevertheless made an impact on the culture or this dirty old world in general.
It was game over, for instance, for video game magnate Masaya Nakamura, known as The Father of Pac Man. The perfect wave finally arrived for Bruce Brown, whose 1966 documentary The Endless Summer helped make surfing a cultural phenomenon, and S. Newman Darby, who invented the sailboard. Justifiably ill-tempered killer whale Tilikum, focus of the influential documentary Black Fish, has jumped through his last hoop, as has Princess Margaret’s husband Lord Snowden; notorious Philly mob boss “Little Nicky” Scarfo; astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon; astronaut Richard Gordon, who was involved with both the Gemini and Apollo programs; astronaut Bruce McCandless, the first man to float untethered in space; Joseph Goebbels’ personal secretary Brunhilde Pomsel; Roe v. Wade’s “Jane Roe,” Norma McCorvey; Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Sheik allegedly behind the 1993 WTC bombing; renowned and innovative skyscraper architect John Portman; Lucille Conlin Horn, who was born prematurely and began life in an incubator as a Coney Island sideshow attraction; and Daryl Easton, dubbed “The Magician’s Magician,” who hanged himself in a closet in L.A.’s Magic Castle;.
Waffle House co-founder Joe Rogers Sr. has been chopped, chunked, covered and smothered, as has Waffle House co-founder Thomas Forkner Sr. Amy Bleuel, who established a suicide prevention organization, not surprisingly committed suicide. Gilbert Baker, who created the iconic LGBT rainbow flag, didn’t kill himself so far as I’m aware, but he’s still plenty dead, as are crazy street preacher and Alamo Church founder Tony Alamo, who’d recently been convicted of sexual abuse charges; Cardinal Bernard Law, disgraced former head of the Boston diocese and center of the nation’s largest Catholic-based child sex abuse scandal; Times Square porn real estate kingpin and Show World owner Richard Basciano; activist Erica Garner, whose dad Eric Garner became a symbol after being killed by the NYPD; shafted G.I. Joe creator Stanley Weston; Ian Brady, who along with Myra Hindley was behind England’s notorious Moors Murders; Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski; former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor who oversaw Germany’s reunification; bespectacled independent presidential candidate John Anderson, who likely ensured a Reagan victory in 1980; E.L. Woody, who preferred to be known as The King of the Paparazzi; Sixties feminist activist Sheila Michaels, who popularized the use of “Ms.”’ And Frank Sinatra’s fourth and last wife, Barbara.
Finally, as per usual I’d like to take a few moments to pay particular homage to some lost luminaries I held especially dear, even if you didn’t. I mentioned above a couple of comedians who weren’t included in the comedy section. First among them was the great Professor Irwin Corey, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a few times over the years. His nearly eight decades in the business brought him from vaudeville to Broadway to radio, television, film and beyond. In 1974 he was sent to give the acceptance speech when Mr. Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow won the National Book Award. His outspoken radical activism earned him a massive FBI file. And his enduring doublespeak and psychobabble routine, which earned him the moniker “The World’s Foremost Authority,” is more relevant today than ever. He continued doing stand up well into his nineties, his aphorisms have made their way into the lexicon, and now he’s taken his well-deserved seat in the Pantheon.
Over the past two decades or so, as the nation took a sharp turn toward the righteous, easily offended and namby-pamby, the great Don Rickles’ trademark form of ethnically-charged insult comedy fell out of favor among fickle mush heads who were incapable of looking past the surface to see his intent. Fuck them. Mr. Warmth was tops in my book and always will be, as fearless and dangerous as Lenny Bruce, but for a mainstream audience. He dredged up all our prejudice and bigotry, threw it in our face and made us laugh at it, all while giving us a wicked grin and a sly wink. Bless that son of a bitch. Plus he was so damn great in Roger Corman’s X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes. It’s just such a damn shame he was still alive, after a career that lasted that long, to see the stupid world turn against him because he adamantly refused to make his act more politically correct. (“Hey! I wanna tap dance some mo’!”).
Yes, Don Rickles’ friend Jerry Lewis was a terrible person. He was arrogant, vicious and deluded. He was combative in interviews and refused to accept that he was better remembered by most for the telethons than his movies. But that’s the Jerry Lewis I always loved, the Jerry Lewis playing himself in Scorsese’s King of Comedy (and there’s another Scorsese connection for 2017). By the end he was the unvarnished soul of the American entertainment industry laid bare. That said, there were moments of real genius in his early films, set pieces no one else could have pulled off. He was well aware of the fact he was a giant, and he was.
There, I did the whole Jerry Lewis thing without once mentioning The Day the Clown Cried or the French.
Speaking of giants, Japanese stuntman Haruo Nakajima was the first actor to don the nearly two hundred and fifty pound Godzilla costume in 1954, and the King of the Monsters has never been so impressive or memorable. Along with director Ishiro Honda, producer Tomayuki Tanaka, composer Akira Ifukube and special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya, it was Nakajima who brought Godzilla to life with presence, terrifying grace, and personality, and helped make him the icon he soon became. He died this past August at age 88. Yes he was just a man in an incredibly heavy rubber suit, but to the end he still took pride in the performance, recalling the experience with genuine humor and humility.
A few weeks back I wrote a column about Husker Du, mentioning in passing that drummer, vocalist and songwriter Grant Hart had recently died of cancer and complications related to hepatitis. Since then I’ve been listening to a lot of Hart’s solo recordings and looking into his life a bit more deeply than I’d bothered to when he was alive. I wish I’d done so earlier, and wish I’d had the chance to interview him. Sure he was openly bitter about how his post-huskers career had been so roundly ignored, while people who cited Husker Du as a major influence went on to play stadiums and make millions, but he kept at it. He was a multi-talented musician, visual artist and writer, a deeply literate creative force, and his final album, 2013’s The Argument, was a masterpiece. It’s just a damn shame he died so young.
Was there anyone cooler than Harry Dean Stanton? He brought a gruff, world-weary, hangdog charm to every role he played, regardless of the film. From Cool Hand Luke (he wrote the song “Plastic Jesus”) to Two-Lane Blacktop to Alien to a couple of David Lynch projects to Escape from New York to, yes, Repo Man, he was always just Harry Dean through and through. I’ve spoken with a few people who worked with him in the past, who reported he wasn’t always the easiest character to direct. Middle of a scene, if he decided he wanted to stop and go play guitar for awhile well, that’s what he’d do—just walk off set in the middle of a line and go play guitar; And what’s cooler than that? He just didn’t give a fuck, and we’ll likely never see another like him.
Willie Garretson passed away a year ago now, on January sixth, 2017. The name likely doesn’t ring a bell, but he was the caretaker at the Cielo Drive home of Sharon Tate in August of 1969. I bring him up here, as toward the end of the year we also, after decades of rumors about his failing health, lost the man who was convicted of orchestrating the murder of Ms. Tate and several others. There’s an awful lot I could say about Charles Manson, but I’ll leave it at this: For close to fifty years, the man was mythologized, fetishized and exploited nearly out of existence, and little of what was said about him had anything to do with the truth. Reporters reflexively referred to him as “mass murderer Charles Manson,” despite the fact he was never convicted of murdering anyone. And for as much as pundits interpreted and explained him, he was rarely given a chance to speak for himself, at least not without interruption and heavy editing. But you listen to Manson speaking for himself, you realize he wasn’t the demon he’s been made out to be. No, he was a lucid and radical philosopher, a deeply wise man who saw straight into the black heart of what America had become, and this is why he had to be silenced, discredited and mythologized. We need demons with names and faces to maintain the status quo. For some of us, however, we need our Mansons for very different reasons. Good night Charlie—you have all the fear.
I’m guessing only a tiny handful of you knew Antonia Huhnken. Tony (as she was known) was the receptionist at the Welcomat back in the Eighties and Early Nineties. She was also one of the most worthwhile, delightful, and wildly interesting people I’ve ever known. She passed away in December after a far too long battle with colon cancer. I’ll be writing about her at more length next week, but wanted to make sure to include her here among all these other notables, because that’s where she deserves to be. She shone brighter than most of them.
All of the above, again for good or ill, did something in their lifetimes that helped make our own limited time here a bit more interesting than it likely would have been otherwise. And as the world careens more and more stupidly into madness, I can honestly and sincerely say they will be missed. As ever, here’s a tip of the hat to them all.
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