Thursday, July 21, 2011

Personal Reflections On Dead Celebrities: 2011 Edition

With half of the year already gone, I thought I might take a few moments to reflect on the lives of a few famous people who have passed away so far this year. With apologies (though apologies are unnecessary for the dead) to Betty Ford, Jack Kevorkian, Sidney Lumet, Jackie Cooper, and other notables among the recently departed, here they are, in no particular order.

1)  Peter Falk:  Perhaps best known for his recurring role as the highly skilled but laid-back detective Lieutenant Columbo, I will always remember him as Fred Savage's "Grandpa" in The Princess Bride. Nobody could spin a good yarn like Grandpa, and at the end of the film, he had you wondering if he wasn't somehow part of the story itself. A skilled actor at comedy as well as drama, Falk was a five-time Emmy award winner. He was 83 years old.

2)  Jeff Conaway:  Many people know Conaway from his role as John Travolta's sidekick "Kenickie" in Grease. He was also a series regular on both Taxi and Babylon 5, among many other credits. Always a decent actor, but never a great one, his life began spiraling out of control when he became addicted to cocaine, alcohol, and painkillers. After multiple attempts at rehab, including as a "cast member" of the reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, Conaway's often-abused body gave out on him. A bout of pneumonia, not a drug overdose as was originally reported, was the final blow. I watched a very frail, very different Conaway on "Celebrity Rehab" in the latter throes of his devolution. It was sad to see that a once-proud, successful actor had become a pitiful, weepy, angry mess. He was 60 years old.

3)  Harmon Killebrew:  Greatest Minnesota Twin ever? Perhaps. Before Kirby Puckett, before Justin Morneau, and before Joe Mauer, there was Killebrew. Over a 22-year major league baseball career with the Washington Senators, Minnesota Twins, and Kansas City Royals, Killebrew slugged 573 home runs, good for 11th all-time. His heroic battle against esophageal cancer ended earlier this year. He was 74 years old.

4)  Osama bin Laden: 
A hero to some, perhaps, but the villain to end all villains to most. The mastermind behind the September 11th attacks, after successfully evading U.S. capture for nearly 10 years, was finally taken down in his own compound in western Pakistan and killed by U.S. special forces. Few mourn his loss, and many rejoice. He was 54 years old.

5)  Elizabeth Taylor:  In her later years, Taylor was most well-known for her line of perfumes, her friendship with Michael Jackson, and for the tabloids' endless obsession with her every move. In her prime, Taylor was one of the most glamorous women ever to grace the silver screen, and a great talent in her own right. My earliest and fondest memories of her work lie in one of her earliest films, as "Velvet Brown" in National Velvet. A charming family film even 67 years after its initial release, Taylor's charm and ease at being on camera were self-evident. America fell in love with her, and they always would. After surviving numerous life-threatening illnesses, Taylor finally succumbed to heart failure at the age of 79.

6)  Michael Gough:  This highly accomplished British character actor appeared in 150-plus films spanning over 60 years, but is best known to modern audiences for his role as Bruce Wayne's butler, assistant, confidant, and surrogate father figure "Alfred Pennyworth" in four Batman films throughout the late-1980's, 1990's, and 2000's. Gough was 94 years old.

7)  Nate Dogg:  One of my earliest exposures to rap music was the song "Regulate" by Warren G. and Nate Dogg. Looking back, it wasn't that great of a song, lyrically speaking. In fact, it was slightly horrible (read: morally reprehensible) – which is why I didn't link the video here. But musically and artistically, I found it brilliant, and that song among others, got me interested in rap. I eventually stopped listening to secular rap (see previous post), but my early interest in the genre eventually led me to discovering Christian rap, which has become one of my favorite types of music to listen to. He was 41 years old.

8)  Jane Russell:  A leading "sex symbol" in Hollywood in the 1940's and 1950's, Russell made an instant splash in her first film, The Outlaw. Over the next 40 years, she would appear in only 20 or so more films, but her enduring legacy might very well be – and current Hollywood ingenues should take note – that you CAN be truly beautiful without having hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of plastic surgery. She was 89 years old.

9)  Pete Postlethwaite: 
A veteran character actor, Postlethwaite seemed to be a magnet for blockbuster movies throughout the 1990's and 2000's, turning in memorable performances in such smash hits as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, The Usual Suspects, Alien 3, and Amistad. After surviving testicular cancer in 1990, Postlethwaite was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010 and passed away early this year. He was 64 years old.

10)  Googie Withers:  OK, I'll admit it. I picked Googie Withers out of a list of dead celebrities strictly for her wonderfully ridiculous name. But as it turns out, I was at least peripherally familiar with her work, having seen her in the 1945 horror anthology film Dead of Night. Though I don't specifically remember her role, or whether she was any good in it, suffice it to say that she enjoyed a long career as an actress, both in the UK and in Hollywood. Googie lived to the ripe old age of 94 years.

11)  Laura Ziskin:  Credited with producing several highly successful films in recent years, including Spiderman, Spiderman 2, As Good As It Gets, and Pretty Woman, Ziskin gained most of her notoriety for her direct role in founding the Stand Up To Cancer initiative in 2008. SU2C enables cutting-edge research, targeting all types of cancer, including breast, prostate, skin, brain, colon, and cervical cancer. Ziskin herself was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2004, a disease doctors has repeatedly missed previously because of the diffuse type of cancer she had. Breast cancer claimed Ziskin's life too soon at the age of 61.

12)  Lilian Jackson Braun:  Author of over 30 light-hearted mysteries in her  The Cat Who... series, Braun crafted happy – if slightly low-brow – tales in which her secondary hero, Jim Qwilleran, and the real stars of the show, his Siamese cats Koko and Yum-Yum solve mysteries. Many, many years after the invention and widespread use of word processors and personal computers, Braun – an admitted technophobe – continued to write her novels on a traditional typewriter, a fact very much in keeping with her old-school style of writing. She was 97 years old.

13)  Duke Snider:  Snider was a baseball star years before I was even born. But I've often heard my dad speak of him fondly, even though my dad was a die-hard Yankees fan, and Snider played for the Brooklyn – and then Los Angeles – Dodgers, a Yankees rival. In an era where Mantle and Mays were king, Snider was at least the crown prince. He was 84 years old.

14)  Ferlin Husky:  One of country-and-western's earliest stars, Husky was and is well-known among aficionados of the more traditional style of country music. Several years ago, I somehow ran across Husky's name and didn't know anything about him, but thought that his utterly ludicrous name would be a perfect match for the customizable player that I planned to create on my computer baseball game. As it turns out, this alternate Ferlin Husky was an exceptionally good ballplayer. And as it turns out, the real Ferlin Husky was a really good singer. Apparently, he also had a great laugh. He died of congestive heart failure earlier this year at 85 years old.

15)  Roberts Blossom: 
One of my favorite movies growing up had to be "Home Alone." And besides that plucky tow-headed kid who bested those bad burglars, the most memorable character from that film has to be "Old Man Marley", portrayed by Roberts Blossom. This quirky character actor didn't hit his stride in show business until he was already middle-aged. But once he did, he found steady work in roles as the resident oddball, and was quite adept in them. True, "Home Alone" is low-brow humor and would hardly be an actor's first choice as a "claim to fame", but the best, most poignant moments in the film are with Blossom and Macaulay Culkin in the church scene. It just doesn't get any better than that. Well, at least when you're twelve years old, it doesn't. Blossom was 87 years old at the time of his death.

16)  Amy Winehouse:  This tremendously talented yet tremendously troubled singer-songwriter with the unmistakably smoky voice brought to pop music a style that fused jazz and Motown – often dubbed "Neo-Soul" – paving the road to success for other promising young UK artists like Adele, Florence + The Machine, and Lily Allen. Sadly, Winehouse was never able to successfully battle her demons of alcohol and drug addiction, and became the latest member of the "27 Club" – which includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, among others – an infamous group of influential musicians who all died tragically at the age of 27.

Sources: and other random places on the internet. 

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