The way we react to the death of a famous person often speaks volumes about us as individuals. If we were to make a list of which celebrity deaths saddened us the most and compared that list to ones made by family and friends, the conversation could be quite interesting indeed.
The death of a celebrity, in many ways, is like the death of a pet as opposed to that of a close friend or family member. No one would question mourning the death of the latter, but some people – silently or overtly – might not understand why anyone would be broken up about the passing of a person known to them only through television broadcasts and newspaper articles, much like some might say about a departed pet: “it was only a dog.”
But the manner in which we mourn the passing of specific celebrities provides a glimpse into to the unique prioritization of importance we place on the phenomena in our world, which occupy space in our thoughts, and hearts.
For instance, consider the internationally renowned musical impresario Prince Rogers Nelson – commonly known as Prince – who died in April at age 57. I can absolutely understand how so many people were crushed by Prince’s passing, because through his music, he meant so much to so many. But he meant nothing to me. Absolutely nothing. I never liked his music (I even saw him in concert once, having gone with a friend of mine – a huge fan – many years ago, and couldn’t wait for it to be over). To me, my reaction to Prince’s death was little more than it might have been to that of any 57-year-old random stranger: “It’s a shame he died so young.” There was something sad about thinking back to Prince prancing around in his purple outfits, singing “1999,” “Kiss,” or “Raspberry Beret,” and now he’s dead. But for me, that was it. No devastation. This is nothing against Prince, mind you – just the reality of how his life did not affect me at all.
On the other hand, I was much more saddened by the 2012 passing of Jon Lord, the original keyboardist of my all-time favorite band, Deep Purple. Far more people – particularly in the United States, know Prince than know Jon Lord – and that is precisely my point. Mourning is in the eye of the beholder.
Then, there are celebrities who have faded from the spotlight, and therefore effectively “ended their relationship” with us, even while they’re still alive. So, as for the pleasure we derived from their existence, that had long faded before their lives ended. One such example is Muhammad Ali, who also died earlier this year. Ali is unquestionably one of my all-time favorite sports figures. Though he rose to stardom even before I was born, I lived as a child through the latter part of his championship years. The back page of the New York Daily News, featuring Ali standing over George Foreman, whom he had just knocked out, to regain the heavyweight championship of the world, with the banner headline “How Ali Did It,” adorned the wall of my room for years. After losing the title to Leon Spinks early in 1978, I cheered wildly as he regained it that September.
Yet when he passed away in June, it wasn’t such a shocker. He had been retired for 35 years. The many blows he took to the head over his long and illustrious career had taken their toll: diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, his condition slowly deteriorated to the point that he could barely interact with the multitudes of well-wishers who attended his 70th birthday tribute in 2012.
In stark contrast, the death of James Gandolfini in 2013 left me so stunned that it was only this past fall that I was even able to bring myself to watch reruns of the show that made him famous: the HBO smash hit The Sopranos. Not only did Gandolfini die in the prime of his life – at age 51 – a but also at a time when he had so much to offer in terms of his extraordinary abilities as an actor. There was much more “quality relationship time” to have been had with him.
All that said, here is a short tribute (in alphabetical order) to some of the “B-list” celebrities who didn’t quite make the big headlines with their deaths this year, but whose passing made a bigger impact on me than many of the “A-list” names:
- Ron Glass (71): Best known as the witty, nattily-dressed Sgt. Ron Harris on the sitcom Barney Miller. Harris wrote books; he inspired me (as a kid watching him) to do the same.
- Pat Harrington, Jr. (86): Played the lovable building superintendent Dwayne Schneider on One Day at a Time. A unique and memorable character.
- Gwen Ifill (61): Ifill was a journalist best known for moderating two general election vice presidential debates (in 2004 and 2008). Having pored through those debates dozens of times in writing my dissertation, I felt as if she was almost a member of the household.
- George Kennedy (91): Best-known for his Oscar-winning role in Cool Hand Luke, but for me, he’ll always be JR’s nemesis Carter McKay, on Dallas.
- Joseph Mascolo (87): A versatile actor mostly known for his role as the perennial villain Stefano Di Mera on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. His character revolutionized the “likable” bad guy on soaps, and exemplified the concept of killing off characters and later bringing them back to life. Stefano’s nickname, after all, was the “Phoenix.”
- John McLaughlin (89): The political commentator hosted the McLaughlin Group TV show, not having missed a week since 1982; he missed only one episode, while battling cancer, in August. He died four days later.
- Theresa Saldana (61): Another one who died far too young, Saldana was the quintessential “good gal” B-movie leading lady, starring in films like Nunzio and Defiance, among others.
- Alan Thicke (69): Technically, Alan Thicke shouldn’t be on this list, as his death received enough “A-list” headlines. But though he is best known as the Dr. Jason Seaver, the dad on the sitcom Growing Pains, I will forever remember him as host of Thicke of the Night, a fleeting, early 1980s late night rival to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. The show propelled Arsenio Hall – Thicke’s sidekick – to stardom.
- Abe Vigoda (94): Vigoda played Detective Phil Fish, also on Barney Miller, and Sal Tessio in The Godfather. He lived to the ripe old age of 94, though People magazine mistakenly bumped him off at 60, in 1982. I once saw him jogging around the reservoir in Central Park.
- Alan Young (96): Though his last name was “Young,” he lived to be very old. Young was the lovable straight man, Wilbur Post, owner of that famous talking horse on the eponymous sitcom, Mister Ed.
Thanks for the memories.