As I have become older I have begun to pay more attention to those end-of-the-year lists of “…famous or important people that died last year…” that all the magazines and news shows love to compile. I also find myself occasionally looking at the obits in the paper.
A shrink might tell me that I am learning to face up to my own mortality; maybe it is just morbid curiosity. It is an undeniable fact that each year I recognize more names and faces on the lists.
In no particular order, this is a compilation of those departed that had an influence of one kind or another on my life:
Spock—No offense intended to the incredible Leonard Nimoy, but does anyone my age see his picture (with or w/o pointy ears) and think anything else? Yes, he became a skilled director and producer; no, he sucked at singing.
Donna Douglas --Never again will Elly May Clampett take her critters to the “ see-ment pond”.
Maureen O’Hara – Even when her movies were in B&W, you just knew she was a ginger. Bold, brassy and sure of herself, she bested Errol Flynn and John Wayne, not once but several times.
Anita Ekberg—Just when the hormones began to kick in, I saw a semi-nude, B&W photo of her. She was my second really hardcore crush/puppy-lust actress. (My first was Sophia Loren.) Anita inspired thoughts in my fevered young mind that the nuns would have had to beat out of me had they but known.
Yogi—When I was growing up a White Sox and Cubs fan, I hated the Yankees with a deep and visceral loathing. Every damned year the damned Yankees were in the Series, or so it seemed to the rest of the baseball world, but nobody hated Yogi Berra. His “Yogi-isms” are legion, and many attributed to him not his, but he was always smiling. He was a fierce competitor who really turned it up two notches in the Series, but I still loved it when the Pirates beat them in ’60.
Frank Gifford – I remember the first Monday Night Football broadcast. My wife and I were entertaining another couple, playing cards, when it came on; I don’t think the cardgame was ever finished. Counterpoint to the often-bloviating Howard Cosell and the loopy folksiness of Dandy Don Meredith, Gifford told us what was going on in clear and concise words; that he also had the bona fides of a stellar career in the NFL made what he had to say important.
Rowdy Roddy Piper—Piper aspired to be an actor, not in the ring but on the screen. He was a very popular pro wrassler’, mostly a bad guy but sometimes good, headlining some of the biggest pay-per-view cards. He changed the face of pro wrestling when he got into the feud with Hulk Hogan, involved Cyndi Lauper and ushered in the age of Rock’n’Wrestling. He also appeared in a bunch of movies, mostly forgettable, and several TV shows
Omar Sharif—What a consummate actor, and one hell of a bridge player. When he rides up on that camel from the haze of the desert, who can forget Sherif Ali of Lawrence of Arabia? When he marvels at the crystalline sculpture of the ice on the windows in that frigid winter in Dr. Zhivago, who can forget that intensity? The fact that he was once one of the top bridge players in the world and spoke six languages fluently only added to his cosmopolitan appeal.
Geoffrey Lewis— His was a face you kept seeing in films and on TV; he was a masterful character actor, usually playing a bad guy but not always. He seemed to pop up regularly in Westerns and he worked with Clint Eastwood a lot. I admired the way he slipped in and out of the skins of those characters
James Best—It is a crying shame that Best will most likely only be known to later generations as Rosco P. Coltrane of Hazzard. He was a very good character actor in the movies, appeared nearly 300 times on TV and taught in college after he semi-retired, as well as becoming a respectable painter. Once asked on a talkshow I saw but do not remember the name of, why he had “stooped” to The Dukes, he was refreshingly honest; he said the money was too good to pass up.
Percy Sledge --I just loved this man’s voice—pure liquid gold.
Rod Taylor We traveled through time and fled the Morloks with him, and we ducked indoors to flee The Birds. He made lots of movies, some good, some not. Taylor was interesting, no matter the film; sort of the old “mans man”.
Leslie Gore—She cried at her party because she wanted to. I don’t know why but that song left a deep impression on me.
Grace Lee Whitney—Yeoman Rand- She only played in 8 of the first 13 episodes of Star Trek, but she left a leggy, blonde impression on us all.
Fred D Thompson—This guy led one hell of a life, and I mean that in the best possible way. He was an eyewitness to history as a staffer in the Watergate Hearings who later became a State Senator for Tennessee for two terms, a presidential contender/candidate and later a TV star on Law & Order. That must have been one hell of a ride.
Robert Loggia—Even though he had 231 TV and screen credits, his was another “face” that you recognized from other stuff. He was in TV in the ‘60’s, nominated for an Oscar in the ‘80’s and continued working until his Alzheimer's manifested. He had a very distinctive, gravelly voice.
Louis Jordan—When he started appearing in American films, suddenly smooth and sophisticated became cool. Clever, good-looking types could win the girl easier than the big “beat ‘em up” dudes could. Manners and charm became important
Gary Owens—I laughed (or at least chuckled) every time I heard his voice, a sort of stereotypical “this is important stuff” spoof. He epitomized, as well as satirized the role of the Studio Announcer on Laugh In. A lot of us wanted to sound just like him.
B.B. King—The man could play blues guitar like no other. His influence runs so deep it is nearly impossible to encompass it all; there are damned few guitarists playing today that have not known his influence, whether they knew it or not. He was legendary for giving new talent a chance to shine; he had Joe Bonamassa opening for him before Joe was old enough to drive. I leave it to future generations of musicologists to measure the depth of his influence I just know that it is HUGE.
Christopher Lee---Where do you start to lost his creds? WWII vet, singer, actor, producer and director, Sir Christopher did it all. He was a consummate bad guy in dozens of roles. He was nearly a stock player for Hammer Horror for years. He made two heavy metal albums and was awarded a "Spirit of Metal" award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God awards ceremony.. While never an avid fan of horror movies myself, his work in the Tolkien movies as Saruman was superb.
Well, hell, that was pretty depressing. But I think it is increasingly important to note not just the passing of time but also the passing of those that helped fill that time with sorrow and joy, delight and anguish, amusement and entertainment. My one consolation? I won’t see my name on any lists like this because when it happens, I’ll be dead.