Both Fisher and Reynolds’ deaths came on the heels of two more just mere days from one another: Richard Adams, the beloved writer of “Watership Down”, and George Michael, a treasured icon of the 80s pop movement. In any given year, their losses would have been enough to reverberate across months of thought and grief, but to have them occur in one week adds horrific detail to an already troubled time, when the entertainment industries have been attempting to find closure on a host of other high profile tragedies scattered across the previous twelve months. In a time when so many are still attempting to reason with the loss of David Bowie, for instance, how are they expected to feel when their year closes out in such a manner, especially given how so many seemed to occur without warning?
According to the Internet Movie Database, over 140 prominent members of these intertwined industries passed away during 2016 – not a statistic worth gloating about. While the number is hardly gargantuan in comparison to previous years, it carries the distinction of having the highest concentration of big names of recent times. Bowie’s loss – notable because he was one of the rare crossover artists in film and music – played as a heartbreaking introduction in a time when the population was already at unease, facing the reality of world tragedies and fiery political campaigns. Four days after he died, Alan Rickman was also gone… and the big screen – our most treasured form of escapism – suddenly felt much smaller than it should.
By some strange twist of fate Hollywood has also begun a move away from the exploits of movie personality; where money talks and studios are seeing return investments shatter the roof, big names have become footnotes in their own vehicles. That trend reverberates with some level of cruel irony given how rapidly the world has seen them disappear in the fog of mortality. Have we elevated the culture of celebrity so prominently that we are only inviting repeated patterns of these sorts of tragedies? Or is it all just a matter of coincidence, given how so many of them came to end because of illnesses trickling under the surface. Rickman and Bowie’s deaths were perhaps preordained by their cancer, as was Abe Vigoda, who died at the end of January at the ripe old age of 94. But then war seemed to be waged on the 80s icons when Vanity, a protégé of Prince’s, died without warning in mid-February, only to be followed two months later by the devastating loss of Prince himself as a result of prescription drug overdose.
Then came Pete Burns, another well-known figure of the 80s movement, and George Michael, who died of heart failure at the young age of 53 earlier this week. I make a point to keep my written discussions enclosed in the realm of film, as that is my primary profession of choice, but as a child of one of the most celebrated decades of music, it pains my heart to live in a time when so many treasured voices of the era have begun to die off, many of them in rather rapid succession (not to mention relatively young lives). When Michael Jackson died in 2009 it was shocking, perhaps, but not indicative of a trend. When Whitney Houston followed three years later, hers felt like a consequence of a life lived too hard. Nowhere in my wildest imagination did I assume I would be contemplating theirs in conjunction with four more from this year alone, leaving many of us to wonder: who can possibly be next?
For film, the names dropped sometimes only in a span of two or three weeks (if that). Tony Burton, the treasured boxing trainer in “Rocky,” died at the end of February. Three days later, George Kennedy – who won an Academy Award for “Cool Hand Luke” – followed. Pat Conroy, who wrote the novels for two well-known pictures (“The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides”) came a few days after. And at the end of March came word that Garry Shandling never woke up after suffering from cardiac arrest (autopsy reports would later confirm tremendous blockage around his heart).
Countless others continued to dominate our awareness: Patty Duke, also an Oscar winner; Doris Roberts, the fiery-tongued actress best known for her work on “Everybody Loves Raymond”; Muhammad Ali, a symbol of perseverance who inspired a plethora of films about boxing ring champions; Theresa Saldana, who was astonishing in “Raging Bull”; Ron Lester, who died at a mere 45 years old; Anton Yelchin, killed tragically in an accident; Michael Cimino, the famed director of “The Deer Hunter”; Gary Marshall, a director of rather famous television sitcoms; David Huddleston, the charming character actor made famous by the Coens’ “The Big Lebowski”; Barry Jenner, another treasured character actor of the era; Kenny Baker, the man inside the R2D2 costume in the original “Star Wars”; Gene Wilder, the spirited personality whose wit and charm made “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” an essential destination for all children with imagination; Jon Polito, another veteran character actor of the Coens’ films; Alexis Arquette, one of the most prominent transgender actresses of modern times; Bill Nunn, a voice of reason in Spike Lee’s powerful “Do the Right Thing”; Leonard Cohen, the brilliant singer and songwriter whom Roger Ebert once thanked for being the reason he survived an artery hemorrhage; Robert Vaughn, a golden age television thespian made famous for his roles in “The Ten Commandments” and “The Magnificent Seven”; Florence Henderson, famous as Mama Brady; Ron Glass, a crossover television and film actor; Alan Thicke, most well-known for playing the father in “Growing Pains”; and Zsa Zsa Gabor, an icon of old Hollywood who finally went to sleep at age 99 after years of suffering from debilitating ailments.
As I run through a list of these casualties I am adrift with mixed emotions – sad that many have left us (some prematurely) and grateful that so many of them permeate from the memory banks because of the art they leave behind. In the recent years, when notable figures have transitioned from this world to the next, I have made repeated attempts to write about them, usually unsuccessfully; as cathartic as it may be to discuss the endeavors of a body of work, rarely does it ever amount to something profound or distinctive. Eloquent obituaries, perhaps, have more impact when they come from those closest to the sources. This year I have resisted the urge to discuss the demises of a handful of key figures for that very reason – what was left for me to say that already hadn’t been, really? – but after the strange turn of events of this very last week of 2016, I couldn’t remain silent.
There are naysayers who will double down in protest for paying tribute to deceased artists – because if you did not know them personally, how can that sadden you? My reasoning is well known, and indeed aligns with that of many of those who mourn their losses. I refuse to apologize or feel a certain way for carrying around such beliefs. These were people who added something to the world – things that entertained us, created discussions, forced us to contemplate, and even brought some semblance of joy. Those are treasures in a sea of piercing shadows. And equally as my heart goes out to those who knew these people closely, I am grateful to be living in a time when I could see their gifts flourish in real time.
As members of your living audience, departed ones, we will forever be grateful.
Written by DAVID KEYES