For many disturbing reasons—personal, financial and global—I unequivocally declare 2008 one of the most miserably catastrophic years within memory. With a new government promising a new strategy of reform and change, I join the rest of the world in a new thing called hope. But before we dust off and start fresh in the new year, let’s say a proper goodbye to the folks in the old one who retreated to the doors marked exit. Reams of space have already been devoted to 2008 obituary roundups, all notable for their glaring omissions. Here’s an attempt to get it right. If I’ve left anyone out, you don’t need to know them anyway.
No year in my experience has been filled with so many important departures. They ran the gamut in age and accomplishment. Paul Newman was a blue-eyed hero and an Oscar-winning all-American icon who took acting as far as it could go, a veteran of 65 movies, a liberal political activist and a businessman philanthropist who donated more than $200 million to charity since 1982. Like Sara Lee, nobody didn’t like Paul Newman. We were friends since I was a college sophomore in Baton Rouge; he came to town to star in a Faulkner-based film called The Long, Hot Summer, and talked director Martin Ritt into casting me and my classmate Elizabeth Ann Cole in two tiny parts in the picture. She was so intoxicated by her first brush with show business that she left school, headed for the Broadway lights, and changed her name to Elizabeth Ashley. The rest is history. Paul and Joanne were never conventional film beacons. They hated Hollywood so much when they lived there that when fans clutching star maps started climbing out of tour buses and tramping across their lawn, Paul went out in the middle of the night in his pajamas and nailed down a sign that said, “Please—they have moved—The Pearsons!” When he died, I had just seen him deliver the eulogy at the Connecticut funeral of another veteran film star, Richard Widmark, and then he was gone, too. But Paul was 83, with his best years behind him. Heath Ledger was only 28, with his life and career ahead of him, when he was found dead in a New York apartment on the eve of his big Batman debut as the diabolical Joker. An “inconclusive” autopsy only added to the mystery. Then there was Brad Renfro, the troubled but talented teenager from The Client, his promising career derailed by drugs. He had just turned 25.
Van Johnson! No bigger star lit up the silver screen in Hollywood’s golden years than the wholesome milk-and-Wheaties matinee idol who romanced June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven, Judy Garland, Esther Williams and Elizabeth Taylor in one box office smash after another. He laid the cornerstone of MGM prosperity in the 1940s, when movies were fun, glamorous and a reason to get out of the house. He died at 92, still wearing his trademark red socks. Speaking of MGM glamour, movie musicals will never reach the same dazzling heights of greatness without gorgeous Cyd Charisse, the legendary dancer who channeled ballet technique, ravishing beauty and riveting acting talent into the dreams Technicolor was invented for, in classic musicals like Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Brigadoon and Silk Stockings. Other girls danced with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, but with her grace, elegance, sex appeal and legs for days, Cyd was in a class by herself. It was one last bow for Charlton (Ben-Hur) Heston, who saved the circus, parted the Red Sea, then damaged his career by becoming a passionate spokesman for the National Rifle Association. R.I.P., Chuck. No more standing ovations for Paul Scofield, the reclusive British star who won an Oscar and a Tony for A Man for All Seasons but disliked public life so much that he rejected knighthood in the 1960s. No more close-ups for Evelyn Keyes, one of the last survivors of Gone With the Wind, who married John Huston, Charles Vidor and Artie Shaw, and lived with Mike Todd for years, before becoming an excellent writer, author and newspaper columnist. Her frank 1977 autobiography, Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister, was so hot it sizzled. No more curtain calls for Mel Ferrer, actor (The Sun Also Rises), director (Green Mansions) and ex-husband of Audrey Hepburn; Nina Foch, a great actress, teacher and director who distinguished stage, screen and university lecture halls with her no-nonsense artistry and wisdom; or rugged Roy Scheider, who conquered sharks in Jaws and Bob Fosse in All That Jazz. And no more salty-tongued wisecracks from beautiful, brainy, husky-voiced Suzanne Pleshette, who never lost her wacky sense of humor even while she and third husband Tom Poston were both dying simultaneously. Her Christmas card last year featured a drawing of them in bed surrounded by words like “Cancer!”, “Emphysema!”, “Heart Attacks!” and “Diabetes!” On the first page, they pleaded “Please don’t give us any gifts this year.” Followed, when you opened it up, by “We have everything already”.
Where will movies be without character actors like Beverly Garland (cult favorite in B-movie horrors such as Swamp Women and The Alligator People, and Fred MacMurray’s wife on TV sitcom My Three Sons); Bettie Page, the notorious ’50s nudie pinup and born-again Christian who became the subject of a 2005 art film starring Gretchen Mol; Michael Higgins, best known as the father of the psychotic boy in the original Broadway production of Equus; Eva Dahlbeck, a Swedish favorite in Ingmar Bergman classics like Smiles of a Summer Night; Augusta Dabney, once married to both William Prince and Kevin McCarthy; lurid goth glamour ghoul Vampira, who emerged on late-night TV every Halloween to spoof the living dead; tough-gal Ann Savage, star of the 1945 film noir cult movie Detour; doe-eyed Lois Nettleton, one of the best Blanches I ever saw, in the 1973 Broadway revival of Streetcar; Joy Page, stepdaughter of Warner Brothers mogul Jack Warner, who made her debut in Casablanca, and 98-year-old silent screen star Anita Page; sturdy, reliable Robert Prosky; Last Picture Show alumnus Sam Bottoms; British femme fatale Hazel Court; machine-gun-totin’ soul singer–actor Isaac Hayes, who also wrote the theme music for Shaft; Australia’s favorite outback outlaw Michael Pate; Irene Dailey, sister of dancer Dan Dailey and daughter of the manager of New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, who found stardom late in 1964’s hard-hitting Broadway drama The Subject Was Roses; Eileen Herlie, whose depth and range stretched from Broadway musicals opposite Jackie Gleason, Ray Bolger and Walter Pidgeon to playing Queen Gertrude in both Laurence Olivier’s and Richard Burton’s Hamlets; handsome John Phillip Law, the naked angel who cradled Jane Fonda in his feathers in Barbarella; and Robert Arthur, who played the pleasant teenager in family movies like Cheaper by the Dozen before graduating to meatier roles like ambitious apprentice to sleazy sensation-seeking reporter Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. After his acting career ended, he became an activist for the rights of gay senior citizens. And let us always remember Edie Adams, vivacious blond-bombshell wife of legendary comic Ernie Kovacs who went from Daisy Mae in Broadway’s Li’l Abner to kidding sex in 19 years of Muriel cigar commercials. Personally, I am already missing my dear friend and Connecticut neighbor Madeline Lee Gilford—political activist, actress-widow of Jack Gilford, feisty survivor of the McCarthy witch hunts, one of our most colorful showbiz seniors, everybody’s Jewish mother and everyone’s Betty Boop kid sister all rolled into one. (Her equally offbeat sister Fran was responsible for the poop-scoop law.)