Before the old man with the beard and scythe surrenders completely and we turn 2013 over to the kid in diapers with his year to grow, let’s pause and raise a glass to the folks we left behind in the year that just ended—not to refresh, but to reflect. I hate good-byes, but from Gore Vidal to Whitney Houston, some memorable people turned their lights out last year, and they deserve a proper send-off.
The world of show business lost Phyllis Diller. One does not exactly “lose” Phyllis Diller, even in a crowd. Although her prickly presence will always be preserved in the archives of comedy, the definition of “hilarious” will have to be altered if we ever hope to laugh in quite the same way again. Self-deprecating housewife-turned-stand-up clown, she said, “I’ve got so many liver spots I come with a side of onions,” and “I was the world’s ugliest baby. When I was born, the doctor slapped everybody.” With her mink eyelashes and foot-long cigarette holder, she was labeled the poor man’s Auntie Mame, but she was as warm-hearted as she was funny.
It was one last curtain call for my close friend Ben Gazzara, the Actors Studio crown prince who never hid behind mumbles and scratches but used his brooding Sicilian good looks and tough-guy demeanor to enliven a variety of roles—from the drug-addicted husband in A Hatful of Rain and the original Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to two romantic movie leads opposite Audrey Hepburn and a series of films for his pal John Cassavetes. I met him in the early 1980s when I spent three miserable months on a desolate movie location in Korea, lonely and longing for a decent meal; Ben cooked his famous spaghetti for me and washed the dishes in my bathtub. I was with him the night before he relinquished his valiant struggle with cancer, but he had lost none of his macho tenderness. (The movie we both appeared in was a war epic called Inchon! When we learned it was secretly being financed by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, everybody became unhinged, except for Ben, who, with his typical jaundiced sense of humor, told a visiting journalist, “Just write that we’re shooting for the moon!”) I miss him already.