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.
The curtain also fell for Nicol Williamson, the intense, neurotic, emotionally unstable but critically lauded actor who won numerous awards, only to die in obscurity and poverty in Amsterdam late in 2011 (too late to be included in last year’s roundup, so he gets pride of place in this one). Once acclaimed as “the best Hamlet of his generation,” he had a nasty temper that slowly dragged him down, and he became as famous for his onstage tantrums and antics as he was for his acting. He once punched out his Hamlet producer, David Merrick, and threw him in a garbage can. Ironically, he later played the ghost of John Barrymore in a play called I Hate Hamlet, disrupting rehearsals, publicly criticizing the playwright onstage, and stopping the show mid-performance to tell his co-stars how to play their roles. He ended up smacking another actor with his sword, the curtain came down and the play closed in a storm of lawsuits. He smoked 80 cigarettes a day, drank heavily and eventually gave up acting to sing country-western music with a Scottish accent. They don’t make Broadway eccentrics like that anymore.
It was a year of farewells to old reliables of stage and screen—the character actors who form the backbone of show business. Ernest Borgnine, who specialized, with equal aplomb, in working-class stiffs (Marty) and brutal villains (the sadistic Fatso in From Here to Eternity), leaves memories that cannot be duplicated. He won an Academy Award for playing a lonely Bronx butcher in Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty in 1955, but I liked him best opposite Bette Davis in the same writer’s The Catered Affair the following year. His one-month marriage to Ethel Merman in 1964 was dismissed in her published autobiography with two pages that were printed totally blank.
Andy Griffith, who popularized the cornbread-and-buttermilk drawl adopted by so many others who followed, was an icon. From the power of backwoods politics in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd to the folksy cracker-barrel humor of The Andy Griffith Show, he endured as an American lug nut. Jack Klugman was best known for playing Oscar, the messy, unmade-bed half of The Odd Couple opposite Tony Randall’s fussy, neurotic Felix, as well as for seven TV seasons as L.A. coroner Quincy, M.E., but my favorite memory of him was as the long-suffering Herbie in Broadway’s Gypsy. Mr. Klugman survived throat cancer, operations on his vocal cords—which almost destroyed his career—and Ethel Merman before kicking the bucket at 90. Charles Durning died the same day, on Christmas Eve—a special irony, since he played Santa Claus five times, most memorably opposite Angela Lansbury in Jerry Herman’s original 1996 TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus. A decorated World War II veteran who landed at Normandy during the D-Day invasion, the stout singer-dancer-dramatic actor started his acting career late, but made up for lost time with dozens of historic performances in every medium, especially as the postman who finds love with widowed grandmother Maureen Stapleton at a dance hall for senior citizens in the acclaimed 1975 TV classic Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.
Movie bad guys won’t be as suave without Turhan Bey, the Turkish-Czech actor whose exotic looks made him a popular choice to play psychics, swamis, spies and villains of every ethnicity opposite screen sirens like Maria Montez, Merle Oberon and Gloria Grahame in lavish Technicolor Arabian desert fantasies with Sabu and Jon Hall. We also lost Larry Hagman, Mary Martin’s flamboyant son and TV’s favorite villain for 14 years on Dallas (when J. R. Ewing was shot, it made the cover of Time); handsome Chad Everett, 1970s star of the Medical Center TV series as well as such films as The Singing Nun; distinguished British actor Simon Ward, who leaped to fame as Churchill in Richard Attenborough’s 1972 film Young Winston and also played Lawrence of Arabia in a London revival of the great Terence Rattigan play Ross; William Windom, sturdy character actor whose wide range extended from Angela Lansbury’s small-town sheriff sidekick in the TV series Murder, She Wrote to the Southern prosecuting attorney playing the race card in the classic film To Kill a Mockingbird; Al Freeman Jr., militant black star whose versatility extended from playing angry young men in works by James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones and Spike Lee to singing and dancing in Finian’s Rainbow; Sherman Hemsley, best known as Archie Bunker’s neighbor George Jefferson on All in the Family and its popular spin-off The Jeffersons; Detroit Lions football star Alex Karras, who punched out a horse in Blazing Saddles and played a dad opposite real-life wife Susan Clark on the ABC sitcom Webster; and James Farentino, dashing leading man on Dynasty and ex-husband of Elizabeth Ashley and Michelle Lee.
It was the last roundup for Harry Carey Jr., a favorite staple in the John Ford Western stock company, and for 8-by-10 glossy Peter Breck, the hunky actor who played Barbara Stanwyck’s middle son on The Big Valley. And don’t forget Herbert Lom, the pirate who led the slaves out of Italy in Spartacus before playing Peter Sellers’s boss in seven Pink Panther farces; Dick Tufeld, the robot voice in the loopy sci-fi series Lost in Space; David Kelly (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory); Warren Stevens (Forbidden Planet); Shakespearean actor Jonathan Frid, who found unwanted celebrity as the vampire Barnabas Collins on TV’s Dark Shadows; Richard Dawson (Hogan’s Heroes and popular host of game show Family Feud); George Lindsey, who played Gomer Pyle’s dim-witted cousin Goober; Victor Spinetti, who appeared alongside the Beatles in three of their movies; Davy Jones, the child star who played the Artful Dodger in the 1963 Broadway production of Oliver! and later was a member of the British pop group The Monkees; TV host and master of the Miss America Pageant Gary Collins; Ron Palillo, the whiny nerd Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter; Michael Clarke Duncan, who was a sensation as the hulking 6-foot-5 death row inmate opposite Tom Hanks in The Green Mile; lanky Jerome Courtland, who gave Shirley Temple her first grown-up lip-lock in Kiss and Tell, co-starred with Barbara Cook in the Broadway musical Flahooley and married Polly Bergen; and Bob Anderson, the movie swordmaster who taught Errol Flynn in all of his swashbucklers and was the one behind the Darth Vader mask in the famous Death Star light-saber battle. He was 89. And though few knew his name or face, millions remember the liltingly boyish voice of Dick Beals, known for decades as the sound of Speedy Alka-Seltzer, proclaiming “Plop-plop, fizz-fizz, oh what a relief it is!”
And that’s just the guys. On the distaff side, nobody can approximate the brittle, no-nonsense artistry of Oscar winner Celeste Holm, 95, who played nuns, wives and career girls with a rare combination of sophistication and energy that made me dizzy. In person, she was a grand hostess and New York fund-raiser who never missed a party. She was also polished, cynical and worldly, and refused to suffer fools easily. Once at an Academy Awards event at the Russian Tea Room, a naive young Leonardo DiCaprio made the mistake of asking her, “What movies have you been in?” “No,” snapped the star of All About Eve and Gentleman’s Agreement—“you first.”
Equally unforgettable: the patrician loveliness of Phyllis Thaxter, veteran actress who waved good-bye from her organdy curtains to every movie-star pilot who flew his plane over her kitchen windows in every MGM war picture in the 1940s. (Gen-Xers think of her as Clark Kent’s mom in the 1978 blockbuster Superman—but real buffs know better.) Cashmere sweaters won’t have the same Ivory Soap appeal after the departure of pert, perky Elyse Knox, popular campus beauty in ’40s B movies like the Abbott and Costello musical Hit the Ice, and the mother of NCIS star Mark Harmon. There will never be another Ann Rutherford, MGM’s quintessential girl next door, who played Mickey Rooney’s wholesome girlfriend, Polly Benedict, in 13 of the 17 Andy Hardy pictures, as well as Scarlett O’Hara’s namby-pamby younger sister in Gone With the Wind. She retired in the ’70s, but was always mobbed by autograph hunters at nostalgia conventions and GWTW anniversary celebrations. Married to department store tycoon David May and then Batman producer William Dozier, the ex-husband of Joan Fontaine, she was apparently as sheltered from reality as the high school bobby-soxers she played on the screen. The night of Liza Minnelli’s fatal and famously flamboyant wedding to David Gest, I ended up in a limousine on the way to the star-studded reception and all-night circus that followed with Ms. Rutherford and her fellow screen legends June Haver, Ann Blyth and Anne Jeffreys. When we passed Ground Zero, Ms. Rutherford announced, “Look! That’s where they dropped the bombs on New York City!” My attempts to correct her were briskly waved away: “Oh no, we read about it in The Los Angeles Times.”
They lived full lives and made every minute count, but porcelain doll Deborah Raffin went to the screening room in the sky much too young. She made a big splash as Brooke Hayward in Haywire, the miniseries about Brooke’s tortured family history, before becoming a successful writer, publisher, producer and pioneer in the production of books on audiotape, and she was just getting started. Genuine glamour lost another struggle for silver-screen survival with the undulating adios of Denise Darcel, husky-voiced French chanteuse and buxom actress who appeared in ’50s MGM entertainments with Van Johnson, Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper and Esther Williams (and who died too late in 2011 to make last year’s list). Hard to believe she lived to the ripe old age of 87, but the key word was still “ripe.” That same oomph was embodied by both Sylvia Kristel, Dutch star of 1970s erotic hit Emmanuelle and its sequels, and Sweden’s Anita Bjork, who was hailed as “the new Garbo.” It was one last chorus for Betty Jane Rhodes, popular actress-singer in ’40s musicals like Sweater Girl and a recording artist who made a hit out of “Buttons and Bows.” And we lost Patricia Medina, who was married to Joseph Cotten for 34 years. Gossip columnists said the couple represented stability in a socially unstable community. You can say that again.
Who could ever forget Susan Tyrell, the wonderful whiskey-voiced oddball with one leg, Oscar-nominated for John Huston’s Fat City and praised for her gritty, unsentimental work in bizarre cult films by Andy Warhol? Other ladies who lit up the screen before their final close-ups were Martha Stewart (the one who danced, not the one who cooks); distinguished British actresses Joyce Redman, who played Jenny in Tom Jones, and Faith Brook, who starred in Hitchcock’s Suspicion and The 39 Steps, as well as plays at London’s Old Vic opposite Edith Evans, Alec Guinness and Michael Redgrave (she was Queen Gertrude to Ian Mc-
Kellen’s Hamlet); Joan Roberts, the original star of the 1943 Oklahoma!, who warbled her last note at age 95; and Lupe Ontiveros, who might not be a household name, but the wit, passion and honesty she brought to her film roles (especially wise-cracking Mexican maids) made her a beloved and recognizable face to moviegoers who cherished her sass and verve in As Good as it Gets, Real Women Have Curves and Chuck and Buck.
Where will we be in the days ahead without these familiar faces to charge our batteries—and how will things look without cinematographer Bruce Surtees, legendary photographer Eve Arnold and pop artist LeRoy Neiman to preserve them in amber, or tasteful producers like Marty Richards (Sweeney Todd, Chicago), the Circle in the Square’s Theodore Mann, Martin Poll (The Lion in Winter), Norman Felton (Dr. Kildare), Amos Vogel (who founded Cinema 16, America’s largest membership film society, and produced the first New York Film Festival), Richard Zanuck (who ruined Myra Breckinridge, which I happen to know something about, but fared better with Jaws) and Jake Eberts (Gandhi, Chariots of Fire), to insure quality? We lost a lot of diverse directors, like Emmy-winning Paul Bogart (more than 100 episodes of All in the Family, not to mention historic plays in the golden days of “live” television on The United States Steel Hour and Studio One); Tony winner Albert Marre, whose Man of La Mancha brought him royalties from 45 countries (it was a big hit in Latvia!) up until his death at 87; Ulu Grosbard, whose plays (American Buffalo) and films (The Subject Was Roses) made him a favorite of Hoffman, DeNiro and Duvall; Greek film festival curio Theo Angelopoulos, who made a lot of slow, boring art films nobody ever saw except a handful of critics; soft-core director Zalman King; and TV masterminds John Rich, who won two directing Emmys for All in the Family, and William Asher, the hugely successful director of I Love Lucy, Our Miss Brooks, the Danny Thomas and Donna Reed shows, and eight years of Bewitched, which starred his wife, Elizabeth Montgomery. And don’t write off film director Tony Scott, who devoted his career to action thrillers like Top Gun, Days of Thunder and numerous collaborations with Denzel Washington. He was the brother of Ridley Scott, and shared his passion for noise and violence, until he seemed to live out one of his own scripts when he leaped to his death at 68 from a California bridge.
Music hits so many sour notes that it is doubtful we will ever find the lost chord, now that we’ve been robbed of the beauty and talent of pop superstar Whitney Houston. Burt Bacharach’s longtime writing partner Hal David penned his last catchy lyric, and we’ll have no more silly, popular and ultimately forgettable songs for children’s musicals by Robert Sherman (Mary Poppins). I will especially regret the passing of my friend Dory Previn, who turned her mental problems and tortured personal life into a series of frank, dark, confessional pop-jazz songs that earned her three Oscar nominations and a solid cult following. Broadway musicals will be gruesomely routine without composer Richard Adler, who made history with his two rousingly original Tony-winning hit shows Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game. After the premature passing of his writing partner Jerry Ross in 1955, he never repeated his early runaway success, but he later gained attention producing and staging John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday gala at Madison Square Garden, which featured a breathless Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Catch it on YouTube.
It was eight bars and out for legendary crooner Tony Martin, who checked out two years short of his 100th birthday. He was so debonair that a tuxedo was named after him, and his marriages to movie musical superstars Alice Faye and Cyd Charisse didn’t damage his image as a glamorous troubadour, either. They didn’t call him “the butterscotch baritone” for nothing. In the same musical groove, I’m still in shock over easy-listening “Moon River” singer Andy Williams, the most laid-back male thrush since Perry Como. The son of a railroad mail clerk in Iowa, he started his career harmonizing with his three brothers—Bob, Don and Dick—before joining the fabulous Kay Thompson in her historic nightclub act. He was with Sen. Robert Kennedy the night he won the California presidential primary and was assassinated on his way to celebrate. By request, Andy sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Bobby’s funeral. With his easy, unchallenging vocals and his cardigan sweaters, he was the Mister Rogers of song.
Nobody appreciated him more than Donald Smith, cabaret promoter and founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, an organization named after his favorite after-midnight song stylist, which was dedicated to keeping the Great American Songbook alive and flourishing. Booking the talent for the Algonquin’s Oak Room and producing the annual New York Cabaret Convention, he nurtured the careers of Harry Connick Jr., KT Sullivan, Steve Ross, Michael Feinstein, Portia Nelson, Sylvia Syms and others. New York night life is not half as much fun without Mr. Smith, but the beat goes on.
Other losses that took a bite out of the music world: the swinging jazz piano of the incomparable Dave Brubeck, the lush arrangements of classical and jazz composer Richard Rodney Bennett, and Judy Garland’s musical director Mort Lindsey, who arranged her celebrated comeback at Carnegie Hall in 1961. And there was nobody more brilliantly talented than Mr. Clare Fischer, one of the finest composer-arranger-conductors in jazz for 60 years. He was the sound behind the Hi-Los, the sensational vocal quartet that revolutionized jazz singing in the 1950s, but he also enhanced the work of Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans and Cal Tjader.
We also heard the last encore from electrifying New York City Opera star Patricia Neway, 92, who sent critics to their feet screaming for more when she starred in Gian Carlo Menotti’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Consul in 1950 and won a Tony Award 10 years later for her crossover role as the original Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Other musical notables who hit their final quarter notes in 2012 include Marvin Hamlisch, disco diva Donna Summer, blues belter Etta James, beautiful Maria Cole (Natalie Cole’s mother, Nat King Cole’s widow and a golden-voiced Duke Ellington jazz singer whose only LP on the Capitol label is a collector’s item), bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs, jazz singer Carrie Smith, Your Hit Parade vocalist Russell Arms (who invaded American living rooms every Saturday night with co-stars Dorothy Collins, Gisele MacKenzie and Snooky Lanson in what started out as a novel idea, until America got so tired of listening over and over, week after week, to the same old songs on the Top Ten chart and drove the show off the air), revered big-band crooner David Allyn, lead singer Robin Gibb of the British boy band the Bee Gees, gospel singer Fontella Bass, Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey, Doobie Brothers drummer Michael Hossack, idolized German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who specialized in lieder, blind folk-music icon Doc Watson, R&B star Johnny Otis, Mexican-American singer and reality TV star Jenni Rivera, king of the Indian sitar Ravi Shankar and hillbilly princess Kitty Wells, who held her position as the country music industry’s top female warbler for 14 straight years. I would be remiss to ignore Hal Schaefer, jazz pianist and Hollywood vocal coach for glamour girls Mitzi Gaynor, Susan Hayward and Rita Hayworth. He wrote the arrangement of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” for Marilyn Monroe that raised the bar for movie production numbers, then made headlines in 1954 when Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra broke down the door of an apartment where Marilyn and Mr. Schaefer were reportedly between the sheets together. The boys got the wrong apartment, and Marilyn and her piano player escaped through the rear exit of the love nest next door. The story hit the tabloids as “The Wrong Door Raid.” It put Mr. Schaefer on the map. Talk about 15 minutes of fame!
Fashion is already a dinosaur of a word, but costume designer Nolan Miller’s over-the-top haute couture for Joan Collins and Linda Evans on Dynasty spared no expense and kept it alive through the 1980s. “They’re rich and everybody knows it,” he said, “so I never want to see them wear anything twice.” And they never did. Social media has made the art of conversation sadly obsolete, but if elegant parties ever return, how will we know which fork to use without etiquette queen Letitia Baldrige, who turned Jackie Kennedy’s White House into a Camelot of taste, culture and perfect state dinners? When she died, good manners went with her. Speaking of dying traditions, it was a four-star final for Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, the man who ran The New York Times for 34 years and brought it into the digital world. Some say it was better off before.
Critics are like dentists. Few people are sorry to see them go. But with the passing of Andrew Sarris and Judith Crist, 2012 left gaps in a noble profession that cannot be filled. Mr. Sarris, 83, was my colleague at The New York Observer for a decade, and nothing has been the same without him. We shared the duties of reviewing movies, often running opposing views on opposite sides of the same page. He favored esoteric foreign films with limited possibilities for box office success, and I tackled the mainstream flash and trash. He had a reputation for being ascerbic (Imagine! A grouchy critic!) and less than generous toward younger critics, but I found him to be the exact opposite. A gentleman and a scholar of the still-confusing “auteur theory,” which holds that a director’s voice is central to great filmmaking, he was a weekly influence and an honor to read. After he left the paper, he told me, “I still read you, so I know what I’m missing.” Ms. Crist, 90,was one of America’s most widely seen film critics for more than three decades on the Today show, in the pages of TV Guide and in my favorite New York newspaper, the Herald-Tribune. I wrote her there from college asking her what to do to become a movie critic. Her answer: “Forget it.” She kept that letter in a file and showed it to me years later, after I had been writing about movies for two decades. “I’m glad you ignored my advice completely,” she said. At the height of her influence, her reviews were so harsh that overrated director Otto Preminger labeled her “Judas Crist,” which is as good an endorsement as a film critic can get. A chain smoker for 70 years, she never stopped ranting against the surgeon general, stubbornly defending her right to destroy her health as she saw fit, but finally lost her battle against the “tobacco police.” She threw a popular yearly “survivor’s party” and smoked furiously, no matter who complained. Other critics who have filed their last reviews: Howard Kissel (theater), Donal Henahan (music), Robert Hughes (art) and Hilton Kramer (art).
The world of letters moved several steps closer to illiteracy with the loss of both prolific Henry Denker, author of 30 novels and plays about Freud, Louis Nizer and Korean War crimes, and Ray Bradbury, 91, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning master of science fiction whose novels (Fahrenheit 451), screenplays (Moby Dick) and short-story collections (The Martian Chronicles) turned nightmares, fears and fantasies into lasting literature. Despite the futuristic themes in his writing, he had a deep attachment to the past. He refused to drive a car or fly, and he got around on bicycles and roller skates. His father was a descendant of Mary Bradbury, who was tried for witchcraft in Salem, Mass. His mother read him The Wizard of Oz. His aunt fueled his love of Edgar Allan Poe and Halloween. He wrote Fahrenheit 451 on typewriters at the UCLA library that cost 10 cents for half an hour, and carried around a sack full of dimes, completing the book in nine days at a cost of $9.80. He despised computers and Kindles, and, even at age 90, gave lectures urging people to stick to real books printed the old-fashioned way. He was an original in a literary landscape of bland imitations.
Since Dick Clark dropped his final ball last New Year’s Eve, it now falls on Times Square with a thud. The death of Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon, means one fewer hero for countless kids with big dreams of outer space. Lois Smith, whose classy control of the personal and professional lives of Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep made press agents respectable, was a unique combination powerhouse, den mother and guidance counselor at a time when public relations was still a man’s game. She was a great favorite among clients and journalists alike. Television news coverage will not be as tolerable without crusading broadcast journalist Mike Wallace to make sense out of the chaos, on 60 Minutes. Artist Ronald Searle put away his pen and ink, drawing the last of a series of world-famous cartoons that started when he was a P.O.W. in a Singapore prison during World War II. It was good-bye to the prolific works of Han Suyin, the Chinese doctor, writer and lecturer whose most famous book became the basis for the hit film Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. She was also the controversial author of several books ardently defending Chairman Mao and the Communist Revolution.
Integrity mixed with the leavening agents of narrative wit and romantic optimism landed my friend Nora Ephron in a class by herself—as a clean, precise and flawless journalist, essayist, screenwriter and director. She wrote with fists and signed off with perfume. She was snatched away from us too soon, but with a new play about the halcyon days of New York newspapers opening soon on Broadway starring her friend Tom Hanks, Nora’s legacy will inform a new decade. Smart, funny, colorful and quick on the trigger, she taught me a lot about pruning away the clutter. On the other hand, the typewriter closed for Charles Higham, celebrity biographer whose hotly contested unauthorized biographies made outrageous claims without corroboration. Errol Flynn a Nazi spy? Howard Hughes’s secret love affair with Cary Grant? His books were slammed by the critics, but popular with readers craving vulgarity and scandal, no matter how embellished. One of his claims was that Errol Flynn reportedly persuaded Warner Brothers to film his World War II movie Dive Bomber in Pearl Harbor, then showed it to the Japanese so they could plan their historic attack on the U.S. Mr. Flynn’s family sued.
No more preposterous advice from aging Cosmo girl Helen Gurley Brown, no more maps and invasions by gung-ho General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition forces in the unpopular Gulf War. It was “So long, Charlie” for Chuck Colson, Nixon’s Watergate counsel who turned evangelical behind prison bars. Other lost notables include Soviet spy Gevork Vartanian; former U.S. attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach; Henry Hill, the mobster turncoat who inspired the Martin Scorsese gangland classic Goodfellas; New York Times editor Gerald Gold, who combed through 2.5 million words of the “Pentagon Papers” to prove the U.S. government had lied about the Vietnam War; controversial Korean cult leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who considered himself the messiah; liberal presidential candidate George McGovern, who lost despite the persistent cheerleading of Shirley MacLaine; Jean S. Harris, the prudish headmistress who became a feminist cult heroine after killing “Scarsdale Diet” doctor Herman Tarnower; celebrity hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, who made a lot of dough out of shampoo; Sylvia Woods, down-home “Queen of Soul Food” whose restaurant Sylvia’s lured celebrities from all over the world to Harlem to taste her fried chicken; Samuel Glazer, the man who invented the automatic Mr. Coffee machine; Murray Lender, who introduced frozen bagels to kitchens from coast to coast; renowned interior designers Barbara D’Arcy and Albert Hadley; Ferdinand A. Porsche, who created the you know what, the car-lover’s fantasy for half a century; Alex Cassie, 95, who masterminded the daring breakout from the Nazi Stalag Luft III camp in Germany that was celebrated in the 1963 movie The Great Escape; David Durk, the New York cop who exposed rampant corruption in the police department with his partner Frank Serpico (played by Al Pacino in Serpico); and Joseph Murray, the Nobel laureate who opened a new era in medicine by performing the first successful human kidney transplant in 1954. In sports, we lost champion skier Jill Kinmont, whose struggle to overcome a paralyzing fall on an icy slope was turned into an inspiring 1975 film, The Other Side of the Mountain; major leaguers Andy Carey, Bill “Moose” Skowron (both New York Yankees) and Gary Carter (of the New York Mets); Joe Paterno, once the winningest coach in major college football; and Angelo Dundee, renowned boxing trainer famed for his long association with Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.
There are more. Like Tedi Thurman, the sexy, smoky voice that kept America enthralled delivering torrid weather reports all weekend on NBC’s innovative radio marathon Monitor during my high school salad days. And Billy Barnes, the Hollywood songwriter whose sophisticated revues provided satirical special material for big stars like Goldie Hawn, Danny Kaye and Cher. His fame spread when jazz singer June Christy recorded his song “Something Cool.” The rest is history. So are the worthy folks good and true I have inadvertently overlooked, but I am forced to draw the line somewhere. If I’ve left my friend and literary idol Gore Vidal for last, it’s because I will probably miss his writing the most. A profound chronicler of history and a witty, sardonic raconteur, his ilk will not come this way again. My own relationship with him, tentative as it was, began the year I played one of the leads in a disastrous movie adaptation of his sexy, totally misunderstood novel Myra Breckinridge. After his screenplay was trashed and rewritten by hacks, he had the class to tell me, “You’re the only one who can’t be blamed for this latest sinking of the Titanic.” I still have his original script to prove that the movie once had potential and he knew what he was doing. After he was banned from the 20th Century Fox lot, I used to meet him secretly and bring him up to speed on the chemically influenced activities on the set. The last time I saw him was after his performance in a one-man play about blacklisted McCarthy-era screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. He was frail and trembling, already showing signs of illness. But he was as wicked, mentally agile and intellectually curious as ever. I’ll remember him that way.
Saying au revoir to so many absent friends is about as pleasant as an appointment with a tax auditor. Let’s hope 2013 will be more cheerful. Naively, I’d like to see the immortals live forever. Idealistically, I suggest that we at least give them their deserved applause while they’re still with us, and not wait until after they’re gone. It’s a nice thought to carry into the new year.