Here we are again, reluctantly counting our losses. Beloved, besmirched or just plain “Who cares?”, more celebrated folks swallowed one final, fatal lozenge in 2016 than I want to remember. I always forget somebody, but here is the nucleus of the bold-face names who will light up headlines no more.
Aside from Debbie Reynolds, who died of a broken heart one day after her smart, precocious actor-writer-humorist daughter Carrie Fisher succumbed to a heart attack on an airplane from London to Los Angeles, another weird coincidence occurred when often-married glam queen Zsa Zsa Gabor, 99, died the very same day that her adopted son Oliver Prinz von Anhalt, 45, had a motorcycle accident. He later died of crash injuries on Christmas Day. Debbie was one of the few remaining stars from the golden days of MGM musicals. Her final eight bars and out were preceded this year by my personal friend Gloria De Haven, a beauty who sang like a dream onscreen and provided me with a lot of personal entertainment around the globe on various trips, vacations and weekend getaways at my house in Connecticut. I wish I had a dime for every time she locked herself out of the car shopping for bargains in some mall and I had to rescue her with a spare set of car keys. I’ll never forget the flight to Hawaii when the miniature rescue dog she was hiding in her purse got into a barking match with James Taylor’s dog across the aisle, disrupting the entire plane, and we were almost all evicted in mid-air. I miss Gloria already.
Who could replace the Gioconda smile of Michele Morgan, the beguiling French star of French and Hollywood films for three decades (Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart were just two of her co-stars) and first person to ever win the Best Actress award in Cannes for the 1946 film Symphonie Pastorale? The house she bought in 1941, when she thought she saw a big Hollywood career in her crystal ball, ended up the site of the gruesome Charles Manson family murders in 1969. I will also be sad to say “Adios” to the original unsinkable Molly Brown, the unique and incandescent Tammy Grimes, who lit up Broadway musicals with the voice of a crunchy, cracking potato chip. Another friend, who died at 94, was legendary big band singer Kitty Kallen, who toured with Harry James, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Dorsey and made more gold records than even she could remember. She sang sweetly, in tune, with perfect pitch, and topped the charts with “I’m Beginning to See the Light”, “Little Things Mean a Lot”, and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”. She’s the one who got me on The Gong Show, produced by her husband Bud Granoff. I cherish the annual winter holidays I spent at her lavish villa in Mexico, and the funny stories she told over pozole and green enchiladas about the good old days, especially the night an aging fan approached the bandstand and asked Jimmy Dorsey: “Was it you, or your brother, who died?” The bandleader said, “Wait a minute. I’ll call Tommy and ask him.”
The end of another political era was marked by the passing of Nancy Reagan, 94. A bad B-movie starlet at MGM who made good as the wife of Ronald Reagan for 52 years and became America’s first lady–a role more memorable than anything she was assigned in her anemic film career (she’s the housewife who heard God on the radio in The Next Voice You Hear). She was so passionate about astrology and numerology that after the White House, when the Reagans moved to 666 Nimes Drive in Beverly Hills, she forced the post office to change the address because 666 was the sign of Satan—an act that enraged her neighbor, Elizabeth Taylor, who could no longer get her mail delivered unless she changed the numbers on her house, too.
The boxing world suffered a fatal knockout with the final courageous farewell of Muhammed Ali, whose power and spirit inspired generations of wannabe athletes. The sports arena will also miss golf pro Arnold Palmer, whose ferocious game drove his way with a ball from a shelf of cups and trophies into a multi-million business empire. And while we’re on the subject of genuine heroes, how about John Glenn—test pilot, fighter pilot, first astronaut to orbit the planet (3 times), later a U.S. Senator for 24 years! He was the real deal, married to the same wife for 73 of his 95 years, and an honest-to-Pete American icon that will not come this way again any time soon.
The beat goes on, but not with the same tempo after the loss of rock icons David Bowie, Prince and George Michael (in my opinion, the most consummate musician of the three). The golden pipes of Florence Henderson graced the Broadway stage long before she became America’s favorite mom on The Brady Bunch. Her sudden death came as a major surprise. Another beloved actor who took a final bow was Patty Duke, 69, small in size but big in talent and versatility, an abused child star with a sunny all-American image who enchanted critics and audiences while masking manic depression and bipolar disorders she kept private for years until, as an adult, she became an outspoken advocate for mental health issues. The youngest person to win an Oscar in an official competitive category, she went from playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, to her own sitcom The Patty Duke Show, to the alcoholic, pill-popping vixen in Valley of the Dolls, and still found time to serve as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1985 to 1988. Other former child stars who packed away their lollipops: Bobby Breen, whose powerful tenor voice gave fellow movie moppets Shirley Temple, Freddie Bartholomew and Jane Withers a run for their weekly allowance during the Depression; Joan Carroll, famous forever as a member of the beloved Smith family in Meet Me in St. Louis (she was Agnes, the avid tomboy sister between Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in age—she died at 85, with 14 grandchildren); Noreen Corcoran, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s on five seasons of the sitcom Bachelor Father and got her own scene-stealing production number with Donald O’Connor on roller skates in the MGM musical I Love Melvin; and Frankie Michaels, who, at age 11, became the youngest person to ever win a Tony as young Patrick in the hit Broadway musical Mame.
Who could forget comic force Gene Wilder, who once lived with wife Gilda Radner in my apartment building in New York where during a routine construction job they discovered a swimming pool under the living room floor? The renowned Fritz Weaver, who played everything from Shakespeare to the Air Force colonel in Fail-Safe to Mark Twain and the most memorable Sherlock Holmes I ever saw (he once also fearlessly played my father in a sold-out reading of a new play at the National Arts Club); barrel-chested George Kennedy, who played heavies and won an Oscar as the sadistic prison guard in Cool Hand Luke; Alan Thicke, congenial Canadian singer-songwriter-TV talk and game show host and suburban Dad on Growing Pains for seven seasons; handsome Richard Davalos, who played James Dean’s brother in East of Eden and while working on that 1955 classic, roomed together with Dean in an apartment near the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank so they could both save rent money; Robert Horton, enormously popular star of TV westerns who put his career on hold to become a musical star in the Broadway hit 110 in the Shade; Brian Bedford, consummate British actor who played comedy, tragedy, English royalty and farce with equal doses of pathos and hilarity that won him 7 Tony nominations; Alan Rickman, best known as the snarling Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies; pretty Charmian Carr, who played Liesl, the eldest daughter in the singing von Trapp family in The Sound of Music; Man From U.N.C.L.E regular Robert Vaughn; Lyn Wilde, who might not be a household name in some households, but if you’re old enough to remember the perky blonde singing twins Lee and Lyn Wilde (Lee passed away in 2015), they lit up nine MGM movies from Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble to Till the Clouds Roll By; alluring Rita Gam, fifties movie star and first wife of Sidney Lumet, who was Grace Kelly’s roommate and a bridesmaid in her illustrious wedding to Prince Rainier in Monaco; Beth Howland, the ditzy waitress Vera on the TV sitcom Alice who later wowed Broadway singing the impossible patter song “I’m Not Getting Married Today” in Company; Ken Howard, star of the beloved Broadway musical Seesaw; Martha Wright, the perennial replacement for Mary Martin who played 1,200 performances of South Pacific and spent a year in The Sound of Music) even though she never became a marquee draw or a household name; Shannon Bolin, who stopped the stage and movie versions of Damn Yankees cold as the midwestern housewife of baseball star Joe Hardy singing “A Man Doesn’t Know” (when he movie cast, all from Broadway, was cold and unfriendly to star Tab Hunter, she bonded and remained close friends for the rest of her life, appearing in the 2015 documentary about him, Tab Hunter Confidential); Doris Roberts, the feisty, tough New York stage actress who personified the meddling Italian mother on the long-running sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, a mediocre piece of fluff that inexplicably caught on, largely because of the gritty Emmy award-winning personality she brought to it; and the great Broadway actress Anne Jackson, a passionate disciple of the Actors Studio and one-half of a famous acting team with husband Eli Wallach in 13 Broadway plays, in addition to movies, TV shows and numerous off-Broadway productions, tackling everything from Moliere to Chekhov to Tennessee Williams. Before he died at 98, when Eli at last won an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, she said, “I taught him everything he knows.”
Youthful Anton Yelchin, 27, was the immensely gifted young Russian-born actor on his way to major stardom when, in a freak accident that shocked the film industry to the core, his car rolled backwards and pinned him against a brick mailbox, ending a career much too soon. I will miss the terrific Steven Hill, who led a somewhat double life—as a great albeit underrated actor, and as a rabbi. His greatest role was in The Goddess opposite the magnificent Kim Stanley. Julia Meade opened her final appliance door. “I opened so many refrigerators and lit so many stoves on network TV commercials,” she told me, “that everybody thought I owned Westinghouse.” No, that was Betty Furness. But Julia was Ed Sullivan’s favorite pitchwoman, she also acted with Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk, and owned a nightclub in Ogunquit, Maine called the Fan Club where tourists rubbed elbows with touring film stars on the summer stock circuit. It still tanked. I should know. Thanks to Julia, I stupidly invested in it and lost my shirt.
Show business would never survive without the character actors. Among the ones we lost in 2016 were Alan Young, Richard Libertini, comics Garry Shandling and Pat Harrington Jr., David Margulies, Kristine Miller, England’s distinguished stage actor Frank Finlay, Abe Vigoda, befuddled and addlepated Alice Drummond, Follies star John McMartin, and radio star Janet Waldo who was a household staple as the voice of teen heroine Corliss Archer, than again as Judy Jetson in the animated TV series The Jetsons. It was one last “Ho Ho Ho” for the best Santa Claus I ever saw (and I do mean jolly, rotund David Huddleston), George Gaynes, Fyvush Finkel, Hugh O’Brian, England’s Adrienne Corri (so beautiful in Renoir’s exotic film The River, made an impact as Malcolm McDowall’s rape victim while he sang “Singin in the Rain” in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial A Clockwork Orange), lovely French actress Nicole Maurey who co-starred with Bing Crosby in Little Boy Lost and with Alec Guinness and Bette Davis in The Scapegoat, TV favorite Ronnie Claire Edwards, a regular in more than 100 episodes of The Waltons, Theresa Saldana, the actress who survived a brutal attack by a crazed Hollywood stalker who stabbed her ten times with a hunting knife, and starred in a 1984 TV dramatization of her story, and Don Francks, the terrific jazz singer and Canadian-born Cree Indian who starred with Fred Astaire and Petula Clark in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version of the classic stage musical Finian’s Rainbow. And even if you laugh, I will personally lament the passing of Noel Neill, a terrible but endearing actress with a flat voice and a fat fan base who played Clark Kent’s Daily Planet girlfriend, reporter Lois Lane, in the bargain-basement Superman TV series. She lived to be 95.
Where will we be without them? And where would they be without great directors to guide them? The director’s chairs that were folded and packed away in storage this year once belonged exclusively to: Ettore Scola, known for cataloguing the changes in 20th century Italian society in realistic films such as A Special Day, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni as a downtrodden housewife and her neighbor, a gay anti-Fascist radio reporter, who become unlikely lovers on the day in 1938 when Hitler arrived in Rome to visit Mussolini; Guy Hamilton, popular British director of Goldfinger and three other James Bond films; stage director Jack Hofsiss, the youngest director to receive a Tony award when, at 28, he won for The Elephant Man before diving into a Fire Island swimming pool and fracturing three vertebrae—an accident that left him paralyzed for life; Curtis Hanson (won an Oscar as writer-director of the great film noir L.A. Confidential); Arthur Hiller (Love Story); Michael Cimino, a Hollywood victim who won an Oscar for The Deer Hunter in 1978 and then, two years later, directed Heaven’s Gate, a bomb so big it destroyed his career; Poland’s Andrzej Wajda; Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami, a critical darling who made movies the public never saw; Brazil’s Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman); Hollywood’s Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman); and it’s a big “Auf wiedersehn” to loopy Polish film director Andrzej Zulawski, known by critics and film festival eccentrics for freak shows like Possession, in which Isabelle Adjani vomited her way through an underground subway in Berlin and had sex with a giant octopus. Ah, they don’t make ’em like that very often.
Music hits some dissonant flats now that we’ve heard the last of great jazz singers Ernestine Anderson, Bill Henderson, Mose Allison and Mark Murphy—- not to mention the sensational vocals by Kay Starr, Julius La Rosa, and curvaceous Fran Jeffries, whose sex appeal sadly overshadowed her swinging musical abilities on both records and the nightclub circuit with husband Dick Haymes. Other musical wunderkinds include the smashing jazz arranger-conductor Claus Ogerman whose classic albums on the Verve label are collector’s items, and two chips off the old block—Nat King Cole’s daughter Natalie, who died too late in December to include in last year’s goodbyes, and Old Blue Eyes’ son Frank Sinatra, Jr.–plus Jefferson Airplane founders Signe Anderson and Glenn Frey, pop prince Bobby Vee, country-western warbler Merle Haggard, smoky-voiced chanteuse Gogi Grant, opera divas Phyllis Curtin and Patrice Munsel, folk singers Oscar Brand and Leonard Cohen, and wonderful Marni Nixon, the most famous singing movie star you never saw—providing the vocals for Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr and others too hoarse to mention. Ace musicians playing their final riffs were the world’s most (only?) admired jazz harmonica player Toots Thielemans, who enhanced recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, and Billy Joel; the pioneer Latin Jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who wrote the arresting score for the film Last Tango in Paris; New Orleans’ own Dixieland king Pete Fountain; and jazz flutist Jeremy Steig. And it’s the end of the great days of radio disc jockeys without Jim Lowe, who played them all and kept the standards in the American Songbook alive for 50 years of broadcasting.
The world of letters goes blank with the loss of Harper Lee, whose Pulitzer Prize novel To Kill a Mockingbird has outsold the Bible and is still the template for Southern writing. Also typing their final “30” (a journalistic term for “That’s All, Folks!”) were odd, prolific playwright Edward Albee; personal writer friends Barbara Goldsmith and Ken Geist; Barbara Turner (screenwriter of such great films as Petulia and Pollock as well as the mother of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh); England’s Arnold Wesker, who spearheaded the “Angry Young Man” movement of kitchen-sink dramas popularized by Joe Orton and John Osborne; activist-journalist-screenwriter Alice Arlen, who was Oscar nominated for co-writing Silkwood with Nora Ephron; Pat Conroy, who mined a library of novels out of his miserable Southern childhood as the son of an abusive Marine father known as “Godzilla”, who he made infamous in The Great Santini; Earl Hamner, Jr., whose own family background in rural Virginia became the long-running TV series The Waltons; and British playwright Peter Shaffer, whose intelligent, insightful and admirably well crafted hits included Amadeus, Equus, Five Finger Exercise, Lettice and Lovage, and Black Comedy. Before he died at age 90, he said, “When I’m 100, if I manage to write lots of plays, I can read them all in a row and it might give me some vague sense of what I am, and was.” He almost made it. I also remember fondly Mary Ann Madden who, encouraged by her friends Stephen Sondheim and Mike Nichols, invented word games and kept readers enthralled for 30 years with her weekly puzzles and contests in the New York Magazine Competition that appeared in the back pages of that publication. It was goodbye to Judy Feiffer, powerhouse writer, ex-wife of Jules Feiffer, and book editor who guided Maya Angelou to fame as well as Christina Crawford, the adopted daughter of screen legend Joan Crawford, who turned her life at the hands of a manipulative witch into Mommie Dearest.
The list goes on. Let us never forget Holocaust survivor and Noel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who turned human tragedy into a poetic life’s work as an author and activist dedicated to reminding the world of Nazi inhumanity forever. I never laughed so much as I did listening to Bob and Ray as a kid. Bob Elliott, one-half of that great, hilarious and inventive team of satirists who dominated radio and TV for 40 years, hung up his mike, ending the reign of such funny characters as pompous fashion dictator “Natalie Attired”, and “Wally Ballou” the slowest public speaker in America. (When they returned from commercial breaks, he was still in mid-sentence.) Andre Courreges, the French designer whose kooky clothes were once as fashionable as they are now ugly and outdated, sewed his last thigh-high hemline. Films won’t look as elegant without cinematographers Douglas Slocombe (Julia, Travels with My Aunt and the Indiana Jones epics), Vilmos Zsigmond (whose use of muted colors and natural light inspired Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind ), and France’s Raoul Coutard, whose long tracking shots and raw black and white energy enriched the New Wave style so obvious in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim and Godard’s Breathless.
In the press, revered journalist Gwen Ifill, who covered Congress, the White House and 30 years of elections, lost her war against cancer. So did Janet Reno, America’s first female attorney general. It was “Sayonara” for Tom Hayden, liberal writer, social activist and ex-husband of Jane Fonda. The press won’t be as much fun without acerbic columnist Florence King, who wrote vicious slams about “touchy-feely liberalism” and “conservative meatheads” with equal disdain. She was fond of saying “I don’t suffer fools—but I like to see fools suffer.” I will miss the fair and accurate reportage of Morley Safer, a “60 Minutes” fixture who brought the Vietnam war into American homes, which prompted the monicker “the living room war”; the Paddington Bear illustrations by Peggy Fortnum; the fabulous set designs by England’s Ken Adam for nine James Bond flicks (who could forget the interior of Fort Knox in Goldfinger?) and Hollywood’s Richard Sylbert (Chinatown); the popular classical music by French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, 96, who appealed to modern audiences who were willing to trade the romanticism of Tchaikovsky for the coldness of Stravinsky and Berlioz; pickle-faced Sunday morning TV political host John McLaughlin; glamorous couturier James Galanos; ballet diva and dance world icon Violette Verdy. And last but definitely not least, gossip columns will never have the same elan or sardonic tongue-in-cheek sense of self-parody without my gorgeous, soignée friend Aileen Mehle (a.k.a. Suzy). The epitome of style and integrity, she posed with me for a legendary cover of Harper’s Bazaar that still hangs on my bathroom wall. She took the most trivial of journalistic pursuits—gossip and the foibles of fading society—and turned her scoops into literary tomes, never missing a marriage, divorce, or penultimate party in-between. “I stick in the needle,” she said, “but I never draw blood—and I always smooth it over with soothing salve.” I cherish the fun times we had and the years we appeared in the pages of the New York Daily News. When the reign of Suzy ended, so did society.
I know I’ve forgotten somebody, but forgive me if I leave out Fidel Castro. For 2016, a banner year in awfulness, enough is enough.