Final Farewell To Friends and Icons

Frank Sinatra used to say, “Growing old can kiss my ass.” Nobody ever said it cruder or better. Just take a look at the long and sobering list of celebrity farewells who matured and signed off in 2003, and you know whoever called them the “golden years” must have been auditioning for a straitjacket. Now 2004 is here-but before we can properly usher in that new kid with his year to grow, could we just pause, join hands and share a moment of silent reverence for the folks we lost in the lousy old year just ending?

The Grim Reaper’s scythe cut a swath far and wide in 2003. Among the notable actors who took their final curtain calls, Katharine Hepburn was probably the one most widely known whose death was most widely publicized. Marching through life to the sound of her own drummer, she was crusty, eccentric, unique and unforgettable. But she was 96, and the specter of death had already lost a certain element of surprise, as it had with the equally legendary Bob Hope, who finally stopped laughing after 100 years. I think Kate was ready and eager to join Spencer Tracy in the big screening room in the sky, where I hope Bob is at last reunited with Crosby and Lamour for the ultimate Road to … (you fill in the blank). Paradise , perhaps?

They will be missed, but so will the great Oscar-winning actress Wendy Hiller, who bowed out with trademark elegance and spruce at 90, after a lifetime devoted to turning even the smallest of roles on stage or screen into towering triumphs. The same is true for Alan Bates, who took off the greasepaint at a too-young 69. His milestones on stage and film are countless. And I dare anyone to forget Gregory Peck, one of the last film stars from an era when virility meant more than violence, cussing, kicking women around and blowing up things. Like the men he played in The Yearling , Gentleman’s Agreement and To Kill a Mockingbird , he was a strong, forceful and soft-spoken icon whose career and personal life coalesced to symbolize decency, integrity and dignity. Those candid afternoons I sat in his living room in California watching the sunset while he excoriated Washington conservatives, rhapsodized over Ava Gardner, canonized Audrey Hepburn and eulogized Charlton Heston as “a brainless human armoire” will be treasured. I didn’t know Jeanne Crain, one of the most popular stars of the silver screen, but she died just before Christmas, and so did a nostalgic chunk of my childhood at the movies. In 30 sparkling musicals and comedies from the 40’s and 50’s like State Fair , Margie , Apartment for Peggy and A Letter to Three Wives , she epitomized the fresh, all-American bobby-soxers, college co-eds and struggling but resourceful postwar housewives at a time when being young, radiant and wholesome meant a great deal more than it does now. By the time she was Oscar-nominated for her big dramatic breakthrough in Pinky (1949), she was being deluged with 6,000 fan letters a week. Jeanne Crain movies were all the rage then; they still hold up today, bringing the highest bids on eBay auctions. Sigh. Where did we all go wrong?

Following on her shapely heels, other endearing charms who applied lip gloss for their final closeups were stalwart Ellen Drew, deceptively delicate-looking but are-you-kidding Hope Lange, alluring Janice Rule and eternal glamourpuss Suzy Parker, a svelte talisman of a more sophisticated decade-supermodel Richard Avedon cover girl by trade and kooky, offbeat beatnik at heart, who became a role model for Audrey Hepburn’s character in Funny Face and later acted in films herself opposite Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. Movie buff to the end, I have a place in my heart of special campy affection reserved for Vera Hruba Ralston, the Czech ice skater who became “Queen of the B’s” when she married Herbert J. Yates, head of Republic Pictures. Murdering the English language, she appeared in one film with John Wayne and a giant octopus. From the scowl on his face, there was no question which one the Duke preferred. When Republic folded, Variety reported that it was from fiscal bankruptcy due to “entirely too many films starring Miss Vera Hruba Ralston at a time when there was no public demand for her services.” Ouch.

Other thespians signing their last autographs in 2003 included perennially boyish Richard Crenna; Alberto Sordi, famous Italian character actor who brightened 150 films, and a personal favorite of Federico Fellini; German leading man Horst Buchholz, whose eclectic career ranged from movies (Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three ) to Broadway (he played Kim Stanley’s young lover in the legendary adaptation of Colette’s Chéri ); Lynne Thigpen, co-star of TV’s The District , who died mysteriously of undisclosed reasons at 54; Michael Jeter, the libidinous character actor who could bend like saltwater taffy, winning a Tony (for Grand Hotel ) and an Emmy (for playing Burt Reynolds’ sidekick on Evening Shade ); handsome screen star Robert Stack, who had no idea what havoc he was about to unleash when he gave Liz Taylor her first screen kiss in A Date with Judy back in 1948; two-fisted tough guy Charles Bronson; David Hemmings, who achieved overnight success in the sexy British film Blowup ; actor Rex Robbins, Angela Lansbury’s leading man in the glorious revival of Gypsy ; Jack Elam, ace boo-hiss bad guy, who burned more wagon trains and terrorized more women and children than any other movie villain, and got shot by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Henry Fonda in more than 100 Hollywood westerns; nice-guy TV star John Ritter, who collapsed on a sound stage, dead of a heart attack at 54; and Leslie Cheung, popular and openly gay Chinese film star of such classics as Farewell My Concubine , who committed suicide in Hong Kong. Among my personal favorites were Martha Scott, 88, the original Emily in Our Town ; the much awarded and rewarded film and stage perennial, Hume Cronyn; comedian Buddy Hackett; MGM singer-dancer Buddy Ebsen, 95, who was cast as the original Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz but forced to leave the picture when he developed a life-threatening allergy to the aluminum-based makeup. And I will never laugh in quite the same enthusiastic tempo without 85-year-old Art Carney, who perfected the role of Ed Norton on The Honeymooners and then went on to become an actor of enormous depth and versatility. Kitchen chaos will never be the same without the lovely Penny Singleton, who played the dumb-blonde wife of moronic Dagwood Bumstead in 28 Blondie films from 1938 to 1950 that have become a staple of Saturday-morning television. Dumb like a fox, she graduated from Blondie to president of the American Guild of Variety Artists and lived to the ripe old age of 95. They’re always talking about reviving the Blondie series for a TV sitcom, but I pity the lackluster actress who has to fill Penny Singleton’s shoes.

Flamboyant Nell Carter blasted her way through her last Fats Waller number, and syncopated Gregory Hines hung up his tap shoes forever. It was eight bars and out for my vivacious pal Dorothy Loudon, who rose from the ranks of posh cabarets like the Blue Angel to light up the Broadway stage, belting out more showstoppers than anyone since Merman. How I’ll miss those rainy Saturday-afternoon movie dates on the Upper West Side with Dorothy, and those bus rides home from the theater at midnight. Her obits talked about the Tony she won for playing the beastly Miss Hannigan in Annie , but my greatest memory is the way she brought the audience to a standing ovation every night singing the heartbreaking “Fifty Percent” in Ballroom .

The dance world will forever lose some of its lift and balance without the grace and symmetry of prima ballerina Vera Zorina, who danced her way to stardom in choreography by her first husband, George Balanchine, in the film On Your Toes . When she retired, she settled down with second husband Goddard Lieberson and became an exquisite hostess in Connecticut and Santa Fe. Those of us who knew her always called her Birgitta, but by any name, no other rose in toe shoes was ever so fair. And on the subject of dance, the great Donald O’Connor took some of the joy and electricity out of Technicolor terpsichore when he sailed through his last number in 2003. With both Gene Kelly and Donald gone, watching Singin’ in the Rain will be sadder now than it oughta be.

The music world lost its rhythm with the demise of pop star Maurice Gibb, 53, one of the four brothers known as the Bee Gees. He played bass and keyboards and was once married to British pop tartlet Lulu. Not much luck for the Gibbs boys: Younger brother Andy died in 1988, at age 30. More flatted sour notes: Cuban conga king Mongo Santamaria, who played a major part in the Latin-jazz craze of the 1960’s; popular cabaret performer Bertram Ross; Celia Cruz, queen of the Afro-Cuban movement to sing Latin swing; and soignée 99-year-old American nightclub legend Elisabeth Welch, who, like Josephine Baker, soared to fame in Paris in the 30’s and, like Mabel Mercer, became the darling of Cole Porter. I will also miss the tortured blues of perpetually angry jazz singer Nina Simone, jazz composer Benny Carter, longtime performer-pianist-songwriter and longtime Julie Wilson accompanist William Roy, and historic arranger-conductor Luther Henderson. Where will all that elegant music go, and who will keep it alive now that beloved disc jockey Stan Martin is no longer around to play it? In the concert halls, the glorious voices of Metropolitan Opera stars Franco Corelli and Jerome Hines have been silenced, along with the classical piano of leading Bach interpreter Rosalyn Tureck. Down in Nashville, it sounds like the plunk of a dead guitar string without legendary country star Johnny Cash, and those old jukebox tunes will never have the same bounce without Your Hit Parade star Gisele MacKenzie.

Behind the cameras and the footlights, empty spaces signal the departure of Conrad Hall, the Oscar-winning cinematographer whose inspired artistry made everything from In Cold Blood to Road to Perdition worthy of museum quality. The great film directors who threw away their megaphones and viewfinders in 2003 included the magnificent Elia Kazan, whose body of work embodies the highest achievements in the history of film; Maurice Pialat; and John Schlesinger, director of such milestones as Midnight Cowboy , Darling and Sunday Bloody Sunday . And let us not leave out Adolf Hitler’s favorite director, Leni Riefenstahl, Germany’s strange mixture of curiosity and controversy. Few of her camera subjects survived the Third Reich, but she lived to celebrate her 101st birthday. Creative writers who provided decades of dialogue put down their fountain pens and unplugged their computers after their final bon mots included playwrights Jean Kerr, Paul Zindel, Peter Stone, Herb Gardner and Jack Gelber (his 1959 confrontational play The Connection , about drug addicts, opened a new door for Off Broadway’s experimental theater movement), and screenwriters Norman Panama, Philip Yordan, John Gregory Dunne (brother of Dominick Dunne and husband of Joan Didion, whose jaundiced novels and screenplays about Hollywood separated the unreal from the truly unreal) and David ( Bonnie and Clyde ) Newman. (The table by the bar at Elaine’s will remain empty without you, kid.)

Ava Gardner once told me that she knew her marriage to Artie Shaw was over when he snatched a racy historical novel she was reading out of her hands and smashed her in the head with it, yelling “Trash!” The book was Forever Amber , and the author was Kathleen Winsor, who later became Mrs. Artie Shaw. She died this year, along with fellow literary lions Leon Uris, Sloan Wilson and George Plimpton. Finally, a fond toast to the glamorous New York team of Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg, who pioneered the talk-show format on radio and TV; to Irv Kupcinet, C.Z. Guest, British film critic Alexander Walker and Boston drama critic Elliot Norton; to American Theater Wing president Isabelle Stevenson, wimpy but popular TV kiddy-show host Mr. Rogers, Pulitzer Prize–winning World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin and tennis star Althea Gibson, the first black woman to win snooty Wimbledon; to Carol Matthau, whose special credentials (a kabuki face always dusted with imported rice powder; widow of Walter and, before him, William Saroyan), witty sarcasm and keen interest in everything social made her the literary sensation of the Hamptons and Hollywood dilettantes; and to Lee Bailey, an old-school Southern gentleman and taste maven whose books on food and decorating have become staples on the best coffee tables from Baton Rouge to Biarritz (thanks, Lee, for testing all those cobblers on me). To elderly NBC news anchor David Brinkley, young NBC correspondent David Bloom (who died while covering the stupid war in Iraq), and the indefatigable caricaturist and bon vivant Al Hirschfeld, my friend and mentor, whose career chronicled 75 years of the American theater in pen and ink. Everybody called him Al, it was Al all the time, and when he waved so long, they threw away the mold.

So went 2003-and good riddance, if you ask me.

Final Farewell To Friends and Icons