Traditionally, I begin each new year with a goodbye. So before plunging in for some hearty new hellos for things to come, let’s raise a farewell glass to the movers and shakers of the year just ending, who will not be around to share the wonder and hope of the year ahead.
In one of the coldest winters in American history, bumper stickers on the icy, dangerous roads read “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” To the tune of “Autumn Leaves,” the days grow shorter with each year, so we better make the most of each and every one of them. I hope the next 363 days add up to more quality in the arts—not to mention more sanity in the politics of a country in crisis—than what we got in 2017, but tallying up the losses of the famous friends, foes and fools who waved “Adiós” is not an encouraging sign.
This job is frustrating, and sometimes impossible. How can I close the door on my friend and mentor, Liz Smith—or even find words adequate enough to express the impact her support made on my life and career? Liz gave me my first writing job in New York, published my first professional movie review, wrote the foreword to one of my books, defended and applauded my sometimes controversial opinions and gave me valuable advice through thick or thin, remaining loyal and encouraging until the day she died in November at age 94. A smart, sophisticated New Yorker by adoption, but a Texas-born tumbleweed as warm, unpretentious and down-home as cornbread, she was unique in that she could actually write with intelligence and wit, and uncommonly popular for a gossip columnist because on the rare occasion she offended a boldface name in print, she applied instant soothing salve to the wound, and all was forgiven. I wish I had a nickel for every margarita I shared with her in her favorite Mexican joint on the ground floor of her apartment building, and I will never forget her dinner parties, casual as a rodeo picnic, where everybody from Elizabeth Taylor to Barbara Walters watched her stir Texas cream gravy and pound out her trademark chicken fried steaks with a Coca-Cola bottle. I’ll miss that drawl on the answering machine: “Honey, call me back, it’s Lizzie.” There will never be another one like her and I miss her already.
Show business will lack the no-nonsense “feminism with charm” of Mary Tyler Moore, whose onscreen image was a role model for women over 30 who wanted to be strong, stylish, independent and successful in a man’s world, but whose real life was fraught with demons—a son’s death from gunshot wounds, a brother’s suicide, an addiction to drugs and alcohol, brain surgery and 40 years of diabetes.
We waved a heartbreaking musical “adieu” to the fabulous lyric soprano Barbara Cook, who made few movies but who turned the musical stage into Technicolor by sounding like all the heavenly angels rolled into one. After conquering Broadway, her second act career as a cabaret diva made history from intimate watering holes to Covent Garden and Carnegie Hall. Her record albums are collector’s items and she picked up a Kennedy Center Honor in 2011. Many will try, but there will never be another Barbara Cook.
We also hummed “So Long Dearie” to the glamour-girl savvy of cool actress-socialite-cereal heiress Dina Merrill, who lost both her husband and her mink coat to Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 (1960), and her 115-room Palm Beach home, Mar-a-Lago, to Donald Trump (1985). The equally elegant Anne Jeffreys, one of the perennial Best Dressed Women in Hollywood and a veteran of everything from B westerns with Randolph Scott to Broadway musicals such as Kiss Me Kate and Street Scene, also passed away. The night of Liza Minnelli’s last starry wedding, I shared a limo to the lavish dinner near the World Trade Center with Anne, and her Golden Age co-stars Ann Rutherford and June Haver. “Look,” one of them said, pointing as we passed Ground Zero, “that’s where they dropped the bombs on New York!” “Pay no attention,” said Anne Jeffreys, “they don’t read anything unless it’s in The Hollywood Reporter.”
A few days apart, France surrendered some of its most beautiful and enduring icons—Jeanne Moreau, the hauntingly alluring queen of French New Wave classics like La Notte and Jules and Jim, who died a few months short of her 90th birthday; 100-year-old singer-actress Danielle Darrieux; and Emmanuelle Riva, star of the groundbreaking 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, whose career as a doyenne of French cinema was at last rewarded in 2012 with her Oscar-nominated starring role in Amour. They joined the massive Gallic exodus in 2017 that included Mireille Darc and Jean Rochefort.
Other actresses who got their final closeups were Rosemary Leach, the great British star who won awards for 84 Charing Cross Road onstage in London and for playing the mother in the Merchant Ivory film A Room with a View; Rose Marie, a regular on The Dick Van Dyke Show and a TV staple for 90 years (that’s no typo) who started her singing career at age three and concluded it at 94, in a charming 2017 movie documentary about her life called Wait for Your Laugh a month before Christmas; Miriam Colon, a trailblazing Puerto Rican actress in nearly 100 films and 250 TV shows and a fierce advocate for Latinos in the arts; Lola Albright, star of TV’s long-running Peter Gunn and a sexy, smoky-voiced singer whose album of Henry Mancini songs was a best-seller; Italy’s bombshell Elsa Martinelli; Ann Wedgeworth, Tony Award-winning actress and ex-wife of Rip Torn; Austria’s Christine Kaufman, acclaimed after winning a Golden Globe for her Hollywood debut as a German girl raped by American soldiers in the 1961 film Town Without Pity, then eclipsed after she married Tony Curtis; Glenne Headly, ex-wife of John Malkovich who played Tess Trueheart opposite Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy; and Emmy Award-winning Barbara Hale, the sturdy, dependable B-movie actress who played criminal lawyer Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street for a decade on TV, helping him solve murder cases although she never learned shorthand and could only type 33 words per minute.
Thank God for DVD players. Their flames will burn forever thanks to home videos, but Robert Osborne will no longer be around as the sometime gossip columnist and perennial movie fan-host to introduce them. The tragedy of what has happened to Turner Classic Movies since his departure is sad, obvious and evident. The movie men who propped up their female counterparts will no longer benefit from Osborne’s fawning intros.
Among the actors who galloped into the sunset in 2017 were Roger Moore, who played Agent 007 in seven James Bond movies, adding lighter humor and fresh camp to the role of Her Majesty’s favorite spy and reviving a flagging franchise by breaking box office records after the sag in popularity that followed Sean Connery’s retirement.
Other actors who retired their union cards include Martin Landau, who graduated from the old ossified Mission:Impossible shows to win an Oscar playing horror relic Bela Lugosi in 1994’s Ed Wood; versatile John Heard; India’s Bollywood star Om Puri; Jose Ferrer’s son Miguel; Eddie Murphy’s older brother Charlie; and Roger Smith, actor, manager and longtime husband of Ann-Margret, who helped me search the back stairs and rummage through the hotel trash bins the night my wallet was stolen in Chicago, and rescued me once in Vegas after I lost every dollar I had on the roulette wheel, stuffing my pockets with enough money to get me to the airport.
I say “Thank you for making so many other people’s movies better than they deserved” to my close buddy Bill Paxton, who never made a false move as an actor in countless films and miniseries, and showed boundless generosity as a friend. Before every trip to New York, Bill would call to make a date for dinner and cocktails; we covered a lot of ground, from four-star Michelin restaurants to cheap Mexican joints for tacos. His Texas-born parents sent me annual boxes of Christmas cookies, and his sister once baked and mailed me a home-cooked pecan pie. Bill even forgave me for advising him to star in the cheesy, big-budget (but entertaining) remake of Mighty Joe Young. I thought it would be the stepping stone to catapult his career to the stardom he deserved. It tanked. But he never blamed me. Everybody liked Bill, and when he died suddenly at 61, following heart surgery, Hollywood went into deep shock. I think I will miss him most.
They dimmed the lights on Broadway for prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, who died at 73 from debilitating ALS, AKA Lou Gehrig’s disease. What a career. He was also a rugged, forceful actor as astronaut Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff and opposite Jessica Lange, his real off-screen lover for 27 years. He directed, published two volumes of poetry and played drums for Bob Dylan’s Road Thunder Revue road tour. Also throwing in the towel this year: Hywel Bennett, Welsh actor who starred in films with Hayley Mills, Lee Remick and Lynn Redgrave; Mike Connors, TV private eye in the Mannix series; Ty Hardin, blonde hunk who re-defined the term “beefcake” in forgettable TV cowboy shows and B movies, married eight times and fathered 10 children; character actors Tim Pigott-Smith, Powers Boothe (who won an Emmy playing Guyana religious wacko Jim Jones, the cult leader who passed out the killer Kool-Aid), Robert Hardy (many portrayals of Winston Churchill and as Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter flicks), and Michael Parks, who followed his nude role as Adam in The Bible with 146 movies and TV shows.
We won’t be seeing anyone again with the depth and range of chameleon-like character actor John Hurt, whose sensational turns on stage and film ran the gamut from Shakespeare to the Elephant Man. Best known as the wand expert in the Harry Potter movies, he also earned cult status as flamboyant gay writer Quentin Crisp and the tragic astronaut with the space serpent inside him in Ridley Scott’s Alien. You could say he never swallowed more than he could chew.
Also: Wendell Burton, the baby-faced all-American kid who admirably held his own opposite Liza Minnelli in her first film, The Sterile Cuckoo. In the end, he was a 69-year-old religious broadcaster in Houston who worked for the Joel Osteen ministries. And Dick Gautier, Tony-nominated for the title role in the smash hit 1960 Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie; Earle Hyman, who played Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show; Jim Nabors, TV’s goofy Gomer Pyle; Richard Anderson, aging buttoned-down preppie who played husbands and boyfriends in a string of early MGM comedies, but hung on to his career long enough to end up on the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman in the 1970s; revered British character actor Alec McCowen; Joe Bologna, actor-writer and husband of Renee Taylor, who passed just two days after the couple celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary; Harry Dean Stanton, the battered veteran actor in countless movie Westerns whose career began when, at 58, he met Sam Shepard in a bar in Santa Fe and landed in the film Paris, Texas. He didn’t care much for acting but was quite a character by definition. At the end, he was elevated to stardom at last in one final film, Lucky, about a weather-beaten old coot very much like himself. And who can forget Adam West, a tall, dark and handsome actor of some talent, forever branded as TV’s campy Batman?
They leave blank spaces on screens big and small, but where would they be without all of the famed directors to guide them? It was one last look through the viewfinder for John Avildsen (Rocky), Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs is still a high-water mark in the history of classy horror films in which the real monsters are human beings capable of monstrous things, not vampires, witches and werewolves), George Romero (father of the modern zombie film whose debut feature, Night of the Living Dead, made in Pittsburgh on a budget of $114,000, grossed $30 million, and became a cult classic), Broadway and opera’s Frank Corsaro (Night of the Iguana), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), surfer-documentary filmmaker Bruce Brown (Endless Summer), and Anthony Harvey (The Lion in Winter). The curtain fell for knighted British impresario Sir Peter Hall, called “the godfather of British theater” for creating the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was 29, then running the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988, and once married to Leslie Caron.
Nothing will look as ravishing without famed cinematographers Walter Lassally (Zorba the Greek), Michael Ballhaus (100 films, mostly for Scorsese, Coppola, Redford, Fassbinder and Mike Nichols) and Harry Stradling, Jr. (The Way We Were). For still photographs, few guys with a camera achieved the notoriety of Anthony Armstrong-Jones, a.k.a. Lord Snowden, married to Princess Margaret for 18 unhappy years. I met him on the inaugural voyage of the Orient Express from Singapore to Bangkok, where he caused a riot by flashing a flashbulb in the face of a cobra and knocked me down in the ensuing stampede.
Laughs won’t come easily without Shelley Berman, the stand-up comic who turned gags into neurotic essays on the perils of modern life, delivered on stools, often in the form of long telephone conversations, and rose above the nightclub circuit to play Carnegie Hall; black comedian and political activist Dick Gregory; wacky, tongue-tied jabberwocky expert Prof. Irwin Corey; acerbic Don Rickles, the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies and a fearless staple in Vegas, where he even took his life in his hands by insulting the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack, to everyone’s delight; Bill Dana, famous for the preposterous character Jose Jimenez, a bellboy and instructor for Latino Santa Clauses who pronounced “Ho Ho Ho” as “Jo Jo Jo.”
And like the presence of a rabid raccoon on the loose, I guess there’s no way to ignore Jerry Lewis, although I have often tried.
This legendary slapstick comic—whose popularity has always eluded me—made show business history when he teamed up for a club act with singer Dean Martin in 1946 and hit pay dirt in raucous TV shows and a series of truly terrible movies the public lapped up like jelly beans. The act lasted 10 years. Offscreen, Lewis’ desperate need for attention and approval led to violent rages, a viral distrust of the press, his staff and everyone who played a role in his career. In all my years of writing about personalities, I have never heard of any star more unpopular among his peers. An egomaniacal control freak dismissed by critics everywhere but France, his personal life was anything but funny. He suffered addiction to opioids, wolfing down 15 Percocets a day. His businesses went bankrupt, his wife Patti divorced him after 36 years and the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation fired him after years of fundraising Labor Day telethons—citing as one reason the reports that during commercial breaks, witnesses claimed Lewis insulted the children in wheelchairs. Medically, he survived double bypass surgery, a perforated eardrum, pulmonary fibrosis and prostate cancer. Is it any wonder his wife Patti was once quoted as saying “There weren’t many laughs around the house?”
Reading lacks the same excitement and verve with the loss of so many first-rate writers: Unplugging their word processors, it was “sayonara” from Bernard Pomerance (The Elephant Man), British novelist-screenwriter David Storey (This Sporting Life), Albert Innaurato (whose plays in the 1970s included the surprise hit Gemini that ran for four years on Broadway), Nora Johnson (who followed in the footsteps of her famous screenwriting father Nunnally Johnson by penning the 1964 comedy hit The World of Henry Orient) and prolific playwright A. R. (“Pete”) Gurney, who cornered the market on a dying breed of middleaged WASPs in plays such as Love Letters and The Dining Room, and a favorite Connecticut neighbor. Barbecuing with him and his wife Molly in their backyard was fun, and meeting him at the post office was a Saturday morning ritual.
I will also miss Broadway’s Thomas Meehan, a friend who threw great Christmas parties, and a three-time Tony winner who penned the books for Annie, Rocky and Hairspray, to name a few (when he tackled The Producers, he toned down Mel Brooks’ passion for excessive bathroom humor and got even better reviews than his boss). The world of letters also lost author Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County), Ireland’s J.P. Donleavy (The Ginger Man), William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist), Michael Bond, who created the marmalade-loving Paddington bear, New Yorker profile champion Lillian Ross Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Ashbery and dissident Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose pentameters of protest so enraged Soviet authorities that he packed up his prizes and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Journalism added a final edit to the columns of movie critic Richard Schickel, jazz critic Nat Hentoff who also wrote (not always coherently) rambling attacks on abortion, gay rights, feminists, blacks and political correctness, and two-fisted icon Jimmy Breslin who was a star in the years when Liz Smith and I wrote for The Daily News. He wrote hard-hitting street essays about gangsters, firefighters and cops in plain English—usually in his pajamas—and phoned everything in from pay telephones.
In addition to Barbara Cook, the music industry also played eight bars and out for the sensational jazz pianist Barbara Carroll, who made her final appearance sharing a stage with me in a New York Cabaret Convention concert I hosted celebrating our friend, the late great Sylvia Syms. Barbara was lame and fragile, but when her tapered fingers hit the keyboard, she played with the rapture and gusto of a swinging Juilliard teen. On their final downbeat, it was one last chord for big-band era orchestra leader Larry Elgart, hip jazz singer-saloon pianist Buddy Greco, peerless jazz guitarist Mundell Lowe and musical arranger-conductor Buddy Bregman, who brightened many of the classic recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.
It was one last tempo from jazz drummer Grady Tate, who provided perfect time and rhythm for Peggy Lee and Lena Horne. Fats Domino will do the twist no more. Rock and roll lost some of its frenzy with Chuck Berry. Teen pop heartthrob David Cassidy waved one last kiss to his mob of aging fans. It was one concluding curtain call for singer Della Reese and big-band vocalist Bea Wain, a “singer’s singer” who jammed with Pavarotti. Pioneering jazz singer Jon Hendricks, who formed the centerpiece of the innovative bop vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, improvised one last chorus of a tune by Count Basie and surrendered his mic after 96 years.
It’s hard to believe it’s the end of the road for Keely Smith. Part Irish, part Cherokee, her reign with husband Louis Prima as the royal family of Las Vegas after dark lasted seven years, from 1954 to 1961. Their freewheeling blend of hot jazz and finger-snapping pop on everything from “That Old Black Magic” to “Jump, Jive and Wail” kicked the clouds away, and when the act (and the marriage) broke up she went solo, singing romantic standards with Nelson Riddle on chart-busting albums that are still selling today. Cher copied her hair style and her deadpan expressions onstage in her act with Sonny Bono. Smith sang at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Frank Sinatra asked her to marry him. She married his record producer instead—Jimmy Bowen, who produced the ghastly hit record “Strangers in the Night”—and Ol’ Blue Eyes married Barbara, who also died this year and was famous for…nothing, really, except being Mrs. Frank Sinatra.
Vacating the guitar seat at the Capitol recording studios in Hollywood after one last chord, Glen Campbell signed off, the same easygoing, boyish country singer who segued comfortably into pop, following in the footsteps of other Nashville stars who crossed over—Patsy Cline, John Denver, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. As a movie actor, he held his own opposite John Wayne in True Grit. Private life was more daunting. Married four times, he battled alcoholism and went to jail for drunk driving before he became a born-again Christian and married a former Radio City Rockette.
More musical losses: Gospel and R&B belter Linda Hopkins, who dazzled critics on Broadway with Me and Bessie, brought the house down one last time; it was au revoir for French rock star Johnny Hallyday; and the opera world gave coloratura soprano Roberta Peters one final standing ovation. Born in the Bronx and a star at the Metropolitan Opera for 35 years, she was briefly married to Robert Merrill—claiming in their divorce “I fell in love with the voice and not the man”—but remained friends and co-starred many times onstage. The next time around, all the arias were in the right place: she was married to her second husband for 55 years.
Out of the woodwork, the obituaries keep coming—for popular TV newscasters and reporters Gabe Pressman and Michele Marsh; “60 Minutes” producer Marion Goldin; Aussie tennis pro Peter Doohan, who, after upsetting Boris Becker in the second round at Wimbledon in 1987, was forever known as the “Becker Wrecker”; Bob Wolff, cited in Guinness World Records in 2012 as the longest sports broadcaster in history (eight decades on the air); Dr. Thomas Starzl, who performed the world’s first liver transplant; country-western star Mel Tillis; tennis champion Pancho Segura; boxer Jake LaMotta, 95, the world middleweight champion Robert DeNiro played in The Raging Bull; Tunisian fashion designer Azzedine Alaia, whose clients included Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and Greta Garbo; Robert E. Oswald, whose brother Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kenedy in Dallas; S. I. Newhouse, a college dropout who owned Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and 20 other publications, turning his family business into a publishing empire worth 12 billion dollars; German chancellor Helmut Kohl; William Marshall, founder of the Toronto Film Festival; and notorious London tart Christine Keeler, the central figure in the 1960s sex and espionage scandal called “the Profumo affair” that played a major role in the collapse of Britain’s conservative government.
Monty Hall, popular game show host of Let’s Make a Deal for 13 years, gave away his last icebox, and I’m saying a personal “Thumbs up, dude!” to Chuck Barris, loopy, offbeat host of the old Gong Show on which I appeared regularly back in the good old days. He claimed he was once a paid assassin for the CIA, but you know Hollywood, where they lie on the sand and look at the stars—and vice versa.
On that note, Hugh Hefner didn’t exactly invent sex, but made it—well, sexy. He did, however, invent Playboy magazine, which made vulgar excess a commodity as he entertained (and exploited) naked women at endless parties clad only in silk pajamas. He championed sexual liberation, material consumerism, hedonism, abortion, marijuana and Viagra, calling it “as close as anyone can imagine to the Fountain of Youth.” The irony is, he’s buried in a small metal drawer in a mausoleum wall next to Marilyn Monroe.
I don’t know what category larky, eccentric Marion Javits belongs in, but the vivacious, unpredictable 92-year-old widow of Sen. Jacob Javits was as much a fixture on the New York social scene as a cranky doorman. Feisty, controversial and outspoken, she had a torrid affair with Geraldo Rivera while her husband was in Washington, and worked as an actress in a Tony Curtis movie and as a public relations representative for the Shah of Iran at a time when that country equated racism with Zionism and Sen. Javits was a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Talk about a conflict of interest! Donald Trump would have called her “my kind of people.” And don’t forget Sue Grafton, the prolific author of detective novels whose titles all encompassed letters of the alphabet, beginning with A is for Alibi in 1982 and, this past August, Y is for Yesterday. She never made it to Z.
In closing, I’d like to mention Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff called “Roe” in the Roe v. Wade case before the U.S. Supreme Court that changed the history of women’s rights forever. She went down as a crusader, but in fact was a psychologically damaged rape victim who gave up several illegal children of her own for adoption. Exploited, victimized, ignorant and confused, she became a born-again Christian and reversed her position on the floor of the U. S. Senate, dedicated to “spending the rest of my life undoing the law that bears my name.” She was arrested many times, lastly for disrupting a 2009 confirmation hearing for Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice. It was a year of saying goodbyes, not all of them to heroes.
I do mean serial killer Charles Manson, who terrorized the world, inflicted pain and death on innocent people and went to his grave behind prison bars at 83 with a swastika tattoo between his eyes, prompting not a single tear. Also money-laundering Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, and disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law, a once respected and powerful Boston archbishop whose career was demolished in a maelstrom of scandal when a team of dedicated reporters from The Boston Globe exposed his cover-ups of scores of pedophile priests who had sexually molested hundreds of children in his diocese—the subject of the great, morally responsible film Spotlight.
Last, and definitely least, there was Brunhilde Pomsel, the personal secretary to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and one of the last surviving loyal members of Hitler’s inner circle in the Berlin bunker. After the war, she served only five years in jail, visited the Holocaust Memorial in Germany and lied her way through a 2016 documentary about her called A German Life. Gone at last, unrepentant to the end.
There’s more, but even in a lousy year like 2017, enough is enough. To the survivors, I say go and be well—and next year has got to be better.