In Memoriam: Rex Reed Says Goodbye to the Biggest Stars of 2018

Looking back at a catastrophic year, 2019 has got to be better.

2018 was a horrible year for tearful goodbyes.
2018 was a horrible year for tearful goodbyes. Kaitlyn Flannagan for Observer

An old door closes, a new door opens. That old cracker-barrel philosophy still works, in life as it does in death. And so, as another year ends and a fresh one begins, let’s say a proper goodbye to absent friends we left behind in 2018 before we say hello to that new kid whose year it is to grow in 2019.

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From George and Barbara Bush to Sen. John McCain, Aretha Franklin and Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter to television evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, it was a horrible year for tearful goodbyes.

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Women first.We were off to a bad start with the first famous arrivederci in January to lovely, radiant British film star Peggy Cummins, 92, who shot to fame in American films as the femme fatale in Gun Crazy and the innocent Cockney chorus girl-turned-elegant lady stalked by a Victorian serial killer in Moss Rose, two classic film noirs of the 1940s.Things went steadily downhill from there, with the loss of beautiful, sultry Texas-born Dorothy Malone, 93, who won an Oscar in 1956 as a rich, spoiled, nymphomaniac Texas oil heiress in Written on the Wind.Lauren Bacall played the good girl in that one.Talk aboutthe right girls in the wrong roles.

There were more farewells to Nanette Fabray, 97, that bright, vivacious  bundle of musical energy who won awards on Broadway in High Button Shoes, Bloomer Girl and Irving Berlin’s final show, Mr. President. Changing her zip code, she made movie history co-starring with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bandwagon, one of the greatest MGM musicals of all time. In later years, she was a staple on TV with Sid Caesar, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, as well as 184 episodes of Hollywood Squares. 

I will also miss the great Barbara Harris, the brilliant star who walked out onstage in her first Broadway musical, Alan Jay Lerner’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and stopped the show with a standing ovation after her opening number—an unheard-of triumph she repeated nightly. But the joy wore out fast. After winning a Tony Award for her second musical, Mike Nichols’ The Apple Tree, she fled stardom at the pinnacle of her career with the critics still raving, paralyzed by the pitfalls of celebrity, and moved to Chicago where she got a job selling lingerie in a department store. A few movies followed, but she never returned to the stage or reclaimed her initial dazzling success. “I always chose roles in films I thought would fail,” she confessed in a rare interview after she retired to Arizona in 2001, “so I wouldn’t have to deal with the fame thing.” In one of the saddest, most puzzling and regrettable of show business stories, she died a recluse in Scottsdale of lung cancer.

Margot Kidder on the set of 'Gaily, Gaily' on 15th January 1969.
Margot Kidder on the set of ‘Gaily, Gaily’ on 15th January 1969. Fox Photos/Getty Images

More ladies who waved “so long, dearie” in 2018: Allyn Ann McLerie, the magnetic dancer-actress who starred on Broadway with Ray Bolger in Where’s Charley? and in Irving Berlin’s Miss Liberty before moving to Hollywood, where she held her own in the spotlight co-starring with Doris Day in Calamity Jane, and in three films with Robert Redford; eccentric Margot Kidder, who played reporter Lois Lane in the Superman movies and gave this writer some friendly tips on how to play the Daily Planet film critic in our one big scene together in the first installment; my pal Pat Marshall, a great singer on Broadway (Mr. Wonderful with Sammy Davis, Jr.) and in the MGM musical Good News, and wife of comedy writer Larry Gelbart (thanks, Pat, for the tequila and tacos in Cuernavaca); character actress Louise Latham; Delores Taylor, an unknown who starred opposite her equally unknown husband Tom Laughlin in three of the four Billy Jack movies about a half-Navajo Green Beret that became huge surprise counter-culture hits in the 1970s; Jan Maxwell, respected stage actress who was nominated for five Tonys, including two for a pair of  different shows in the same year; Carole Shelley, the versatile actress in such diverse Broadway productions as The Odd Couple and The Elephant Man; my dear departed darling Liliane Montevecchi, Tony-winning French chanteuse and ballet diva who stopped the show on film and stage throughout the world (thanks for the guest room in San Francisco, where I’ll never forget the unforgettable week we spent together with Kaye Ballard, singing “Memories are made of this…”); the great Charlotte Rae, 92, best known as the wise (and wise-cracking) house mother for 10 years on the TV series The Facts of Life, yet she worked extensively on Broadway and as a comic singer in the heyday of New York cabaret. She was so busy making people laugh that nobody knew until her memoir was published in 2015 that she divorced her husband of 25 years because he was bisexual, or that she battled years of her own alcoholism.

I will also miss my friend Miriam Nelson, the veteran dancer-choreographer who staged memorable numbers for her husband, Gene Nelson, and for such non-dancers as Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman and Errol Flynn. Miriam was still tap dancing the week she died, at age 98.  Other exits on the distaff side included Broadway’s crystal-voiced Marin Mazzie, who created the leading roles in Ragtime, Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, and the smash 1999 revival of Kiss Me, Kate before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer on the opening night of the “Encores!” production of Zorba! She went on anyway. Off came the greasepaint for actresses Susan Anspach (Five Easy Pieces); Stéphane Audran (French star of Babette’s Feast and wife of actor Jean-Louis Trintignant and French director Claude Chabrol); 103-year-old Patricia Morison (nobody knew she could sing, but after wasting away in a host of movies including one with Tarzan and one with Sherlock Holmes, she moved to Broadway and starred with Alfred Drake in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, a smash hit that ran for nearly three years); gorgeous Greta Thyssen (Miss Denmark of 1952, who became a glamorous film decoration in the 1970s); blonde Broadway veteran Georgann Johnson; character actress Carrie Sawyer, a veteran of 150 films and TV shows who proudly called herself the oldest member of the Screen Actors Guild at age 105; and Penny Marshall—famous as Laverne on the popular ’70s sitcom Laverne and Shirley, married to Rob Reiner for 10 years, and director of the hit movies Big and A League of Their Own, despite a thick Bronx accent she never could lose and looked so foreign to Hollywood success that she once posed for a “Before” and “After” photo for a beauty product. She was the “Before.” Farrah Fawcett was the “After.” 

American actress Patricia Morison, circa 1939.
American actress Patricia Morison, circa 1939. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I was shocked to read about the death of actress Sondra Locke, the girlfriend and living companion of Clint Eastwood who lied so much during her brief but colorful career that when she lost her battle with cancer at age 74, I wondered if it was a publicity stunt. When I met her in 1968, she had been cast in the starring role of the long-awaited film version of Carson McCullers’ literary masterpiece The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. She told me she was an unknown 14-year-old adolescent from Shelbyville, Tennessee. She was actually a 24-year-old living in a Bel Air mansion with Eastwood, who co-starred with her in six films, directing her in four of them himself. In 1989, after years of domestic partnership, she sued him for palimony and fraud in two trials that hypnotized Tinsel Town. Two more forgotten ladies who charmed me in childhood: MGM starlet Jean Porter, who did a number in Bathing Beauty with Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Janis Paige, Ethel Smith at the organ and the entire Harry James Orchestra (all taking place in a classroom!), and golden-voiced singing ingenue Gloria Jean, who picked up where Deanna Durbin left off in 26 movie musicals, playing teenage “hepcats” with Donald O’Connor, W. C. Fields, the Andrews Sisters, Carmen Miranda and Groucho Marx. At the time of her death, she had fallen on such hard times that she was living in her automobile.

I don’t know if it’s a mere coincidence or a metaphor for the time we’re living in, but more men waved sayonara in 2018 than women. Women all over the world (and some guys, too) wept buckets over the loss of Tab Hunter, whose clean-cut, all-American perfection redefined the epitome of 1950s movie stardom. At 86, he looked like he was ready for his first camera close-up. He was also an all-around nice guy, best-selling recording star, champion ice skater and openly gay icon whose life was candidly profiled in a best-selling autobiography and a critically acclaimed documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential. The book and film revealed details of his long romance with Tony Perkins in the years when nobody took him seriously as anything more than another pretty, blond, blue-eyed Ken doll.  But after he left the superficial Hollywood tinsel behind in 1959, he became a real actor on live television dramas such as Playhouse 90 (with Geraldine Page) and Fear Strikes Out, the story of Jimmy Piersall, the baseball legend who battled mental illness, which his ex-partner Tony Perkins stole from him to play in the big-screen version.  Nothing kills a romance in the movie business like stealing a juicy role. He moved on to Rudolf Nureyev. 

American actor Burt Reynolds, circa 1975.
American actor Burt Reynolds, circa 1975. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was one final close-up for Burt Reynolds, football player-turned-movie star whose checkered career was hobbled by so many bombs that his salary plummeted from one million per picture to $100,000. He waged war with the press, accusing them of being more interested in his private life than his acting (considering his long-term affairs with Dinah Shore and Sally Field and a violent marriage to sexy Loni Anderson, can you blame them?)and posed as the first nude Cosmopolitan centerfold, lying naked on a bearskin rug, while turning down the role of the ex-astronaut in Terms of Endearment that won Jack Nicholson an Oscar. When he finally got his own Oscar nomination for Boogie Nights, he hated the film so much that he fired his agent for casting him in the part. 

Through the exit door marched Bradford Dillman, 87, handsome leading man of Broadway (Long Day’s Journey Into Night), films (Compulsion), and husband of luscious actress and super-model Suzy Parker; strapping cowboy Clint Walker, who flexed his muscles for seven years on the TV series Cheyenne; John Stride, dashing British actor who co-starred with Susan Strasberg in the lavish Broadway production of Franco Zeffirelli’s Our Lady of the Camellias; Scott Wilson, the excellent actor whose breakout role was murderer Dick Hickock in Richard Brooks’ harrowing movie version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1967); Harry Anderson, genial but zany judge on TV’s Night Court for nine years; intense British actor Kenneth Haigh, 86, who helped revolutionize postwar London theatre as the original “angry young man” in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, then electrified Broadway as mad emperor Caligula (he was also Brutus to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra), but his violent temper and irrational behavior damaged his career on both sides of the pond; classical stage actor Alvin Epstein, 93, who became the world’s greatest living authority on Samuel Beckett after his 700-word monologue in the first Broadway staging of Waiting for Godot with Bert Lahr, studied dance with Martha Graham, mime with Marcel Marceau, sang with Sting in Threepenny Opera, and co-starred with Orson Welles, who played King Lear in a wheelchair; Tony Award-winning character actor Philip Bosco, a familiar face on New York stages; amiable song and dance man Ken Berry, who delighted TV fans as a regular on Mayberry R.F.D., F Troop and the Carol Burnett spinoff, Mama’s Family; Donald Moffat, who lit up the proscenium in 80 plays and played President Lyndon Johnson in the film The Right Stuff; John Mahoney, who played Kelsey Grammer’s curmudgeonly dad on Frasier; Mark Salling (all six seasons of Glee), who hanged himself after he was arrested for possession of child pornography; Donnelly Rhodes (Battlestar Galactica); 8 x 10 handsome John Gavin (Psycho, Spartacus), who proved, as the president of the Screen Actors Guild and Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico for five years, that he was more than just another pretty face; Brian Murray, acclaimed British actor who emigrated to New York from the Royal Shakespeare Co. to star in American plays by Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman; Ricky Jay, actor and master magician; Dewey Martin, handsome leading man in 1950s movies, married briefly to the great Peggy Lee, who once confessed she dumped him because he clashed with the bedroom wallpaper; Douglas Rain, distinguished Canadian actor who spent 32 seasons at the Stratford Festival but went to his grave at age 90, best remembered as the voice of Hal the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Frank Avruch dressed as Bozo the Clown in 1965.
Frank Avruch dressed as Bozo the Clown in 1965. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Laughs will sound hollow without funnymen Chuck McCann, Jerry Van Dyke, Marty Allen (“Hello Dere”), Frank Avruch (AKA Bozo the Clown), Verne Troyer, who stole the show as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers comedies (only 2 ft. 8 in. tall, but one hilarious dwarf ever since he landed his first acting job as a stunt double for a baby), Britain’s 90-year-old Ken Dodd who held the Guinness World Record for the longest joke-telling session in the history of comedy (1,500 jokes in three-and-a-half hours), and Gary Beach, flamboyant Broadway performer who brought down the house for years as both Lumiere, the singing candelabra in Beauty and the Beast, and the cross-dressing Nazi director  in Mel Brooks’ sensational Hitler spoof The Producers, which earned him a coveted Tony award. At the 2001 Tony ceremony, he mounted the stage to accept his award and the audience collapsed when he raised his arm and shouted, “Heil Mel!”   

Where will we be without these shining lights of stage and screen, and where would they be without the exemplary directors to guide them? I do mean Milos Forman, Czech Oscar winner of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus; Italy’s Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris); Peter Masterson, father of Mary Stuart Masterson, who wrote and co-directed (with fellow Texan Tommy Tune) the gigantic hit The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, about a real brothel in La Grange, Texas called the Chicken Ranch (it ran for 1,584 performances and won Mr. Masterson’s wife Carlin Glynn a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical in 1978); Nicolas Roeg, acclaimed British film director of Performance with Mick Jagger, The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie and the TV production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth with Elizabeth Taylor; Italy’s Ermanno Olmi (Il Posto) and Vittorio Taviani, 88, who, with his younger brother Paolo, directed 20 prize-winning Italian films; England’s prolific Lewis Gilbert, 97, who directed three of the James Bond films, in addition to Alfie, Educating Rita and Shirley ValentineMichael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days); and Rick Mckay, whose passion for the New York stage informed the surprise hit documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, condensed from 600 hours of interviews with more than 300 theatre legends, filmed and edited in his own living room. When he died too young, at 57, he was hard at work on, not one, but two sequels.

American playwright Neil Simon on February 11, 1969.
American playwright Neil Simon on February 11, 1969. Roy Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images

The world of words was diminished this year when some of the most celebrated writers alive closed the lids on their word processors forever. No more hit plays by the prolific Neil Simon, who cornered the market on hilarious Jewish meltdowns, winning 17 Tony nominations for 30 plays, and once had four of them running on Broadway at the same time.  o more idiomatic Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Babies or Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests from New Journalism pioneer and fancy dresser Tom Wolfe, whose work was once described as “shotgun baroque.” No more Pulitzer Prize novels by Philip Roth or hypnotic sci-fi thrillers by Harlan Ellison. And no more intelligent books or musicals by playwright Joe Masteroff, 98, who wrote Cabaret and the sublimely elegant She Loves Me. I will miss reading those clever best-selling travel books by Peter Mayle, whose delightful memoir A Year in Provence, about the chaotic renovations he made to an 18th century farmhouse  included memorable encounters with lawyers, truffle sniffers and boar-hog hunters. The screenplays for most of today’s movies are so lousy that everyone will regret the loss of Japan’s 100-year-old Akira Kurosawa collaborator Shinobu Hashimoto (Rashomon, Seven Samurai) and Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman who immortalized Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men and Marathon Man, the terrifying thriller that did more to make people afraid of dentists than back-to-back root canals.

Music will never again sound as melodic after the sour notes recorded by the passing of opera star Montserrat Caballé, jazz singers Nancy Wilson and Morgana King (she had a four-octave voice and also played Marlon Brando’s wife in The Godfather), jingle singer-turned-cabaret headliner Marlene VerPlanck, and the legendary “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, for whom fame was instant but happiness elusive. Pregnant at 12, hitting the gospel road at 14, she struggled with weight and was terrified of flying, but somehow managed to win 18 Grammy awards before surrendering to pancreatic cancer at 76. It was also eight bars and out for jazz pianist Cecil Taylor; rock star Marty Balin from the legendary Jefferson Airplane; jazz singer-pianist-composer Bob Dorough; subtle and sophisticated jazz pianist-singer Audrey Morris; Broadway composer Harvey Schmidt who wrote the score for The Fantasticks (the longest-running musical in theater history that ran for 42 years, followed by a revival that ran for another 11 years! ); Galt MacDermot whose musical Hair launched the “age of Aquarius” as an anthem for the hippie generation (he died one day short of his 90th birthday); Francis Lai who won an Oscar for the lugubrious music in the tearjerker Love Story and penned lush film scores for 40 romantic French films by Claude Lelouch; songwriter Carol Hall who composed the songs for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and wrote the treasured “Jenny Rebecca” made famous by Mabel Mercer. 

French singer and songwriter Charles Aznavour performing in a recording studio on September 10, 1974.
French singer and songwriter Charles Aznavour performing in a recording studio on September 10, 1974. Victor Blackman/Express/Getty Images

And let us not forget the last mesmerizing choruses by two of the greatest singers of all time: ageless French troubadour Charles Aznavour and creamy crooner Vic Damone, 89, whose 2,500 records are collectors’ items. He married both Pier Angeli and Diahann Carroll, although his complicated business affairs involving tax evasion, gambling debts and links to the Mafia were not always as glamorous. Still, he was once described by Frank Sinatra as having “the best pipes in the business.”

Dance suffered a few broken toes when their ballet slippers were tossed by Arthur Mitchell, the first black dancer to achieve international stardom and founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; world-renowned choreographers Paul Taylor and Donald McKayle; Spanish-born flamenco star José Molina; New York City Ballet ballerina and George Balanchine favorite Karin von Aroldingen; acclaimed principal dancer Sean Lavery who retired from dance to become a teacher and administrator at the same ballet company. It was also one last tour jete for Sono Osato, the original Jerome Robbins star of the Leonard Bernstein musical On the Town. 

Food won’t taste the same without Paul Bocuse, the celebrated French super-chef who made nouvelle cuisine a hot-button topic in gastronomy before adventurous eaters tired of spending gargantuan prices to munch disgusting mini-portions of poached truffles and foie gras inside a pig’s bladder, and Andre Surmain, 97, the contentious king of haute cuisine whose chic, overpriced restaurant Lutece was an expensive hangout for New York’s rich and infamous snobs in the 1970s. It might amuse you to know that 2018 also mourned the passing of David Edgerton, 90, the founder of Burger King.

The former wife of Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid campaigner Winnie Mandela waves at the 54th ANC National Conference in Johannesburg on December 16, 2017.
The former wife of Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid campaigner Winnie Mandela waves at the 54th ANC National Conference in Johannesburg on December 16, 2017. MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

Hubert de Givenchy, one of the world’s most distinguished and tasteful couturiers, who became Audrey Hepburn’s chief fashion influence on and off the screen, threw away his needle and thread at 91, but his little black dress with pearls and oversized sunglasses will still be admired forever in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Expect no more floral sofas from Mario Buatta, New York social gadfly and interior decorator whose work earned him the label “King of Chintz.” Stan Lee, comic book king who created Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men and other pulp-fiction superheroes for Marvel Comics, threw away his crayons and called it a day. DC Comics produced Batman and Superman, but Stan Lee made his characters neurotic and popular because of their flaws and sense of humor. It was also goodbye to the drawing board for pop artist Robert Indiana, 89, whose famous image of the word “LOVE” adorned everything from T-shirts to 330 million postage stamps, and for Mort Walker, who drew the “Beetle Bailey” comic strips for 70 years, making them the longest-running Sunday funnies in history. Robin Leach watched a video of his once-popular TV show that catalogued the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” and longed for the good old days. Christopher Lawford, son of Peter Lawford and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, turned his recovery from drug addiction into one last book as a public health advocate. Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, launched her last activist cause in South Africa.

I will fondly remember Merle Debuskey, acknowledged dean of Broadway press agents, who gave a kid named Rex Reed his first free ticket to a Broadway show; Anthony Bourdain, rude, outspoken Food Network star who pushed such horrors as pigs ear sandwiches and roasted spiders, committed suicide in a hotel room in Paris. Three days later, handbag designer Kate Spade hanged herself on a doorknob. That was a week when death made headlines in addition to the obituary page.

Finally, I reserve a special encomium of praise for the one and only Stephen Hawking, the genius physicist with the debilitating motor neuron disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis but outlived all dire medical predictions to explain some of the biggest mysteries of the universe without the ability to speak or move. His miraculous life story was immortalized in the film The Theory of Everything that won Eddie Redmayne an Academy Award. Far from a hero but an object of curiosity nevertheless, there was Melvin Dummar, the small-town gas station owner who claimed to save Howard Hughes from freezing to death on a deserted Nevada highway 100 miles from Las Vegas on a cold December night in 1967.  He claimed that when the billionaire died in 1976 he named Dummar sole beneficiary of his vast fortune, but the will was declared a phony and he was left penniless. The story was told in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning surprise hit movie Melvin and Howard in 1980.

Actor Jerry Maren attends a screening of "The Wizard Of Oz" on August 3, 2009.
Actor Jerry Maren attends a screening of “The Wizard Of Oz” on August 3, 2009. Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Last but not least, the end of an era was front and center with the demise of Jerry Maren, 98, the last living Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz. He played a member of the Lollipop Guild that welcomed Dorothy and Toto to Munchkin Land.

That’s not all, but enough is enough. Thinking about the bumper stickers on American highways that read, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” I look back at a catastrophic year and say, in closing, trust me—2019 has got to be better.

In Memoriam: Rex Reed Says Goodbye to the Biggest Stars of 2018