Saying Goodbye to the Stars Who Left Us in 2021

They are loved, envied and gone.  Here's a toast to their final year.

(Getty images)

Angela Lansbury used to have what she called her “gotcha” scene—the wrap-up at the end of each week’s Murder, She Wrote where she nailed and nabbed the killer.  I’ve got my “adios” column—that yearly roundup of farewells to the famous people we lost the year before.  This year, I hate to add to the general pessimism circling the globe in a pandemic world that feels permanently canceled, but before the old man with the scythe makes way for the new kid in diapers with his year to grow, I must begin the new year with a tearful goodbye to the renowned folks who left us in the one that just passed.  

LOS ANGELES – CIRCA 1951: Actress Arlene Dahl arrives at a party in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

      Bidding au revoir to 2021 is easy (it was one of the worst years I can remember) but an adieu to lost friends is harder than smiling at an auditor from the I.R.S.  The loss of luscious Arlene Dahl and singing sensation Jane Powell, two of the final fixtures in the Technicolor dreams of MGM, and elegant, multi-talented heiress-socialite-fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt, left us all diminished.  I knew them all and will never forget the fun times we spent together. Arlene, Jane and I also traveled together on the inaugural voyage of the Eastern & Oriental Express from Singapore to Bangkok. I met Arlene when she co-starred with Vera Zorina in a memorable production of the Rodgers and Hart musical I Married an Angel at the Texas State Fair.  I was a high school nerd who waited around after the show in the Dallas heat for her autograph while my father waited in the car. She was my favorite movie star.  She didn’t have a pen, so she signed with an eyebrow pencil.  Decades later, after we had become solid friends in the New York fast lane to fame, I presented her with an elaborately decorated scrapbook of her photos I had saved from childhood, including the playbill from those many years ago in Texas, and a gift-wrapped eyebrow pencil. She never got over it and we were friends to the end.  Among the many treasured weekends in Gloria’ gorgeous Stanford White house in Southampton, I will always remember the party she threw for Claudette Colbert when she brought in landscapers to completely re-plant the gardens with white flowers, then rented white swans for the swimming pool to glide among the white gardenias.  I don’t expect to see that kind of taste, money or style again in my lifetime.

Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, British actress Julie Andrews and English-American actor, film director and photographer Roddy McDowall (1928 – 1998)
attend the premiere of ‘The Sound of Music’ at the Fox Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles, California, US, 10th March 1965. (Photo by Graphic House/Getty Images)

          Other unwelcome exits: insanely talented Cloris Leachman, distinguished Christopher Plummer, George Segal who died too young at 87 after bypass surgery, Hal Holbrook (versatile actor and husband of the late Dixie Carter), television fixture and former Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner, vivacious redhead Cara Williams, Love Boat star Gavin MacLeod, Olympia Dukakis, Michael K. Williams, Sir Antony Sher, and child star Dean Stockwell, who grew up in front of the cameras and on the Broadway stage for 70 years.  Another hugely popular Hollywood child star who never called it quits was Jane Withers, who found a second career on TV as Josephine the Plumber in the Comet commercials.  She died this year at 95.  And there was nobody in the same league with the great Cicely Tyson.  I got to know her in Russia when she made the catastrophic remake of The Blue Bird with Jane Fonda, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor.  Food was both scarce and inedible, the Russians had no experience lighting actors of color so you couldn’t see her on the screen, and she made the fatal mistake of leaving the country without permission to spend a week in California.  When she returned, the Russians confiscated her passport and her bicycle, and when the film wrapped, they refused to give them back.  She was forced to remain alone in the country after everyone else had gone, until the American government intervened.  It was a miserable experience that made friendship inevitable.  Everyone called her “Sis” and for years, when I saw her on the street or in the lobby of a Broadway theater, she always said, “It’s Sis.  Remember Russia?”  She will be missed.  So will sexy Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French Marlon Brando.

Cicely Tyson, 1970 Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

     I will also miss my Connecticut neighbor Sally Ann Howes, the singing star of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who cherished her time away from the spotlight and blossomed in her garden until she contracted the worst case of Lyme disease I’ve ever seen—a malady that required weekly intravenous treatments of chemicals and forced her to leave New England and settle in Florida.  She was radiant to the end, but she had to reluctantly give up the vocal demands of Broadway musicals.  Jessica Walter and Ned Beatty took one last bow.  He made 160 films and never became a star, but who will ever forget him as the traumatized rape victim in 1972’s Deliverance?  She is best known as the matriarch on Arrested Development, but first she was the beautiful psychotic who terrorized disc jockey Clint Eastwood in the 1971 thriller Play Misty for Me. From here on, nothing but reruns for popular TV veteran Peter Scolari, who started as one-half of the series Bosom Buddies opposite co-star Tom Hanks.  I wonder whatever became of him. 

Jessica Walter is taken into custody in a scene from the film ‘Play Misty For Me’, 1971. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

     One person with severely limited appeal who did become an occasional star (by default) was unpleasant comic and sourpuss TV host Charles Grodin.  We clashed on the air when I answered his attack on critics with a tart comment about his film about a dog called Beethoven. He retired soon after and died at 86.   I was also no fan of right-wing broadcast blabbermouth Rush Limbaugh, but his controversial fame was still being applauded when he died in February.  I preferred quick-witted political satirist Mort Sahl, who died at 94, and rabbi-turned-Jewish-comic Jackie Mason, who turned off the laugh machine at 93, leaving the lights to dim in Vegas.  Two more longtime Vegas headliners who darkened the nightclub marquees on the Strip were Siegfried and Roy, whose lavish act included flamboyant costumes, tigers, levitating elephants and magic illusions. They were still doing capacity business 48 weeks a year when, in 2003, one of Roy’s man-hungry tigers decided he was tastier than a raw steak and mauled him forever, ending the act and closing a chapter in show business history, but both performers passed away within months of one another.  I feel it’s my duty to mention Norman Lloyd, veteran actor-producer-director whose career spanned more than 70 years, working as a close associate of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Chaplin, and Jean Renoir.  He played the Nazi who dangled from the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s 1942 thriller Saboteur. A face everyone recognizes but cannot recall the name to go with it, he was a keen observer of Hollywood history who was still working at 106.

Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930) the American composer and lyricist. His musicals include Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

     The music world suffered a blow from which neither recovery nor continuity are possible when Stephen Sondheim died, leaving a hole in the future of classy Broadway musicals.  Composer and/or lyricist of an entire library of revolutionary shows that includes Follies, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Company, and A Little Night Music, to name just a few, left behind an unparalleled legacy that changed, informed and elevated theatre history.  I admired his artistry and genius, but on a personal note, I found him less fascinating.  I once shared a room with him at Arthur Laurents’ house in Quogue, and I can tell you truthfully, and without bias, that his talents may have been varied and innovative, but did not extend to exploring the newest men’s colognes.
      Away with the batons that belonged to opera composer and conductor Carlisle Floyd, who wrote Susannah and other acclaimed operas with roots in the American  South, and Mikis Theodorakis, Marxist composer of Zorba who bravely fought the Greek junta with his close friend and political ally, Melina Mercouri, during her exile in New York when the military dictators ruled Athens.  They taught me all about bouzouki.   We also heard the final eight bars from a different kind of genius, Dave Frishberg, gifted jazz pianist and cabaret-world icon whose witty, sophisticated songs drew modern inspiration from Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael.  Other mournful notes are sounded after the demise of Oscar-winning songwriter Leslie Bricusse, Dave Brubeck Quartet bassist Eugene Wright, jazz and bebop piano player Barry Harris, legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea (winner of 25 Grammys),  Motown singing star and original member of The Supremes Mary Wilson, last remaining McGuire sister Phyllis McGuire, chart-buster B. J. Thomas (“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”),  Don Everly (older brother in pop duo The Everly Brothers), country singer Jimmie F. Rodgers (“Honeycomb”), Eleonore von Trapp (one of the last members of the Austrian family that inspired The Sound of Music) and  Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.  There are so few singers left with quality, good taste and a keen understanding of lyric phrasing that I consider the passing of West Coast jazz vocalist Kurt Reichenbach a special loss.  He had the rare ability to turn every ballad into a work of art, and he could also swing.  Where will good singers be without Mike Renzi, everybody’s favorite accompanist.  Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Sylvia Syms and Lena Horne were just a few of the musical giants who depended on him for just the right hammock of chords to make their voices shimmer and glow. It was also the end of James Levine, revered conductor of the Metropolitan Opera for four decades before he was fired following an investigation of multiple accusations of sexual abuse, and erratic, gun-toting pop record producer Phil Spector, 81, who died of Covid-19 in the California state prison where he was serving time for murder.

American actor and filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles in New York City, 1971. He is posing outside a cinema which is showing his action thriller ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song’. (Photo by Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

     Directors with vision, technical flair and something to say are rare as pink giraffes.  In 2021 we lost some good ones. Almost all of the recent films I’ve seen since  cinemas reopened after the latest wave of the Covid pandemic seem to have been made by the bad ones. The  ones who called “Action!” for the last time include Lina Wertmuller (Swept Away), Bernard Tavernier (Round Midnight), Roger Michell (Notting Hill), Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), Joan Micklin Silver (Crossing Delancey), Robert Downey Sr. (Putney Swope), Quebec’s Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyer’s Club), Michael Apted (he guided Sissy Spacek to an Oscar in Coal Miner’s Daughter) and Richard Donner, handsome, rugged maker of blockbuster hits who directed me in Superman.  I played the film critic for the Daily Planet in a scene that took place on Clark Kent’s first day at the paper, and since it was filmed in the old Daily News building, where I actually was the movie reviewer, all I had to do was come down in the elevator, join Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, and face the camera.  Naturally, I hoped for the kind of insightful direction from Richard Donner that would make me a star.  But the character I played was named Rex Reed.  So when I asked the director how he wanted me to play the scene, he simply said, “Just be yourself.”  I didn’t give up my day job, but I still get residuals for Superman.

Author Joan Didion at a concert in Golden Gate Park. (Photo by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

             The world of letters published the last pearls of wisdom by one of my most revered writers, brilliant Joan Didion, who chronicled the social divides in both New York and Hollywood with a penetrating accuracy and life in general as a terminal illness.  And with alternative contrasts of greatness, we read the final poetic passages about the West by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Brokeback Mountain) and the netherworld of Gothic vampire sagas by Anne Rice.  She once served me tea in her sumptuous house in  New Orleans’ fashionable Garden District that featured uniformly good taste in priceless antiques, expensive fabrics, and a creepy, unexplained noose hanging from the ceiling with an empty place for a missing neck.  Other writers I will miss are Larry Kramer, who passed in 2020, an Oscar-winning playwright and social activist who wrote with passion and rage about homophobia and AIDS in the heartbreaking play The Normal Heart; New Age playwright Arthur Kopit (Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad); Neil Sheehan, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter who mysteriously obtained and published the 7,000 pages of classified documents called the Pentagon Papers that exposed the decisions of the Johnson administration and helped to destroy President Richard Nixon;  Walter Bernstein, who turned his experiences as a screenwriter blacklisted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his political beliefs into a prize-winning film The Front.  Highly praised for tackling a serious role fraught with drama in a highly praised career departure, Bernstein was played by Woody Allen.

     It was one final inning for baseball superstars Hank Aaron (“Hammerin’ Hank”), the player to break Babe Ruth’s home run record that had stood for 33 years in 1974, and Tommy Lasorda, who led the L.A. Dodgers to win two World Series championships.  The dance world tearfully gave one last standing ovation for N.Y. City Ballet star Jacques d’Amboise, who retired his Capezios for good, followed by world-class ballerinas Marjorie Tallchief and Carla Fracci.  I will miss Broadway’s favorite chorus boy, Harvey Evans, who graced many Broadway musicals and offered a friendly, smiling face to everyone who knew him, including Joe Allen, the headwaiter turned restaurateur who transformed a glorified hamburger joint into the poor man’s Sardi’s—a world-renowned haven and hangout for theatre folks large and small, accomplished and struggling, as well as the fans who still gather nightly to ogle them.  Joe was as much a celebrity as his customers.

American stripper Tempest Storm poses next to a promotional poster for her burlesque act in front of a theater, 1954. (Photo by Grahic House/Getty Images)

    The list goes on, with so many departures it is impossible to list them all.  But I cannot close without a nod to Tempest Storm, famed stripper who retired at 67, but lived up to her permanent place of honor in the Burlesque Hall of Fame by still bumping and grinding at age 82; New York essayist Janet Malcolm; Elsa Peretti, designer of the famous Cartier love bracelet that has become a status symbol; Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 90, who changed history as South Africa’s anti-apartheid leader; Pat Hitchcock, who was featured in many films directed by her father Alfred and later wrote a book about him; legal giant F. Lee Bailey, who defended O. J. Simpson and the Boston Strangler before he was disbarred.  And let’s take a moment to salute David Dushman, 98, one of the last surviving liberators of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, politicians Colin Powell (who was the first Black U.S. secretary of state), Bob Dole, and former vice-president Walter Mondale. Life in the Big Apple will be a bit less colorful without Savannah P.R. uber-guru Bobby Zarem, who handled superstars from Diana Ross to Kirk Douglas, invited bold-face names in diamonds and sables to parties in the New York subways, and looked like one of the Three Stooges, an image he proudly promoted himself. Journalism will seem stodgier without Architectural Digest editor Paige Rense, who in a single issue could make you feel like your own luxury home belonged in a trailer park, and Richard Stolley, founder of People magazine, who turned the celebrity-obsessed glossy into a publishing success with one goal—to focus on “extraordinary people doing ordinary things and ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but never ordinary people doing ordinary things.”

  The people to whom we waved goodbye in 2021 were not all heroes.  Expect no celebratory parades for disgraced Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff or Hustler  publisher and smut peddler Larry Flynt, but in fairness, Flynt was a brave advocate for First Amendment rights before he was gunned down by a racist extremist in 1978 and left paralyzed for the rest of his life. And “So long” to Prince Philip, 99, the Duke of Edinburgh, who left the monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth II, to endure the antics of her dysfunctional family alone.

     There’s more, but wrapping it up while I’m still ahead, I regret that a combination of sepsis and Covid claimed my friend, veteran TV host Larry King, who interviewed me several times through the years.  He could talk to anybody about anything.  One person he would have killed to talk to is last but not least in this litany of long goodbyes to 2021: the obscure but delightful Stu Rasmussen of Silverton, Oregon.  The first transgender mayor in American history, he staged public debates and political rallies with all opponents wearing high heels and low-cut blouses.  Three weeks after his election, an anti-gay Baptist protest group gathered in the town square carrying signs condemning the new mayor, but they were outnumbered by counter-protesters with their own signs reading “Stu Rocks!”

American photographer Richard Avedon (left, lighting a cigarette), American heiress and designer Gloria Vanderbilt, and American film director Sidney Lumet,at a party for the premiere of the movie ‘East of Eden’ directed by Elia Kazan, 1955. (Photo by Getty Images)

     These people illuminated their time, enriched our sense of art and fun, and stood out from the crowd by being special.  They are loved, envied, gossiped about and gone.  Here’s a toast to their final year, and a thimble of hope for 2022, when no matter how bad things get there is comfort in the knowledge that they cannot get worse.  Maybe, if we’re lucky, next year will even be what Gloria Vanderbilt used to call “extraordinarily OK.”

Saying Goodbye to the Stars Who Left Us in 2021