Saturday, January 2, 2010

Charon's Year

Charon, as everybody knows, is the mythological boatman who escorts dead people across the river Styxx. I mentioned him last year when I decided to avoid the New Year's Eve chaos and recap the 40 or so obits I had written in 2008. What a difference a year makes. This year, by my count, I have written 85 obituaries in these pages. Is that an improvement?

As I've mentioned before, I don't write an obit for every corpse who crosses my path, just those who hold some interest for me. Thus, the only show biz superstar to die this year, Michael Jackson, received no notice in these pages; the hooplah surrounding his death was so huge, I had nothing more to contribute. (I did write about Farrah Fawcett, who died the same day.)
I was lucky in 2009 that I did not lose anyone close to me (I lost several friends, colleagues, and mentors in '08), but there were a couple of folks others in the DC theatre community knew better than I, Paul MacWhorter and David Marks. I also mentioned more than a handful of folks who were not connected to show biz at all, but who attracted my attention anyway. There were a couple of political activists (Percy Sutton, who saved the Apollo Theatre, and Alice McGrath, who inspired Zoot Suit), and of course, a political superstar was lost this year, Ted Kennedy. (I spent a week on his obit, turning it into a rundown on all the Kennedys of his generation; it's worth a gander, I think).

I also mentioned several devils and a couple of heroes. John Allen Muhammed, one of the DC snipers, was executed this year, and Susan Atkins, one of Charles Manson's crazed clan, died in prison. Though I don't count her in the same dastardly league, I also wrote about prized manipulator Michelle Triola, who gave the legal system a whole new term, "palimony." And Robert Novak earned his horns by outing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative, thus endangering the lives of everyone she was ever on assignment with. The heroes I mentioned included Jerri Fitzgerald, the doctor who treated her own breast cancer while stranded in Antarctica, and Brian Bradshaw, a foot soldier in Afghanistan who had the misfortune of dying the same week Wacko Jacko did, and was ignored by the press.

Some heavy hitters left the front office this year, including Roy Disney, who saved his studio's animation reputation, and sit-com scribe David Lloyd, who wrote his own obituary when he described how Chuckles Bit the Dust.

Anyone of a certain age (that is, slightly younger than I) will be missing John Hughes, who put the brat pack on the map, and everyone can thank Don Hewitt, who made a permanent place for news magazines in primetime.

We lost lots of stage folks this year, including one of the pioneers of "stunt casting," summer-stock impresario John Kenley. Frank McCourt, Hugh Leonard, and John Mortimer all wrote for the stage as well as other media, and Horton Foote died just before seeing his life-long dream fulfilled. I'll miss Larry Gelbart's wit and style every time I watch a M*A*S*H rerun, or catch a production of ...Forum. I'm not sure of the lasting influence of Millard Kaufman, who created Mr. Magoo, or of Tom Braden, whose writing inspired Eight is Enough. The inventor of the red-carpet interview, Army Archerd, should not be blamed for the travesty that particular institution has now become, and no one can blame the iconic Walter Cronkite for the current state of network news.

On the musical front, we lost one half of Ferrante & Teicher, Peter & Gordon, and the Hager Twins, and one third of Peter, Paul, & Mary. Let's not forget composers Ellie Greenwich or Maurice Jarre (that particular obit generated a bit of a do, which I loved). We also lost drummer Louie Bellson, and cabaret star Blossom Dearie. As for Robert Degen, well, we may never know if he's really to blame for the Hokey-Pokey...

The soap world lost only a couple of major players, to my knowledge, Phil Carey and Clint Ritchie, who played father and son Buchanans on One Life to Live for several decades. The bigger loss was the demise of the longest running scripted program in the history of television, Guiding Light (and there will be another such loss in 2010, when As the World Turns dies in September. I have no doubt I'll write about that one soon enough).

More than a few show biz dynasties are now a member smaller. The Chaplins lost favorite son Sidney (he was Funny Girl's original Nick Arnstein), and the Carradine clan lost David, under bizarrely questionable circumstances. The King Family's matriarch, the woman who first put them all on the stage, died very recently, and last spring, the Redgraves lost a shining star after Natasha Richardson's head injury went undetected.

We won't be swooning over Swayze anymore, nor giggling at Soupy. It's no surprise to regular readers of these pages that I particularly admire actors who make their career in support, so I tipped my hat to a whole slew, including Ron Silver, Mollie Sugden, Steve Gilborn, and Pat Hingle, not forgetting Bob May, who was the guy in the robot suit on Lost in Space. Karl Malden, Harve Presnell, James Whitmore, Patrick McGoohan, and Ricardo Montalban all had substantial careers on stage and in Hollywood, while Jack Wrangler had a bit of one in WEST Hollywood (if you don't recognize his name, go here, as you are not up on your top porn stars).
A couple of comedy greats will be sorely missed, Dom DeLuise and the spectacular Beatrice Arthur, and I guess I've lost my chance for Ed McMahon to knock on my door with a million dollar check.

It's a pretty wide-ranging gang, these folks whose deaths caught my interest in 2009. I must have enjoyed the research which went into these obits, or I would not have written them. If you are twisted enough to want to examine the full list, go here. I'm hoping we can give Charon a little less business in 2010.