19 Dead Cool Celebrities of 2004
Fame is fleeting, and so is life
Carl F Gauze
Every year, a certain set of us assumes room temperature, whether from age or accident or malice. Individually, I lost a fairly close relative, but collectively, we lost many talented and important people. Here is an admittedly incomplete list, arranged chronologically. I’ve had to leave out more than I put in, and if I missed someone high on your list, it’s only for reasons of space.
On January 23, BOB KEESHAN, better known as CAPTAIN KANGAROO, died at 76. Few of us didn’t grow up with Captain, who started his career as Clarabelle the Clown on the Howdy Doody show. He moved on to create a calm, low-keyed children’s host that shows television need not be a wasteland. Watching him was entertaining and educational, and he ran for 30 years, making a landmark in any field.
Less than a week later, another pioneer of the small screen, JACK PAAR died. Paar catered to the adults of the generation, leading an intelligent, late night talk show that was part philosophic discussion and part sales pitch for whatever project his guests were plugging that week. He modified predecessor Steve Allen’s variety format, and essentially invented what we know as late night TV. He hosted the show for a relatively short period — from 1957 to 1962 — and was succeeded by Johnny Carson and Jay Leno.Some of us remember when MTV actually showed music videos. Originally it was structured like a radio station, with “Video Jockeys” introducing songs. On March 18, one of the original five VJs, J. J. JACKSON died. He was 62, and looked much younger, as if he hadn’t aged from when the ground-breaking channel opened. Unlike real radio stations, you couldn’t call in and make requests, but you still felt like he and all the other VJs were your best friends. We’ll miss him, just like we miss the way-too-cool videos of the day. The next TV pioneer to die was stately ALISTAIR COOKE, who made it to 95. He covered America for the BBC, with a 34 year run of 15 minute essays for the BBC World Service. Thus, he played a huge part in setting the world’s impression of the US, and bridging our culture with the British expatriate community. Most Americans recall his innovative series, “Alistair Cooke’s America”.
Not everyone I’ll talk about comes from broadcasting. Cosmetics Queen ESTEE LAUDER died April 15 from a heart attack at age 97. She began making makeup in the 1930s and was a consummate saleswoman. Her company placed at 349 in the Fortune 500, and she made more women look good than anyone else ever did. She was proud of this.Another long-lived man of the world passed on June 6th –RONALD REAGAN. He was 93, with a career than spanned some of the most forgettable movies ever made and winning one of the major wars of the 20th century — the Cold War. Say what you will about the projects he supported, but Star Wars and the MX missile convinced the Soviet government to give up. Essentially, the West won a war of financial attrition against the East, instead of a war of human attrition. Not bad.
Good Taste and Good Food took a blow in the death of Frugal Gourmet JEFF SMITH in July. He was a Methodist minister who turned a cooking class into a fascinating TV show. Rather than cook one dish in detail, he produced a small feast each show, and the emphasis was on the Gourmet, rather than the Frugal. He had his failings, and some of the suspiciously attractive young men he employed as on-air assistants filed sexual charges against him, ending his career.
One of the godfathers of body building, JOE GOLD founded Gold’s Gym and survived to a healthy 82. I moved to LA in 1979, and a friend who came along had one request — he wanted to visit this scruffy building near the beach in Venice. I had no idea what the big deal was, but that was before I knew what exercise meant to Angelinos. Arnold Schwarzenegger started his US body building career here, and Gold went on to build a chain of serious exercise salons across the nation.Nobel-winning Scientist FRANCIS CRICK co-discovered DNA, and his failed at the age of 88 on July 29. He and fellow Cambridge alum James Watson deduced the famous double helix in 1953, and formally announced it in a pub, which to me is the correct way to spread important news. It’s much more user-friendly than the dry academic papers usually favored these days, and if the Secret of Life doesn’t deserve a Guinness, what does?
If you don’t win the Nobel, having your life story played by John Wayne is a close second. August 7 saw oil well fire fighter RED ADAIR flame out. He used the counter-intuitive method of blowing up tons of dynamite at a burning well head to extinguish fires, and it worked all over the world. His biggest success: suppressing most of the Kuwait oil fires set in Gulf War I.Two days later, actress FAY WRAY passed away. Despite over 100 films, the only one anyone seems to remember concerns the ill-starred love of a 60 foot gorilla. I never understood what Kong saw in her, interspecies wise, but I thought she looked pretty good in a long flowing dress.
The other leading television cooking show host died August 13, Mrs. JULIA CHILD. She was the wife of a diplomat, and took up French cooking as a hobby, and brought a simple, easy approach to the mystery of French cuisine. She dropped food, picked it up, and charged forward, and with her oddly charming accent, was an icon of the television generation.
JOHNNY RAMONE, the third member of this ground-breaking band to die, made it to 55, only to succumb on September 16. Prostrate cancer took this rocker, a relatively rare way to die after decades of touring. With an output of nearly one record a year for 21 years, The Ramones had more staying power than you would have ever guessed from their torn jeans and greasy hair. Theirs was the first punk album I ever touched.Pioneer adult filmmaker RUSS MEYER saw his final credits September 22. With 23 films under his belt, he gained notoriety for large-busted women showing all in films with great titles like “Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!” and “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.” I’ve seen more than I’d care to tell my mother, and I’d like to see the rest. There’s nothing like pure, gratuitous nudity to wipe the bad taste of The Hulk from your memory.
Mercury Astronaut GORDON COOPER flamed out at 77 on October 4th. One of the original test pilots chosen to go into space, he was noted for his humor and cock-sure confidence. It takes guts to get on top of a large pile of explosives while engineers cower in block houses and promise you they think everything will work OK. Well, it did, and he was a hero of the nation in the heated days of the Space Race with the Russians. His career was an important part of the movie The Right Stuff. He sure had it.Death had no respect for RODNEY DANGERFIELD, who expired October 15. His self-deprecating shtick found its source in the borsch belt playhouses of the Pocono resort area. While he died on stage many times, he actually lived until he was 82.
Superman could only be stopped by Green Kryptonite, but it only took a fall from a horse to stop the actor who most recently portrayed him — CHRISTOPHER REEVE. An unfortunate accident paralyzed him from the neck down, but he had recovered some mobility before his untimely passing. Besides his significant film catalog, he founded the Christopher Reeve Paralysis foundation, dedicated to healing others.
Longtime thorn in the side of Israel and the United States YASSER ARAFAT checked out on Veteran’s Day. Reportedly worth over a billion dollars, many blamed him for maintaining the parade of suicide bombers in recent years. He traded his revolutionary credibility for family life late in his existence, marrying a woman and staying with her just long enough to sire a son, assuring his genes if not his cause would carry on to the next generation.Lastly, consider DIMEBAG DARRELL of Damageplan, and formerly of Pantera, who was killed on stage December 8 in Columbus, Ohio. I list him not so much because I’m a fan, but because of the spectacular method of his death. An irate fan plugged him and 4 others before the police shot the assailant. Utterly pointless.
Try to do better in 2005.