Top 19 Dead People of 2008

Top 19 Dead People of 2008

Celebrities you’ll never meet face to face

Top 19 Dead People of 2008

Another year, another pile of bodies. Some died on screen, others on distant battle fields, but most just rolled over and croaked for no reason other than it was their time. I’ve sorted through the stack of corpses to pick 19 people whose passing garnered less press than Sarah Palin’s credit card bills. This year the crew is much geekier than in the past — it looks like the quality of our dead pop stars declined precipitously along with the stock market.

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Alton Kelly Poster

Alton Kelly Poster

If anything defines the look of the ’60s, it’s the nearly indecipherable acid rock poster. This year we lost Alton Kelley, creator of the wildly distorted “only makes sense if you’re stoned” posters for The Dead, The Doors, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and a hundred other bands. His twisted lettering and clashing colors iconize the look of 1968 San Francisco, and even if you couldn’t read the words, you knew it was the hippest party in town. They told us “never trust anyone over 30,” yet he made it all the way to 68. How ironic.

Henri Cartan

Henri Cartan

Living all the way to 100 gives you plenty of cool points and the ability to say almost anything to anyone. But Henri Cartan stands above that. As the last remaining founder of the Bourbaki, he was part of a failed attempt by a group of radical mathematicians to codify all the known principles of mathematics. A series of very rigorous and nearly unreadable books poured out of their contentious meetings until the group took a body blow in 1933 when Kurt Gödel proved that any useful system of mathematics would always have unanswerable problems. Being French, Bourbaki ignored this German upstart and kept at it, but in a much more subdued role. Mssr. Cartan lived to 104, which can be factored as 2*2*2*13.

Vampira

Vampira

Vampira inspired more than a few teen fantasies and mixed them up with the sort of creepy death-inspired iconography we now know as Goth. Her real name was Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi, and in 1954 she dressed up as Morticia Addams (of TV’s Addams Family) and landed a gig hosting late night films in L.A. She was instrumental in solving one the great TV recycling problems of all time — how to make hundreds of hours of crappy Corman films palatable enough to fill hours of late night TV and sell cheap trinkets from Ron Popeil. After her came Elvira, MST3K, and Riff Trax. She was first, and your first is always your best. She claimed her measurements were 38-17-36. Who are we to argue?

Richard Knerr

Richard Knerr

What would our pop culture childhood be without Richard Knerr, co-founder of Wham-O? He gave us the SuperBall, Hula Hoop, Frisbee, and a dozen of the lesser-known toys that cluttered our childhood closets. He asked that his ashes be made into a Frisbee. Now THAT’S class.

While I played chess occasionally, the only way I could win was by capturing all the other guys’ pieces and pig piling his king after I promoted 3 pawns to new queens. Bobby Fischer, on the other hand, could look at an untouched board and declare “mate in 17 moves” and then do it. He made chess a pop phenomenon in the ’70s by beating Russian Boris Spasky for the world championship in Iceland. He waged his battles on and off the board, acting as a psycho prima donna, complaining about every last thing, and then hammering his opponents with sheer brilliance. One of his quotes: “I am the best player in the world and I am here to prove it.”

Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax

Some of you might have toyed with Dungeons and Dragons. The game was created in 1974 by Gary Gygax and allowed all of us to pretend we were Frodo on his way to Mordor with a Ring of Power in our wallet. For a long time, the game got a bad rap from the morality police because it could, possibly, if you squinted just right and didn’t want to hear otherwise, be interpreted as messing with the Satanic supernatural. Mostly it gave angsty teens a game to play that didn’t require actual physical coordination, and created the clubby atmosphere that only the locker room jocks previously experienced. Gary’s heart finally gave in; it had more attack points than he had defense points.

John Archibald Wheeler

John Archibald Wheeler

What’s cooler than black holes? Worm holes. These astronomical monstrosities were first described by John Archibald Wheeler, and have made endless sci-fi books and movies just slightly more plausible. Where would low-grade science fiction television series be without this stuff? He was 96.

Albert Hoffman

Albert Hoffman

Sometimes I find the oddest synergies compiling this list. Besides losing the artist that made the acid rock poster, we lost the guy who discovered acid itself. Albert Hoffman worked as a chemist for Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland where he discovered LSD-25 and accidentally ingested some. It made his bicycle ride home VERY interesting. Not only did he take the first acid trip, but he studied Psilocybin, Mexican Morning Glories, and Salvinorin A. This godfather of mind expansion lived to 102.

Alexander Courage

Alexander Courage

If you’re reading this column, there’s a fair chance you’ve seen a Star Trek episode. The late Alexander Courage wrote the spacey theme song, which still brings a thrill when I hear it. There are lyrics to the song, supposedly penned by Gene Roddenberry to grab a cut of the royalties. Courage also penned themes for Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and wrote music for My Fair Lady, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and GiGi. Certainly, you’ve enjoyed some of those shows. He was 88.

Dick Martin

Dick Martin

Laugh-In co-host Dick Martin passed away. Laugh In set the comedy standard of the Sixties — madcap, silly, colorful, sexy, and edgy. Today the show seems ploddingly slow, but it pushed us into the drug-fueled short-attention-span lives we lead today. Dick was the funny man against the staid Dan Rowan. Dick’s specialty was the the “WTF?” reaction to Tiny Tim or the legendary Stardust Cowboy or Goldie Hawn’s dumb blonde schtick. Later, he produced a few well-known programs like The Bob Newhart Show and Family Ties.

Another casualty of our collective childhoods is Larry Harmon of Bozo The Clown fame. “Bozo” was a franchise — you buy a license and (I’ve heard but can’t verify) you go to the Bozo Clowning School before performing. On one hand, the rough and uneven clowning of a guy in need of a shave and a bath disappeared, but the result was a consistent product with a unified marketing scheme. Is EVERYTHING in our lives controlled by marketing these days?

Along with the Hildebrandt brothers, Pauline Baynes has done more to create our vision of the fantasy worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Richard Adams than anyone else. Her detailed and innocent sketches for classics like Lord of the Rings and Narnia Chronicles provide our remembered childhood visions of alternate universes. When movie makers stray from that look, the result is at least a mild disappointment. Take THAT Peter Jackson!

Not sure what to do with your leftover Plutonium? Well, don’t go dumping it in the Marianas Trench. Sure, it’s deep and dark and cold down there, but Jacques Piccard demonstrated why that’s a bad with his record-setting 1960 dive to the bottom of the deepest ocean trench. He used a bathyscaphe, which he co-developed with his father August, and discovered dozens of unknown creatures living down there. Previously, the depth was considered too dark and cold to host any life. Sort of like North Dakota.

Don LaFontaine

Don LaFontaine

In a world without Don LaFontaine, how would you know what movie to see? Just as every Hong Kong chopsocky move is dubbed by the same four people, every Hollywood trailer is voiced over by Don. Or at least it was; we’ll now have to find someone else to seduce us into the next Adam Sandler extravaganza.

As we pass from the holiday season, don’t forget the animator of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. That would be Bill Melendez, who did all of the Peanuts TV specials as well as bits of Bambi, Fantasia, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Gerald McBoeing-Boeing. He started with Disney, but left over disputes with Disney about unionizing the animators.

Betty Page

Betty Page

Sex in two words: Betty Page. America’s greatest bondage icon passed away at the age of 85. Back in the ’50s, mailing nude photographs was considered as serious a national security issue as undeclared shampoo on a jet liner is today. You could do time for photographing a woman’s pubic hair, and the image of a naked guy — well, let’s just say it would have been better for America if the Ruskies just lobbed a few nukes over. In that conservative world of horny men, innocent Betty page became the favorite model for the “silly” pictures of Irving Klaw. She claimed she didn’t realize the sexual implication of two women spanking each other in rubber lingerie, and I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt on that point. She spent most of her later life living in obscurity — perhaps the shame of being America’s favorite whacking material was too much.

Mark Felt

Mark Felt

“Deep Throat”, otherwise know as W. Mark Felt passed away at the age of 95. For those of you born late, he helped bring down the Nixon administration by passing along information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post. Felt was assistant director of the FBI, and had the inside dope on who, what, and why the Bureau was investigating. It’s not that Nixon was any better or worse than his predecessors, it’s just that he got caught. Watergate represented a major turning point in the relation between the American Press and the high profile politicians and celebs they stalk. In the old days, the matters of public citizens’ private lives were kept off limits, but today any sort of gossip or scandal is fair game. While the openness is healthy, it seems to keep otherwise qualified candidates from running. We all have a few things in our past we don’t want known, but putting your name on a ballot just about guarantees those spring break candid shots from Cancun will make the internet.

A later entry on the list is Harold Pinter, Nobel winning dramatist and writer of the sort of odd, disassociated plays that only theater majors love. Despite this, he’s been as influential in American Theater as anyone, with the possible exception of Beckett. Pinter’s world often represents ambiguous characters in ambiguous situations, striving for power and territory. In other words, it’s like a holiday dinner with hostile in-laws. Mr. Pinter was quite fond of cricket.

That’s all the room in the grave yard for this year. Drive like a maniac!

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