The Top 19 Dead People of 2007
Carl F Gauze
The dawning of a new year is a time for resolutions, tax forms, and sweeping away the ghosts of the past 12 months. Some of those ghosts received plenty of press on the way out, like Anna Nicole Smith and Steve “Too much money for his own good” Fawcett. But there were a few people who tripped the dead fantastic without so much as a column-filler obit in The New Yorker. Let’s run down the list in what might be chronological order:
Art Buchwald introduced me to political comedy. Sometimes I got the joke, other times it was a great mystery, but his reporting of the daily scandals of the Johnson Administration formed the basis of my political thoughts today. Recently I found some old columns and they made no sense whatsoever. As soon as we forget the name of the Undersecretary of Commerce on the take or in bed with a German Shepard, they are gone, taking all their funny molecules to second banana heaven. Here’s a fun fact about Mr. Buchwald — he left his hospice to go on vacation. What a trooper!
John Backus, the ultimate computer geek, developed the FORTRAN programming language while working for IBM. FORTRAN was one of the first high-level languages that looked like algebra and not hieroglyphics. His algebraic notation and its compiler made those of us who worry about pressure stress in pipes and Six Degrees of Freedom models very happy. Although largely eclipsed by C++, FORTRAN is still alive and well.
What Halloween would be complete without Bobby “Boris” Pickett and his “Monster Mash”? Basically a one-hit wonder, only “Star Dreck” came close to Dr. Demento hit status. Bobby will live on in the graveyards of our minds.
Science is cool, especially when you can blow up your little sister’s Barbie doll with stuff you find under the sink. Don Herbert may not have ever explicitly done anything like that on television, but as Mr. Science, he showed than no matter how boring your teachers make science, it really can be fun.
Lois Maxwell found her 15 minutes as Miss Moneypenny and flirting with James Bond in 14 movies. Although she spoke less than 200 words in that period, she was one of the few steady roles in that wildly successful series. She never got Bond, but we had fun watching her try.
Paul Tibbets piloted the plane that bombed Hiroshima, effectively ending WWII and beginning the cold war. He was military through and through, and defended the bomb because it eliminated the need to invade the Japanese homeland, a bloody and prolonged project at best. He had a whole B-29 for just one bomb, but it left one of the biggest marks of the century.
Ya gotta love Don Ho. He recast Hawaiian music to the tastes of middle class mainland America, and made “Tiny Bubbles” a tropical theme song. Long before Branson came along to give employment to the cheesier side of entertainment, he had his own operation in Honolulu which continues in his absence.
There weren’t many Mercury astronauts to begin with, and now they’re fading quickly. Walter Schirra, Jr. was the fifth astronaut in space, and after retiring he became a spokesman for Actifed, an over-the-counter cold medication he had taken during a flight. His father was a barnstormer, his mother a wing walker, and he logged 295 hours in space and made 265 carrier landings. Sounds like the Right Stuff to me.
If one man defined the Art Film, it would be Ingmar Bergman. His dark, brooding interpretation of Scandinavian life provided a stark contrast to the happy ending required by 1950s Hollywood. In his hands, film became a tool of despair, enlightenment, and a viewport into his own brooding mind. His most striking film may have been the 1957 classic The Seventh Seal, which has Gunnar Björnstrand playing chess with death.
Michael Jackson passed on, but not the mutant one the tabloids won’t leave alone. This Jackson is better known as the Beer Hunter. He undoubtedly had the absolute best job in the world — travel, sample the local brew and spirits, and write about them. He had a show on PBS a few years back and his website offers a beer haiku every day (www.beerhaikudaily.com). We drink to his memory! Ziggy Zaggy hoy hoy hoy! OK, that slogan came from the Blue Fox guy, but we’re all brothers on planet hop.
Mime has always been part of theater, but Marcel Marceau made it into a standalone specialty that today graces street corners in every tourist destination around the world. Marceau’s father died in the concentration camps, and he fought in the French resistance, but he was an artist at heart. “Pulling a rope in the wind” and “Feeling around in a small box” were his signature pieces, and here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know: A mime performance is known as a “mimodrama.”
Robert Bussard combined physics and Sci-Fi in his work on atomic fusion. He “invented” something that’s unlikely to be built for the next century or two — the Bussard ramjet. This interstellar drive collects the scattered hydrogen molecules between the stars, fuses them and uses them for propulsion. Author Larry Niven relied on this technology in his Known Space books. Bussard’s day job involved Fusion Power reactors, which after 50 years of intense funding by multiple governments, have yet to actually produce anything except conferences and technical papers.
The last survivor of the Rat Pack, Joey Bishop went to the big casino in the sky. The Rat Pack summarized 1960s Las Vegas highlife — gambling, booze, women with big hair and big breasts and that Italian “don’t give a damn” attitude that makes life much so much easier when you’re drunk every day. The Rat Packers made big bucks on stage, then lost them at the craps table the next day. It’s the great American dream.
Say what you will about Country Music, you have to give Porter Wagoner points for style. Big hair, flashy suits designed by Nudie Cohn and a long string of successes on stage and TV make him the poster boy for the Grand Ole Opry. Porter had 81 charted hits in his 80 years on earth. Not bad for a meat cutter from Missouri.
Dick Wilson spent his television career obsessing over toilet paper. We baby boomers remember him as the anal compulsive shop owner (RIP Mr. Whipple) who turned livid at the thought of customers squeezing the Charmin. It’s not like you can bruise toilet paper…
Living in Florida gives you a better appreciation for the work of Herbert Saffir. Saffir worked in Dade County to make building codes more hurricane-resistant. Developers and real estate moguls worked to make them less so. You should know him from his work with Robert Simpson, which resulted in the Saffir-Simpson Scale of Hurricane intensity. And here’s a side note — Saffir also survived the wreck of the SS Morro Castle in 1934.
Kevin DuBrow, front man of metal legend Quiet Riot died. Quiet Riot was one of those lesser-known bands that bounced around the LA scene until they had a mega-hit with the cover of an old Slade song, “Cum on Feel the Noize.” Funny thing is, he hated the song and recorded it in one take. Slade’s gimmick was bad spelling, but it took the charismatic DuBrow to make the coolest video ever. The “Feel the Noize” video has a young man fantasizing as his stereo grows bigger and louder until it shakes his room part, and then drops him into DuBrow’s concert. Now that’s Rock and Roll.
Dr. J. Robert Cade was the nephrologist who invented the sports drink Gatorade and put the words “electrolyte” on every jock’s lips. This rather foul tasting liquid keeps your cells working when you sweat, allowing you to run faster, jump higher and score more points. Steroids do the same, but in a bad way. At least Cade’s stuff is legal. He developed Gatorade in response to a question from an assistant football coach at Gainesville — “How come football players don’t wee-wee after a game?” Goes to show there aren’t any stupid questions, only marketing opportunities.
We’ll wrap up with a guy I never thought would go from natural causes — Evel Knievel. Born in Butte, Montana, he began his career by making an earthmover do a wheelie. He found his calling when he learned to jump motorcycles over old cars, and crashing while attempting to jump the fountain at Caesars Palace sealed his fame forever. He became the icon for all of us who fail doing things mom warned us not to do. It wasn’t gravity that killed him, just the completely boring diseases of diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis. At 69, he had broken every bone in his body, except maybe those teeny ones in the middle ear. Ouch.
Check in next year. I hope to still be counting off the deceased and slightly famous.