2016 was a rough year for celebrities. Or was it?
I have been tracking celebrity deaths for years. It all started back in 1981, when my brother's roommate at the time burst in to their apartment with the utterly hilarious statement: "The password is 'dead'." Of course, he was reporting the death of noted game-show figure and long-time host of the show Password, Allen Ludden. From there, I took my cue and, considering my slightly skewed sense of humor, there was no turning back.
I attended a small but respected art school in the early 80s. Every morning, before classes began, I would peruse the newspaper with several of my classmates. One morning, in 1983, while we sipped our coffee and pored over the printed accounts of events from the previous day, I stumbled across an obituary for Junior Samples, the hefty, overall-clad bumpkin comedian, famous for his slow delivery and dimwitted demeanor on the syndicated country music variety show Hee Haw. Samples. a former race car driver, carpenter and radio comic was a fixture on the show for fourteen seasons, bumbling his way through flubbed lines and corny jokes. When he died, my demented friends and I tacked his death notice on a school bulletin board, along with the caption: "The world has lost a great man... a great BIG man" alluding to his considerable girth. The joke, while it amused a small contingency of my colleagues, was met with a less than favorable reaction from the rest of the students and faculty. They also didn't care much for our sacrilegious treatment of the passing of singer Ethel Merman almost a year later. (That story is a classic in bad taste. See for yourself HERE.)
After I finished art school and entered the workforce, I encountered a few co-workers who, curiously, shared my absurd view on celebrity deaths. We created a sort-of informal contest to see who could report on the death of a celebrity before anyone else. As the years went on, and the internet and social media entered the equation, I gained a reputation as The Grim Reaper of sorts. Through a network of sources, I have made tracking celebrity deaths an on-going hobby, joining my other macabre pastime of visiting cemeteries. I have compiled an annual "Death Pool" in the final week of every year since 2009, listing a dozen or so celebrities who I think will meet their maker in the new year. I hang on to every minute of every news report wrap-up and award show's "In Memoriam" segment, paying close attention to those who are included and those who are unjustly snubbed. I regularly note celebrity passings on Twitter and Facebook, even becoming a confirming source for other celebrity death watchers (and, oh, there are others).
Which brings us to 2016 and the bad rap it's taken as the most unforgiving year for celebrity deaths. This malevolent notoriety is undeserved, as society's — and even my own — definition of "celebrity" has evolved over the years. "Celebrity" used to apply to movie stars, athletes, politicians, singers and regulars on television shows. Now, anyone with access to a computer and a YouTube channel is a "celebrity." People who were voted off the show on Week One of Survivor or The Bachelorette are considered "celebrities." I, myself, am guilty of foisting "celebrity" status on such folks as the guy who invented the plastic Red Solo cup and the woman who was featured in television commercials for Prince Spaghetti. Of course, my motives are strictly tongue-in-cheek. However, more people have heard of them than have heard of me, so, based on that alone, they are a celebrity at some level.
Also, consider my age. I was born in 1961. I am of a generation that bridges two generations that are significant in the roles they play in pop culture. My generation is a transitional generation. It comes at the tail end of the so-called "Golden Age of Hollywood," as well as the heyday of television hitting its creative stride. Some of the top names that graced the "silver screen" in huge Hollywood productions were now in the twilight of their careers and taking roles in television series in an obvious "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" career move. Screen sirens like Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell were now reduced to roles in weekly dramas with skimpy production values. I would see people from my parents generation pop up on The Tonight Show and I'd have to ask my mom to explain their claim to fame. There are but a handful of stars from that long-gone era who are still with us. Doris Day, who will disputably turn 94 in 2017, Jerry Lewis, who will turn 91 early next year. and Olivia de Havilland, who will pass the century mark next summer, come to mind. When their ultimate time comes, will it matter to anyone under the age of 50? Will anyone from my son's generation even know who they were?
On the other end of the "fame" spectrum, I saw The Beatles transition into the Jackson 5 into New Kids on the Block into Britney Spears into Miley Cyrus. Is Katy Perry's impact on music the same as, say Frank Sinatra's? I would say "no," but someone thirty-five years my junior, with no clue who Sinatra was, would be quick to argue. Will the eventual loss of Lady Gaga elicit the same level of sorrow as the death of Ray Charles or George Harrison? Perhaps not to members of my generation, but how about two and three generations after mine? "Celebrity" and "fame" are relative terms and they have different applications to different generations. I don't think that Ringo Starr's passing will have the same worldwide impact as Paul McCartney's. And I don't know how the passing of Justin Bieber will rate. Not that I am wishing for any of those... well, not actively, anyway. There is also a whole crop of actors and actress and athletes that I don't know. Names from Netflix shows and internet series and a slew of obscure reality shows that I don't watch. There are men and women from sports that I don't follow, not to mention singers whose music I have never heard. But, some fan of theirs, somewhere, years from now, will be upset when they die.
Sure, some pretty big names died in 2016, but if you look at each one individually, they aren't really that jarring. David Bowie was 69, and while it was definitely a shock, he was sick (although he hid it from the public). Plus, he was a drug user and cigarette smoker for a good portion of his life. Prince, at 57, was discovered to have had a long addiction to opioids. Merle Haggard undoubtedly, led a hard life. William Schallert, George Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and John Glenn were all in their 90s and, whether or not we care to face reality, old people die. Then, there were accidents, like the one that claimed the life of actor Anton Yelchin. Consider all of these situations coupled with the ever-widening label of "celebrity." So, while these deaths were indeed sad, they were not circumstantially extraordinary,
Unfortunately, I can predict with a fair amount of certainty, more "celebrities" will die in 2017.