Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: In Memoriams

A look back at some of the impactful people who reached eternity this year:

Shirley Temple
The girl with the unmistakable curls and endearing smile -- who charmed the silver screen as a child in the 1930's, and whose name and face remain known even to people today who have never watched her movies -- departed this world four days before Valentine's Day.

As an adult Temple had a long and effective career in many high level posts. A lifelong Republican, she served as the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana from 1974-76, U.S. Chief of Protocol from 1976-77, and U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989-92. She was heavily involved with the Commonwealth Club of California, a prestigious think tank, and served as its president in 1984. Earlier, acting as a representative for the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, she happened to be in Prague when the Soviet Union invaded in 1968; she took refuge on her hotel's roof as tanks rolled through the city, and it was from there that she witnessed Soviet troops murder an unarmed woman on the street below.

And all of that represents just a portion of her overall accomplishments, for she also was on the boards of directors for Walt Disney, Del Monte Foods, Bank of America, Fireman's Fund Insurance, and the National Wildlife Federation -- among others. What a life!

Mickey Rooney
Two months after Shirley Temple moved up to the stars she was joined by Mickey Rooney, who also rose to fame as a child star in the 1930's. Unlike her, he remained in the acting business all the way to the end, and in fact he appears in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, which is in theaters at this very moment. Here's hoping those two are currently yukking it up on the Good Ship Lollipop, and that Rooney has finally been able to put a smile on the tortured soul of his old pal Judy Garland.

Joe Cocker
If I could, I'd sing the word "farewell" in a growl so throaty it would make other people reach for cough drops, and I'd do it while moving in an awkward, herky jerky manner. But I can't. Only Joe Cocker could get away with that, and nine days ago cancer took him away from us. Let the record show that despite his high profile as an international music star from working class England, he remained married to one woman and they spent their last two decades living on a ranch in the Colorado Rockies that is not -- repeat, not -- near Vail or Aspen.

Joan Rivers
Go here for the thoughts I spilled at the time.

Robin Williams
When he hanged himself in August it seemed like everyone on Earth was stunned -- except for those who were closest to him, as evidenced by comments saying he had recently been "struggling with depression." Though I don't recall the exact source of those comments, I do remember them percolating from relatives or publicists or spokespeople, or some combination of the three.

But perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised. Like his earlier battles with alcohol and cocaine, Williams's battles with clinical depression were not a secret. Within minutes of hearing that his death was suspected to be suicide, my first thought was this: When you look at his based-on-his-own-life stage jokes  ("I had to stop drinking because I kept waking up on the lawn with the keys up my ass") against the backdrop of his serious acting roles (the English teacher in Dead Poets Society, psychology professor in Good Will Hunting, the dead man in What Dreams May Come) I can easily see him being one of those people who harbors a genuine love and concern for his fellow humans but a genuine dislike of himself.

In the end, he was able to beat the external demons of booze and drugs but not the internal demons of misfiring brain chemicals. So sad. So very, very sad.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Only four years older than me, with an acting career that was marked by virtuosity and did not include a single ho-hum performance, Hoffman perished in a dirty apartment with a heroin needle protruding from his vein. Just like that, three children were suddenly made fatherless. Like Neil Young once sang: "I've seen the needle and the damage done...every junkie's like a setting sun." Whose death is sadder, Williams's or Hoffman's? Pick your poison because there ain't a speck of beauty in either.

Geoffrey Holder
When you consider how each man met his end, Geoffrey Holder's life stands out as a kind of counter-balance to the lives of Williams and Hoffman. People of my generation may not know Holder's name, but we know him from those 7Up commercials in which he beckoned us to drink "the un-cola" and described it as "crisp and clean, and no caffeine." His imposing size, baritone-ish voice, and Caribbean accent left an impression that served him well in an acting career that included key roles as Punjab in 1982's Annie and Baron Samedi in the Bond film Live and Let Die

On Broadway, Holder starred in an all-black production of Waiting for Godot way back in 1957. Later, in 1975, he directed The Wiz and won Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Costume Design.

And before any of that he was recognized as a superb dancer. Holder began dancing professionally in his native Trinidad in 1937, when he was just seven years old. In 1955 he became a principal dancer for New York's Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

Plus, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for his painting.

When asked why a man of so many talents filmed TV commercials, Holder told People magazine: "I'm no snob. The commercial is an art form unto itself."

He died of pneumonia on October 5th, survived by his wife of 59 years, Carmen, and their son Leo. Looking back on his life, we realize that Sidney Poitier was not the only black islander who came to our shores and helped push down racial barriers in mid-century America.

Alois Brunner
Everyone else on this list is a person who contributed to the world, who you are sad to see go, and each of them is known to have died during this year -- but such is not the case with Alois Brunner, who was born in 1912 and joined Germany's Nazi Party in 1931. One year later he joined the Sturmabteilung, which predated the Nazi Party but was then acting as its paramilitary wing. Brunner eventually became the director of Hitler's SS and worked closely with Adolf Eichmann, who referred to him as his "best man."

During World War II Brunner deported Jews to concentration camps from Austria, Slovakia, and Greece. He is held responsible for sending at least 140,000 people to gas chambers; i.e., for having murdered the equivalent of the entire population of Savannah, Georgia. He escaped capture after the war and found sanctuary in Syria, where his brand of genocidal anti-Semitism was (and still is) celebrated rather than deplored.

While in Syria he lived with an openness and shamelessness that should anger every decent person on Earth. In 1985 he granted a remote interview to a German news magazine, telling it "my only regret is that I didn't murder more Jews." He eluded attempts by Simon Wiesenthal to capture him and by Mossad to kill him with letter bombs (though the latter efforts did result in him losing an eye and fingers in 1980).

On November 30th of this year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center reported that it had received credible information indicating Brunner died in 2010. If true, the only downside to him dying is that he did not first experience retribution at the hands of humans.

Johnny Winter
As an accomplished white blues musician, Winter would have been an unusual sight in any event, but as an albino his appearance on a blues stage was unique in the literal sense. With his height, long white hair, pale eyes and extra pale skin, he looked almost like a vampire in plain clothes -- and it speaks well of his musicianship that his appearance never overshadowed his talent.

Winter was born in Texas in 1944 and began recording at the age of 15. The $600,000 he received for signing with Columbia Records in December 1968 is believed to have been the largest advance in recording history up to that point.

He did not fail to live up to expectations, as the near-concurrent release of his eponymous Columbia debut and extended distribution of his previous album The Progressive Blues Experiment propelled him to stardom. Winter released a series of albums, some of which were traditional blues and some of which were blues-rock, and in the late 1970's he fulfilled a childhood dream by playing with Muddy Waters in a trio of recording sessions. As the years went on he headlined the Chicago Blues Festival, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and Sweden Rock Festival.

On July 16th, two days after performing at a blues festival in France, Winter was found dead in a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, and no cause of death has been determined. In September his final album was released, featuring appearances by Eric Clapton, Brian Setzer, Ben Harper and Joe Perry, to name just a few.

Harold Ramis
Just glance at a partial list of the movies Ramis created: Animal HouseCaddyshackStripesNational Lampoon's VacationGhostbustersAs Good As It GetsAnalyze ThisKnocked Up. Ponder that list. The comedies are comedy for its own sake, not dragged down by personal bitterness or political bias. And the lone drama is a purely human one, for as it embraces the idea that our shortcomings exist alongside our yearning for goodness, As Good As It Gets does not get dragged down by personal bitterness or political bias. Need I say more?

James Garner
Garner passed away on July 19th at the age of 86. American television would not be American television without this Oklahoman who starred in Maverick in the 1950's and The Rockford Files in the 1970's.

Ralph Waite
Nor would American television be American television without Ralph Waite, the New Yorker who portrayed the family patriarch in The Waltons in the 1970's. He passed away in February at the age of 85.

Jean Beliveau
Beliveau was born 83 years ago in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, and died 29 days ago in Longueuil, Quebec. From 1950 to 1971 he established himself as one of the greatest hockey players ever to lace up a pair of skates, spending the majority of those years playing for the Montreal Canadiens and helping make them the game's most storied franchise.

A centreman blessed with a deadly left-handed shot and uncanny view of the ice, Beliveau led the Canadiens to 10 Stanley Cups and served as their captain for 10 of his 18 full seasons with the team. He played in 13 All-Star Games and was the first hockey player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 1965 he became the only team captain in NHL history to score the Cup-winning goal and win the Conn Smythe Trophy (for playoff MVP) on the same night.

Beliveau's statistics were so strong that although he retired 43 years ago, even today he ranks as Montreal's second all-time leading scorer. In addition to his athletic tenacity, he was so admired for his intelligence and character that in the 1990's he was twice offered a Senate seat by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, and once recommended as a candidate for Governor General of Canada by the subsequent prime minister, Jean Chretien. In all three instances, Beliveau declined.

At his funeral, his casket was draped in a Candiens team flag and four of his old teammates were among his pallbearers. In one of the eulogies given that day, Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden said of Beliveau that "no place was was too small or remote, because no fan or person was unimportant...He treated everyone with such respect. He said the right thing, in the right way -- in French and in English -- because that's what he believed and that's what he was."

Of course, there were many other people deserving of notice who passed away in 2014, but time is limited and I have already been long-winded. So be safe tonight, have a Happy New Year, and may 2015 bring peace and prosperity to your life.

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