Tuesday, January 31, 2017

2016: In Memoriams, Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts about major figures who died last year. The first two can be read here and here.

Nancy Reagan
Sure, she had her detractors, but they were mostly small-minded partisans (and insufferable snobs) who targeted her because they didn't like her husband.

She was born in 1921 as Anne Frances Robbins, but her parents divorced when she was young and her mother married a prominent neurosurgeon, Dr. Loyal Edward Davis, when she was eight. She adored him and changed her name to Nancy Davis after he legally adopted her in 1935.

In 1940 she appeared in a movie short, The Crippler, which raised funds for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and in 1945 moved to New York to act on Broadway. In 1949 she moved to California and inked a seven-year contract with MGM; that was the same year she met Ronald Reagan, who was then serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and after more than two years of dating they were wed on March 4, 1952.

Nancy Reagan's acting career was strong but not long, as she appeared in eleven feature films and several TV roles before opting for the fulfillment of domestic life. Even her original promotional material from MGM stated that a "successful happy marriage" was her "greatest ambition," and in 1975 she remarked: "I was never really a career woman but only because I hadn't found the man I wanted to marry. I couldn't sit around and do nothing, so I became an actress."

But oh how good Nancy Reagan was at domestic life! Hers was far more trying than most, seeing as how her husband served two terms as Governor of California during a period of social upheaval (1967-1975) and two more as President of the United States during the climax of the Cold War (1981-1989). Theirs was a marriage par excellence with Nancy serving as Ronald's rock of tranquility at home, and him shielding her from a spiteful press by showering her with the kind of public love and praise that shamed media members into holding their fire.

Ronald Reagan would not have been the Ronald Reagan we knew without Nancy, and Nancy Reagan would not have been the Nancy Reagan we knew without the man she called "Ronnie." In a very big way, it's not sad that she left this world last March, because we know she reunited with him on the other side.

George Michael
When news broke of his death on Christmas Day, it was not really a surprise. Although George Michael was extremely talented and was once one of the most creative stars in the music world, stories had long been circulating that he had descended into the listless depths of depression and drug addiction.

Post-mortem tests came back inconclusive as to his cause of death, causing rumors to swirl. Overdose? Suicide? Natural causes? No one knows. What is known is this: Although George Michael might have been a mess toward the end, his recorded legacy is worth listening to.

Some of his early hits, when he was the biggest star in the duo Wham!, are too silly to be taken seriously ("Wake Me Up Before You Go Go") but others are no laughing matter ("Careless Whisper" evokes guilt and regret as well as any song ever sung). His later solo work ranged from serious ("Father Figure") to infectious ("Faith") to shamelessly dollar-chasing ("I Want Your Sex"), but none of it was bad.

And it has to count for something that a gay celebrity from England, who made his name in a liberal-dominated industry, appeared in an American MTV video at the height of his celebrity wearing a shirt that read "Choose Life." Remember that the next time you start to stuff someone into one of the identity politics boxes that reside in your head (and yes, reside in my head as well).

Glenn Frey
Detroit native Glenn Frey was 21 and living in Southern California when he met a drummer from Texas named Don Henley. Deciding to form a band, they persuaded Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon (Linda Ronstadt's bass player and guitarist, respectively) to join them, and voila!, the Eagles were born.

In 1971, a year after Frey and Henley met, the Eagles signed a recording contract with David Geffen's brand new label, Asylum Records, and the rest is history. The Eagles' laid back, countryish sound was unique and remains unduplicated all these years later. They are the highest selling American band of all time (more than 150 million records sold) and fifth-highest in all the world. Their compilation Greatest Hits: 1971-1975 sold more copies than any other American album in the 20th Century.

Many people think of the Eagles as Henley's band, but Glenn Frey's mark was every bit as strong, if not more. He wrote or co-wrote many of their songs and sang lead on many of their hits, including "Take It Easy," "Peaceful Easy Feeling," "Lyin' Eyes," "Already Gone," "Tequila Sunrise," "New Kid in Town," and "Heartache Tonight," to name a few.

Frey also had a successful solo career and scored several major hits in the 1980's, most notably "You Belong to the City" (which served as the theme song for Miami Vice) and "The Heat Is On" (which was featured in Beverly Hills Cop). Pile-on complications following GI surgery took him from us last January at the too-young age of 67.

John McLaughlin
Like many people of his generation, John McLaughlin spent his first few adult decades as a Democrat and last few as a Republican. A native Rhode Islander, he was raised Catholic, entered the Jesuit order the year he turned 20, and became an ordained priest 12 years later.

In the end, however, politics and television journalism proved to be his calling. After a failed run for the U.S. House of Representatives, McLaughlin became a speechwriter for President Nixon in 1974 and then worked two months for President Ford.

He subsequently wrote for National Review, and in 1982 became host of The McLaughlin Group, a TV show on PBS that featured him and various talking heads sparring over their opinions on political topics and current events. The format presaged CNN's Firing Line and Fox News's The Five, while McLaughlin's assertive confidence presaged Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly. It can be said that without him, the others might never have been.

Interestingly, the most lasting memory of McLaughlin and his show might be the deadpan parody by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live -- which is absolutely fine. What better compliment, or confirmation of your impact, could there be?

John Saunders
Some deaths you really don't see coming. You can definitely say that about John Saunders, the smooth-voiced, ultra-professional television sports journalist who was only 61 when he left this world last August.

Saunders worked at ESPN for 30 years, right up until his death. For many of those years he also worked at ABC, seeing as how the networks are co-owned. He studio hosted the former's NHL coverage and the latter's NCAA football coverage. He hosted The Sports Reporters, and co-hosted NFL Primetime and Baseball Night in America. A native of Ajax, Ontario, Saunders also served as the Toronto Raptors' play-by-play announcer from 1995 to 2001.

And before all of that, he played hockey at Western Michigan University, along with his brother Bernie (who is a member of the WMU Hall of Fame and became only the fifth black person to play in the NHL).

Saunders's cause of death has not been announced, but there have been no rumors of drugs or foul play. Most talk refers to complications from diabetes.

Patty Duke
Patty Duke was two months shy of her 13th birthday when The Miracle Worker debuted on Broadway in October 1959, with her in the role of Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft in the role of Anne Sullivan, Keller's teacher. Duke played her part so well and received such acclaim that her name was moved above the title on the marquee (it is believed that this had never before been done for someone so young).

In 1962 The Miracle Worker was made into a movie with Duke continuing in the role of Keller, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 16 -- and she was so talented that between originating the Keller role on stage and transferring it to the big screen, she appeared on television opposite Sir Laurence Olivier and George C. Scott in a TV movie adaptation of The Power and the Glory.

In what seems like a sad bit of deja vu for child stars through the years, Patty Duke was beset by psychological and substance abuse problems. Anorexia, boozing, and pill overdoses took their toll and she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 35. But she kept her rudder from breaking off, and became an outspoken advocate for mental health care while continuing to act into the current decade and serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1985 to 1988.

Ten months ago her intestine ruptured and sepsis rushed through her bloodstream, causing her to die on March 29th in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Abe Vigoda
Abraham Charles Vigoda was 50 years old and nowhere near rich and famous when he attended an open call audition (i.e., one for actors who don't have agents) for Francis Ford Coppola's big screen adaptation of The Godfather.

Fortunately for all involved, this tall son of Russian Jewish immigrants made an impression on Coppola and landed the role of Tessio, the high-ranking capo for the Corleone crime family who betrays Michael Corleone and gets executed for it as the story reaches its climax. He reprised the role in The Godfather, Part II by appearing in flashbacks, and his newfound name-recognition helped him earn the role of Detective Phil Fish on the ABC sitcom Barney Miller.

In 1982 this People Magazine article mistakenly referred to "the late Abe Vigoda," and over the ensuing years Vigoda was falsely reported as dead on numerous occasions, so much so that it became something of a gag. When he attended a 1998 Friars Club roast for Drew Carey, one of the roasters quipped "my one regret is that Abe Vigoda isn't alive to see this." David Letterman once performed a skit that opened with him performing a seance to contact Vigoda's ghost, only to have the real Vigoda walk onto the set and say "I'm not dead yet, you pinhead!"

The lasting image of him will always be as Tessio, moments after realizing that his betrayal has been found out and that he is about to be killed. He looks at Tom Hagen, the Corleone family's consigliere who was played by Robert Duval, and states simply: "Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him."

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