Pat Harrington died on January 6, 2016. He played Dwayne Schneider, the nosy superintendent in the 1970s sitcom “One Day At A Time”. I remember reading about his death. I may have even blogged about it. But it wasn’t altogether startling. I had barely given the actor any thought since that series was cancelled. And he was 86. So, it was another celebrity death. You read about it, you say “awwwww” and reflect for a moment how another small icon of your life has moved on. It doesn’t really affect you, but it serves as another marker that time is marching on and as the props of your youth disappear to dust, so someday shall you.
Then came David Bowie’s death on January 10. This was different. This was a huge celebrity death because Bowie, unlike Harrington, influenced culture (Sorry, Pat). Everybody had a Bowie song they liked. Or maybe they liked how he was an androgyny pioneer, way before anybody knew what androgyny even was. Everybody was hit by Bowie’s death.
But even then, these things happen. Superstars die every year. And Bowie’s wasn’t even a surprise. Not like, say, Michael Jackson’s sudden death. Bowie had been fighting cancer for years. He had been recording music and videos that anticipated his death. We hoped his death wouldn’t happen, as I’m sure he did too. But even when the Star Man’s light went out at the relatively young age of 69, we thought — well, all things must pass.
Only four days later, Alan Rickman died. Now that was disconcerting. Not that Rickman had the same iconic cultural impact as Bowie, but it was so sudden. Another 69 year old, and only a short battle with cancer.
By then, the jokes were already starting about how 2016 was taking so many people from us unexpectedly. For some that was confirmed when Glenn Frey of the Eagles died. Only 67 years old, from complications of arthritis, ulcer and pneumonia. What the hell?
But maybe that was it, right? Celebrity deaths come in threes, the old adage goes. And Bowie, Rickman and Frey — those were the three. All under 70. All in the same January. Just a bad month.
If we were paying attention, we should have known that celebrity deaths were on 2016’s agenda, when Death ignored the old joke about Abe Vagoda never dying, and He came to collect Mr. Vigoda’s lifeless body in January 26. We should have paid attention and buckled ourselves in.
February saw a slew of surprising-but-not-really deaths: Justice Antonin Scalia, Harper Lee, Bud Collins (the tennis announcer), the veteran actor George Gaynes (from “Tootsie” and the Police Academy movies), the veteran actor George Kennedy….
And then Nancy Reagan on March 4. Well, okay. She was due. 94, for crying out loud. This is normal. This is expected. Same with Sir George Martin (Beatles producer), Ken Martin (“The White Shadow”), Frank Sinatra Jr., Garry Shandling….
Wait… what? Garry Shandling? His death on March 24 caught me VERY off guard. He was only 66. A heart attack. He was, like Bowie, an innovator — but for comedy television. And kind of close to MY generation. What the hell is HE doing dying like that? Something uncool is happening.
March 29 — Patty Duke, age 69 — there’s that 69 again. From a ruptured intestine? DEFINITELY something uncool is happening.
On April 21, Michelle McNamara died. In front of me practically. I didn’t know who she was. But I was reading Patton Oswald’s tweets. He was prolific and funny that day. Then his tweets stopped. Then came the news: Patton’s wife, Michelle (a writer for TrueCrimeStory.com) was dead. Just died in her sleep at the age of 46. The cause of death is still unknown.
Okay, not a celebrity death. But for Patton. Oh my God. I hate it when comedians die, and when their loved ones die, you just want to break things. People who make you laugh are supposed to have good lives. That’s my rule, and I hate to see it broken.
Same day as Michelle McNamara? Prince. Age 57. REALLY close to my age. Accidental overdose. Okay, now — this wasn’t a huge shock. There’s something about people who live fast and die young. It happens, it just does. I mean, it would not have been a shock if he lived to be 95 either. But with superstars — well, we’re used to them not growing old, aren’t we? But somehow, coming after Bowie and Rickman and Frey and Shandling…. now now just a few, but almost everybody was saying the same thing: 2016 is is coming after our cultural icons.
Or maybe not. Madeleine Lebeau (of “Casablanca” fame), age 92; Morley Safer, age 84…
Muhammad Ali, age 74, on June 3. Sad, but not unexpected. What a full rich life.
Then we got a slew of deaths from — well, not superstars. But tragic because they were at the beginning of their careers. Cristine Grimme, age 22 — shot while signing autographs at her concert on June 11. Anton Yelchin, age 27 — Star Trek’s new Chekov run over by his own car in a freak car accident outside his home on June 19.
But then things kind of got into a normal groove — as deaths go, that is — and it looked like 2016 might return to normalcy. You had a lot of “oooooh, THAT guy” deaths.
Elie Wiesel, age 92, on July 2.
Garry Marshall, age 81, on July 19.
Character actor David Huddleston, age 85, on August 2.
R2-D2 actor Kenny Baker, age 81, on August 13.
But Death’s summer vacation came to an end. And he hit the ground running on his return. Gene Wilder on August 29. That one hurt. It hurt everyone. maybe not a surprise, but it was just plain MEAN.
Then, for some reason, Death took a swipe at the trans community. The Lady Chablis, age 59 on September 8. Actor and trans-activist Alexis Arquette, age 47, died on September 11, singing David Bowie’s “Starman” as she passed. Very meta.
Charmian Carr (Liesl in “Sound of Music”), age 71 on September 17.
Arnold Palmer, 87, on September 25.
Kevin Meaney, on October 21.
Maybe things are going to be okay. Maybe. Maybe no more tragic young and/or iconic celebrity deaths.
Janet Reno, 78, on November 7.
Leonard Cohen, 82, on November 10.
Robert Vaughn, 87 on November 11.
Gwen Ifill, 61, on November 14.
Pow!! Florence Henderson, 82 on November 24.
And to join “Barney Miller” castmate Abe Vigoda, Death grabs Ron Glass on November 25.
And speaking of sets, having taken Keith Emerson on March 11 this year, Death grabbed Greg Lake on December 7. (Carl Palmer, the surviving member of Emerson, Lake & Palmer is still alive, but the year is not over).
And December 2016 becomes an echo of January 2016. Iconic deaths.
Godspeed John Glenn, 95, dying on December 8.
Alan Thicke, another 69 year old, on December 13
Zsa Zsa Gabor, on everybody’s death list for ages, finally succumbs at age 99 on December 18.
Which brings us to this week.
George Michael, age 53. That’s MY AGE! On Christmas Day. Of natural causes! What the hell?!?
Carrie Fisher, age 60, on December 27 of a heart attack, and then her mother, Debbie Reynolds, age 84, the next day, of (no doubt) a broken heart.
Insanity. And honestly, everybody is on edge. As I am typing this, there is THIS:
… but it is a hoax (that’s not a real BBC news site).
The Queen is fine. But we’re primed for this.
So here comes the question: ARE there more celebrity deaths this year?
The answer is yes. In fact, the BBC reached that conclusion back in April! They did this by counting the number of pre-prepared BBC obituaries that had run in the first three months of each year from 2012 to 2016. They found that there had indeed been a spike in celebrity deaths: twice as many “famous” people (defined as having a BBC advance obituary) died in January, February and March of this year as had done during the corresponding period of 2015 – and five times as many as in the first three months of 2012. However, the BBC’s obituaries editor Nick Serpell reported that things began to level out somewhat after that, and that the second half of the year was not especially unusual. But still, in the whole of 2016, the BBC has used 30 per cent more pre-prepared obituaries compared to the previous year.
What is going on? Why is this happening? Well, this is the new normal, says the Independent:
What we now call celebrity culture probably kicked off with the rise of Hollywood and of professional sport in the first decades of the 20th century, and things began to resemble the modern day with Frank Sinatra’s “bobby soxers”, and, a few years later, Elvis. But it was in the first few years of the 1960s, when four mop-topped chaps from Liverpool took the world by storm, that the cult of the celebrity really got into gear.
It was the decade that promised a classless, meritocratic future, when young working class people could rise to stardom fuelled by talent and ambition alone rather than by privilege and breeding. The Beatles were rapidly followed by the Stones, the Who and the Kinks, and by a stampede of rising stars from other metiers: Muhammad Ali, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, George Best, Davids Bailey, Frost and Hockney… modern popular culture as we know it took flight.
Those people who came to fame in the ’60s are now in the autumn and winter of their years, so there’s bound to be an increase in celebrity mortality. And in the case of musicians, death comes sooner: a 2014 academic study in Australia which looked at 13,000 rock and pop stars found that they die on average 25 years younger than the rest of the population (Keith Richards, still hale and hearty a few days after his 73rd birthday despite a lifestyle to fell an elephant, is clearly the rule-proving exception).
Then there’s social media: the rise of Facebook – which grew by 250 million subscribers during 2016 – and of Twitter means that each notable death becomes known about and commented upon around the world within seconds of an announcement. Outpourings of grief go rapidly viral, and celebrity deaths seem to mean and matter far more than they ever did.
For these reasons, I don’t see any change on the horizon: there are more famous people than ever before, and they’re all on the Grim Reaper’s to-do list. I suspect that this time next year we’ll be telling ourselves that in celebrity-death terms, 2016 wasn’t so unusual after all.
In other words, get used to it.
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