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2010 CELEBRITY DEATHS
2010 was not exactly a red-letter year unless you were Lebron James, Taylor Swift or a Chilean miner. True, President Obama’s stimulus package slowed the rate of layoffs considerably, but unemployment still hovered at or above 10 percent all year long. Republicans in Congress added insult to injury by opposing an extension of unemployment benefits. Democrats were blamed for a recession that was caused by the GOP, yet it was the Dems who lost 60 seats in an off-year election. Meanwhile, millions of families lost their homes due to ballooning mortgage payments and unpaid medical bills.
Overseas we continued to sustain casualties in one war as we tried to extricate ourselves from another. Media types like myself will argue that these kinds of losses could have all been prevented with better leadership, foresight and oversight.
But 2010 was also marked by the kinds of losses that no one could have prevented, including the deaths of many well known celebrities. I was privileged to have interviewed some of them.
On April 10, Dixie Carter passed away after a battle with endometrial cancer. She was only 70 years old. Dixie, who was born in Tennessee, never lost her Southern charm, even when she descended upon Hollywood where she starred in a number of television programs including “Evening Shade,” “Family Law” and, of course, “Designing Women.”
I first met Dixie on Nov. 2, 2000. That night I was the producer and moderator for a program titled “Women in Drama,” which was presented in the Leonard Goldenson Theatre at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood. I had invited Dixie and a host of other stars and producers to join me in a discussion of the state of prime-time television. At the time Dixie was co-starring with Kathleen Quinlan in my friend, Paul Haggis’ series “Family Law.”
Quinlan, Haggis, Tyne Daly, Amy Brenneman, Sela Ward, Annie Potts and others comprised the panel, but Dixie was the crowd favorite. And though her fans were legion, Dixie was genuinely unaffected by fame. In fact, she thanked me profusely for including her in an event to celebrate television drama when she had been primarily known for her comedic turns. Dixie regaled us with poignant stories of her childhood, including how she was taught that being allowed to read a book was a privilege and that, even in a man’s world, girls could grow up to be anything they chose. Dixie chose to be an actress, and we’re all the better for it.
On June 3, Rue McClanahan died of a stroke. She was 76. Rue rose to stardom by supporting Bea Arthur in “Maude,” then later co-starred with Arthur and Betty White in the fan favorite “The Golden Girls.” Rue was a funny, feisty gal who pulled no punches. I interviewed her when she was on tour to promote her book, My First Five Husbands. She talked candidly about how she had battled and survived breast cancer. She also offered insightful analysis of why, for the most part, women in Hollywood earn less money than their male counterparts. At one point she observed that both men and women will flock to see a film starring a male lead, but such is not always the case with a female lead. “The women love George Clooney,” she said at one point. “Maybe they won’t if he ever gets married,” I surmised. That’s when Rue unofficially outed Clooney, saying, “He’ll never get married.” “How do you know?” I asked. Said Rue with a wicked laugh, “Because I know George. He’s precious.” So was Rue.
On July 31, the legendary music producer Mitch Miller passed away at the age of 99. He died quietly at Lennox Hill hospital in Manhattan after a short, but undisclosed illness. In the 1950s and ’60s, Miller was head of artists for Columbia Records, nurturing the talents of performers like Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and others, and discovering stars such as Aretha Franklin. His NBC TV series “Sing Along with Mitch” allowed viewers to join in the fun by following an on-screen “bouncing ball,” which let us know what words to sing and when.
I interviewed Miller in Richmond, Va. back in 1979 when he visited my daily talk show. I always featured a variety of topics and guests, and I recall that Mitch hung around for the entire program so that he could participate in a discussion for the segment which followed his. I enjoyed his company that day, and he was all too happy to autograph a 45 rpm record I had of his gang performing “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Miller had a tremendous impact on the music industry, and on me. I’m still whistling that damned “Yellow Rose” song thirty years later.
TV Producer and novelist Stephen Cannell died on Sept. 30 due to complications from melanoma. He was 69. Cannell was one of Hollywood’s most prolific producers of prime-time dramas, including “The A Team,” “The Rockford Files” and “Beretta.” He was always generous with his time whenever I called to get background information for my TV Creators books, and he loved to talk about television. But Stephen stopped producing hour-long dramas when the FCC allowed mega media mergers, condoned network vertical integration, lifted a cap on ownership of broadcast properties and repealed FinSyn. The latter sin, which cleared the way for networks to own and syndicate their own programs, virtually put independent production companies like Cannell’s out of business. That’s when he turned his energies to writing crime novels (16 in all) and doing some occasional acting, including cameos on “Castle,” appearing as himself. Stephen loved the television business but hated the business of television. I know exactly how he felt.
The lovely Barbara Billingsley passed away on Oct. 16 at her home in Santa Monica. She had been in poor health for several years, and died at age 94 of polymyalgia. She is most famous for having played June Cleaver, the compassionate and immaculately dressed mother on “Leave it to Beaver.” But Barbara had been a successful model and actress long before she raised Wally and the Beav. She was blessed with four sons, two in real life, and two on TV. In fact, I observed firsthand that Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow were as close to her as any biological sons could have been.
I had invited Barbara to participate in “A Mother’s Day Salute to TV Moms,” which was to be held at the Academy in May 2008, but she was hospitalized at the last minute and had to drop out of our event. The other TV Moms (Marion Ross, Diahann Carroll, Bonnie Franklin, Meredith Baxter and others) all signed a commemorative poster which Tony delivered to Barbara the next day. My wife Pam and I also visited her at the hospital, and found her to be in great spirits. After that, I made it a point to call Barbara every year on her birthday, and I have continued to stay in touch with Jerry and Tony since her passing. Both guys loved her very much. She was a mom to a lot of us boys growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, and she will be missed.
So will Tom Bosley, star of “Happy Days,” who died just three days after Barbara. Tom had battled lung cancer for awhile, but lost his life from a staph infection. Tom was best known as the patriarch of the Cunningham clan on television, but he was also a highly regarded stage actor, and a Tony Award winner for his portrayal of Fiorello LaGuardia.
Tom was scheduled to participate in my “Father’s Day Salute to TV Dads” event last June, which also featured Dick Van Dyke, Bryan Cranston, Jon Cryer, Michael Gross, Patrick Duffy, Bill Paxton and others. But when I arrived at the Sheraton Universal hotel two days prior, my wife Pam spotted Tom sitting alone in the lobby. “Tom what are you doing here?," I asked. Tom told me he had been filming some pick-up scenes at Universal when his wife Pat became ill, and had to be taken to the hospital. He was about to leave and go join her when we ran into him. He stayed by her side until she recovered, but he missed our event.
Fortunately, I had Marion Ross and Erin Moran join the festivities to honor Tom in absentia. Tom and I continued to correspond via e-mail, but my last message was never returned. That was about the time Tom’s health took a turn for the worse, and he died shortly thereafter. Erin Moran told me that no matter what kind of day Tom was having, he always made a point of asking his young, nervous co-star how she was doing. He made Erin feel comfortable. He made us all feel that way.
They say that celebrity deaths come in threes, and such was the case for a very sad October. Barbara Billingsley had passed away on the 16th , Bosley on the 19th, and two weeks later “Hawaii Five- O” star James MacArthur died. He was 72. I only communicated briefly with James, and that was just a few weeks before his passing. I called him to see if he could help me fill in the blanks about his mom’s support of the arts back in the early 1980s. I needed the information for a book I am writing about famous people I had interviewed, including James’ mother, the legendary stage and film actress Helen Hayes.
In 1996 MacArthur (who his mom called “Jamie”), was cast by none other than Stephen Cannell to reprise his role as Danny Williams in a TV pilot for a new “Hawaii Five-O” series. MacArthur was now governor of the state, but he didn’t have enough clout to order a pick-up, and the pilot never aired. At the very least, CBS should have created some cameos for MacArthur in the new remake, but new is in, and old is out, or so I’m told. MacArthur’s absence from the new series would have served as a proper homage to the old show. Our loss.
Finally, there was the passing of my dad and my English foxhound, Wendall, who died just a few weeks apart this summer. Dad wasn’t a Hollywood celebrity and Wendall never won the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, but they were the most supportive buddies a guy could ever have on two or four legs. I miss them both terribly, and wish they were still around.
Speaking of which, I suppose that one should never wish away time, but I’m sure glad that 2010 is coming to a close. Between the losses we all sustained which could have been prevented, and those that couldn’t, this year really sucked. Still, despite difficult times, we can be thankful for what little bounty we have, and cherish the wonderful memories of people who meant so much to us.
In other words, let’s be positive and optimistic, sort of like those Chilean miners as they waited to be brought up to safety. I know I’m still in a hole, but I can begin to see daylight.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).
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