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Are You Hit Hard by Celebrity Deaths?
Celebrity and nostalgia are powerful forces.
One question I see thrown out on social media from time to time (including just last week) is: What celebrity death hit you the hardest?
Such posts always receive a ton of replies, and I get why. We don’t necessarily have to know people to feel like we know them. Public exposure, and the fame it creates, spawn emotional connections through conduits like art, entertainment, competition, and nostalgia. Though those connections typically run just one way, they can still be pretty powerful… and lasting.
And yet, it’s a tough question for me to answer, because it is different than losing someone you actually know — someone you’ve shared experiences with. I mean, how hard can I possibly be hit by the passing of someone who is, for all intents and purposes, a stranger to me?
In fact, I can’t think of any celebrity whose death has put me through more than one or maybe two of the seven stages of grief… at least as an adult.
I added the “adult” caveat because I do remember, as a kid, being fairly broken up (and even somewhat in denial) over the shocking death of one of my favorite actors at the time. His name was Jon-Erik Hexum, and he starred as kind of a Han Solo type character on a short-lived time-travel/adventure series called “Voyagers!” I was 11 when he died from a gun-related accident on the set of a different series.
As an adult, I was certainly saddened by the untimely passing of John Ritter in 2003. He was one of my comedic heroes through his iconic role as Jack Tripper on Three’s Company. So many classic scenes from that show stick in my mind, from the hammock, to the balcony serenade, to twin brother Austin, to Urban Plowboy (“Thank you, we’re dead,” is probably my favorite Tripper line).
And if you’ve never seen Ritter’s hilarious portrayal of compulsive womanizer Zach Hutton in Blake Edwards’ Skin Deep, make sure you check it out. Ritter’s physical comedy alone is brilliant.
Here’s a taste:
Speaking of heroes, another of mine — this one in the arena of political commentary — was Charles Krauthammer. He was an incredibly intelligent and thoughtful man whose death in 2018 was a bitter pill to swallow. I admired him immensely, and tried never to miss one of his television appearances. I would like to think (and hope) that my political writing over the years has been shaped at least in some small part by his influence. I still think about him, and wonder how he’d weigh in on various acts in today’s political circus. He truly was one of a kind.
I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Krauthammer back in 2017, at what I believe was his last non-televised political forum. It was a true honor.
In some instances, it’s the horrific nature of the death itself that rattles us. This was true of the murder of comedian Phil Hartman by his wife in 1998. It was an unconscionable tragedy that still works its way into my thoughts whenever I see an old SNL skit with Hartman, or his hilarious role in the Christmas time favorite, Jingle All the Way.
The most recent celebrity death of some personal note came just last week with the unfortunate, covid-related passing of my very first childhood crush, Dawn Wells (best known as Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island).
Wells was something to behold, and not just in the beauty department (though she was gorgeous). A lot of her appeal was from the character she famously portrayed, and I’m by no means the only one who feels this way. Lots of guys who grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s (the later decades thanks to syndication) share an affection for Mary Ann. In fact, whenever that age-old question comes up of “Ginger or Mary Ann?” (as depicted in a popular Budweiser commercial when I was in college), the answer is almost always Mary Ann.
That’s not a knock on Tina Louise, who probably ranked higher among an older male demographic. But boys — particularly awkward, insecure kids like me — were firmly on Team Mary Ann. She was sweet, thoughtful, and optimistic… and not at all conceited like her “movie star” roommate. Most notably, she was always nice to, and supportive of, Gilligan (the island’s biggest screw-up). This was true even when Gilligan’s ineptness would reliably cost the castaways their shot at being rescued.
I mean, imagine having a Mary Ann in your life who would look past all of your glaring flaws, always be friendly to you, encourage you to do your best, and even bake you a coconut cream pie when you were feeling down. And if she dressed like this on occasion, hey… that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing either:
In fact, I thought Mary Ann was so universally adored that I assumed, as a child, that the song “Marianne” by The Brothers Four was actually about her. (In my defense, the lyrics do kind of line up.)
I was looking forward to actually meeting Wells a couple of years ago at a ComicCon event in Estes Park, CO. She ended up backing out of the nerd-fest at the last second, which was probably, in retrospect, a good thing for me… since I’m pretty sure whatever I would have said to her would have come out awkward.
Then again, maybe not. I did, after all, end up having a long, surprisingly stimulating conversation that day with this guy from 1981’s The Road Warrior:
But back to the original question. Was I “hit hard” by the passing of Dawn Wells, my first crush? No, not really — certainly not like I’d be if she were someone I’d actually known. Nostalgia and celebrity are powerful forces, but they’re not personal relationships.
My thoughts and prayers, of course, go out to Wells’ family and others who did know her. It’s terrible to lose a loved one, in this case at the hands of a deadly virus that has tragically taken many people across the world before their time (including almost 350,000 Americans).
RIP, Dawn Wells. And a sincere thanks for the memories.
Is there a celebrity death that hit you harder than most? Feel free to send me an email or leave a comment below to tell me about it.
I write an annual, satirical “New Year’s Predictions” piece for Bernie Goldberg’s website. This year’s was published last Saturday, and as always, I had a lot of fun with it. I typically focus on politics and the media. You can check it here, if you’re into that type of thing.
Something a little different from the turntable this week. Though I usually leave used record stores with at least one album in hand, it’s not necessarily always a music album. I also like to check out the comedy section for old stand-up routines from comics who’ve cracked me up over the years.
While it’s interesting to hear some of the things popular comedians were talking about — and making fun of — in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the truth is that some of the material, which was topical at the time, is pretty cryptic and confusing to me so many years later.
One exception is Redd Foxx, who’s best known for his work on the great 1970’s network sitcom, Sanford and Son. Before that, he was a big nightclub act whose sets were so popular in the 50s and 60s that Dootone Records released about 30 of the performances on vinyl.
Though some of Foxx’s material from that era was apparently pretty raunchy, the records I’ve picked up (including 1963’s Funny Stuff) flow in the direction of charming, folksy, and very cool storytelling. Foxx’s comically timeless thoughts on human behavior are a lot of fun to listen to. I’m also a fan of several of the albums’ cover art.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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Take care. And I’ll talk to you soon!