Most celebrities have a very small window of fame - usually a year or two, maybe a decade at most. But however long their shelf life, no matter how old or obscure they become, every former celebrity is guaranteed to make the headlines at least once more after their fifteen minutes of fame are up. When a celebrity dies, you can bet that it's going to be all over the news. The bigger the personality, the more live memorial television specials we're going to get, but even that guy from Fantasy Island stirred up some news with his passing.
"We should stop focusing on them," is the common complaint against this sort of thing. "[Insert celebrity name here] was just a person, not some sort of God." True. But I find something incredibly sad about the fact that every star's long and strange career path must come to an end. Our celebrity culture in America is such a demented circus of gossip and spectacle that it is at once humbling and unnerving to experience such figures meeting their end just the same as everyone else.
Fellow writer Andrew Pankin once commented to me that "celebrity deaths come in threes". This is certainly true for 2009. Below, I have divided the celebrity deaths from last year into such trios. Let's take a moment to reflect on their varied contributions to pop culture, and also to mourn their passing.
THE TRIO OF OLD MEN:
Ed McMahon (March 6, 1923 - June 23, 2009)
The sidekick on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and the host of Star Search, people of my generation perhaps knows McMahon best for his work giving away sweepstakes prizes for Publishers Clearing House during the Super Bowl. He died of complications from a neck injury.
Karl Malden (March 22, 1912 - July 1st, 2009)
Falling into the "I Didn't Know He Was Still Alive" category, Malden graced the silver screen in a series of award-winning roles in the 50s and 60s, including A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and Patton. In later years, he become known for his television endorsements for American Express. He died of natural causes.
Walter Cronkite (November 4, 1916 - July 17, 2009)
Cronkite was anchorman for the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, covering such events as the JFK assassination, the first moon landing, and Watergate. Once voted the "most trusted man in America", Cronkite always ended his broadcasts with the memorable quip, "And that's the way it is." He died of a cerebrovascular disease in July.
THE TRIO OF THOSE WHO DIED TOO SOON:
Farrah Fawcett (February 2, 1947 - June 23, 2009)
Already a star due to her work in Charlie's Angels, everyone really knew the big-haired Fawcett from that iconic poster in which you can kind of make out her nipple. She died of cancer exactly four hours and fifty-eight minutes before Michael Jackson's death, meaning she was cheated out of the media memorials she deserves.
Michael Jackson (August 29, 1958 - June 23, 2009)
He died this year. You might have heard about it. However, manslaughter investigations are currently underway, so anyone who thinks we've heard the last about Jackson is either being incredibly naive or deliberately contentious.
Patrick Swayze (August 18, 1952 - September 14, 2009)
Nominated for Golden Globes and Razzies alike, Swayze's acting career oscillated from iconic roles in Dirty Dancing and Ghost to questionable choices like Road House. (And let's not forget his role as the patriotic high school freedom fighter in Red Dawn!). Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Swayze spent his last few years raising money for medical research before succumbing to the disease this fall.
THE TRIO OF B MOVIE STARS
Bea Arthur (May 13, 1922 - April 25, 2009)
She was my favorite of the Golden Girls, sassy and cynical, and she was also known for portraying Maude, Archie Bunker's liberal cousin and later spinoff. But we at Charge Shot!!! will always remember her for performing with the cantina band in the Star Wars Holiday Special. She died of cancer last spring.
Dom DeLuise (August 1, 1933 - May 4, 2009)
I'm willing to bet that everyone knows this comedic actor, even if no one can quite remember where they've seen him. DeLuise played a large number of "that fat guy" roles, in movies as such as The Cannonball Run and Baby Geniuses, as well as suppplying voice talents to a large number of animated films. He died of cancer complications.
David Carradine (December 8, 1936 - June 3, 2009)
According to Wikipedia, Carradine acted in over 100 films, but we all know him from the 1970s Asian action television show Kung Fu. More recently, he played Bill in the Kill Bill movies. He died of complications stemming from autoerotic asphyxiation while in Thailand, easily giving us the most embarrassing obituary of the year.
THE TRIO OF CELEBRITIES I CAN'T FIND ANOTHER WAY TO CLASSIFY:
John Hughes (February 18, 1950 - August 6, 2009)
"Teen" movies have since become passe, but Hughes almost single-handedly created the genre in the 1980s, with movies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles. He retired from the Hollywood scene to raise his children in peace on his Illinois farm, and died of a heart attack last summer.
Les Paul (June 9, 1915 - August 12, 2009)
Yes, behind the guitars there was a real person. Not only was Paul instrumental in the development of the electric guitar, he was also one of the first to experiment with multitrack recording. He died of pneumonia complications last August.
Brittany Murphy (November 10, 1977 - December 20, 2009)
The youngest celebrity death on our list this year, Murphy was in the middle of a promising acting career when she suddenly died five days before Christmas. Along with roles in movies such as Clueless and 8 Mile, she voiced Luanne in the Fox sitcom King of the Hill. The reason for her death remains unknown, but you can probably bet it wasn't natural causes.
There are other, non-pop-cultural deaths who I don't have time to discuss in detail: the trio of intellectuals (Andrew Wyeth, John Updike, Claude Levi-Strauss), or the trio of political crusaders (Robert McNamara, Ted Kennedy, Oral Roberts). But I do have to mention just one more lone figure...
Socks the Cat (March 1989 - February 20, 2009)
Ok, so this one's not a trio. But everyone of my generation, regardless of political affiliation, should feel a certain sadness at the passing of the fourth Clinton. Socks was the First Pet for years, until the Clintons adopted Buddy the Dog in 1997. The resulting animal conflict was too much, and Socks was given away to secretary Betty Currie to make way for Man's Best Friend. Socks was put to sleep at the age of 19 last February, but he will live on in books like Dear Socks and Socks Goes to Washington.