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Final farewell to some old friends

Jimmy Stewart, Gianni Versace, John Denver, and more were notable deaths from 1997

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Final farewell to some old friends

JAMES STEWART, born 1908

When James Stewart died last summer at 89, we didn’t just lose another legend. We lost the last, and most beloved, of Hollywood’s great leading men.

Virtually alone among his peers in the Pantheon — Gable, Grant, Bogart, Tracy — Stewart found fame not from larger-than-life stature, but from life-size appeal: that aw-shucks awkwardness, that rawboned vulnerability, that all-American innocence. Frank Capra once called Stewart ”the uncommon common man,” and in over 50 years of film roles, that essence never changed. ”People identify with me,” he once allowed, ”but they dream of being John Wayne.” He was right, of course. The proof lay in how we spoke of these two stars. We called Wayne the Duke; we called Stewart Jimmy. In real life, too, he reaffirmed our perception of him, with his small-town Pennsylvania roots, his heroics as a World War II bomber pilot, his 45-year marriage to one and only wife Gloria.

And although his persona grew darker and edgier over the years — as he played bitter cowboys in Anthony Mann Westerns (Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur) and tormented modern heroes in Hitchcock thrillers (Vertigo, Rear Window) — Stewart’s kinder, gentler image endures. That’s partly because of his relatively mellow late performances (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, Airport ’77) and partly because of what we glimpsed of the off-screen Stewart, stammeringly accepting countless career-achievement awards or reading his folksy poetry on The Tonight Show.

But mostly, it’s because of the deep impact he made with those earlier roles: idealistic congressman Jefferson Smith, refusing to cave in to Capitol Hill cynicism and corruption (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939); addled Elwood P. Dowd, having drinks with his best friend, an invisible rabbit (Harvey, 1950); George Bailey, gratefully gathering family and friends in front of the Christmas tree (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946).

It’s a little hard to watch It’s a Wonderful Life this year. That sentimental happy ending suddenly feels bittersweet. But we’ll watch again next year, and all the years after that, giving thanks for Jimmy Stewart’s eternal celluloid image, and for the illusion that our screen idols never really leave us.

ROBERT MITCHUM, born 1917

He got to play more bad guys than most movie stars, and that was no small part of his mystique. With his rugged sensuality, heavy-lidded gaze, and baby-I-don’t-care cool, Robert Mitchum, who died July 1 at 79, could be just as convincing on either side of the law. Yet his true gift was the way he handled the murkier moral middle ground, playing cynics and rebels with nonchalant disdain: from the P.I. who goes south in Out of the Past (1947) to the moonshiner antihero of Thunder Road (1958). But good, bad, or in between, all the characters seemed to come easily to Mitchum. That too was part of the mystique. Along with his hard-living, hell-raising reputation (only burnished by a 1948 marijuana bust), his natural ease helped blur the distinction between the on-screen and offscreen Mitchum. Apparently unimpressed by success — he often dismissed his film career with a flip ”It sure beats working” — Mitchum sauntered through four decades of leading-man roles, as if getting by on sheer presence.

Yet no less an expert than Charles Laughton, who directed him in The Night of the Hunter (1955), called Mitchum ”one of the best actors in the world.” Then again, Laughton got one of Mitchum’s great performances. As a homicidal preacher, his eyes glinting with intent to kill, Mitchum evoked more terror singing his eerie hymns than most movie slashers muster swinging a machete.

In fact, Mitchum was so good at being bad that when he played a nice guy, such as the schoolmaster in Ryan’s Daughter (1970), it seemed a waste. It was the surly, sloe-eyed, smoldering edge that made Mitchum such a singular hero — and such a memorable villain.

GIANNI VERSACE, born 1946

Fashion designers have always clamored to dress stars already known for their elegance. Gianni Versace was braver; he was the first to embrace a different breed of celebrity, rock & roll royalty, a bold species that shared his disdain for carefully considered taste. His brash creations — first seen in his 1978 show in Milan — made fans of Sting, Prince, Elton John, Madonna, George Michael, and Courtney Love. Versace was even a starmaker. When Elizabeth Hurley wore his revealing black dress, held together with safety pins, to the London premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral, she garnered more attention than her boyfriend, the film’s star Hugh Grant.

Of course, Versace not only dressed his star clients but befriended them, inviting them to his palazzi in Italy, New York, and Miami, and throwing glittering parties. Sure, celebrity connections helped to hype his clothes, but Versace sincerely seemed to enjoy the company.

Beyond the glare of his famous friendships, however, lies a sure legacy. Versace was a true innovator. He turned punk and S&M into haute couture; his magical molding of tough chain metal into slinky dresses has never been paralleled. Though a fame-starved serial murderer gunned the 50-year-old Versace down July 15 outside his Miami home, he remains front and center as one of the most joyous and gifted designers the world has ever known.
— Degen Pener

JOHN DENVER, born 1943

For a short, intense period, we sort of needed John Denver. In the ’70s, the former Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. sang of mountain ranges, country roads, and the power of sunshine. It was corny, old-fashioned Americana, but it worked: Denver’s sunny demeanor, clear-as-a-stream tenor, and folksy hits (which included ”Annie’s Song” and ”Sunshine on My Shoulders”) made him a calming influence during the post-’60s comedown. Denver soon was ubiquitous on radio and TV and in the movies (1977’s Oh, God!). After his moment passed — a combination of changing tastes, a drop in the quality of his records, and the removal of his granny glasses, which left him with a harder, sterner look — Denver made news only for his two drunk-driving arrests. His legacy, though, isn’t simply the rugged opening chords to ”Rocky Mountain High” but his devotion to environmental causes. The 53-year-old singer’s single-engine plane crashed into California’s Monterey Bay early this fall for reasons that are still unknown; if the cause proves to have been bad weather (and not low fuel, another possible problem), it would be the only time nature failed him.
— David Browne

BRANDON TARTIKOFF, born 1949

Brandon Tartikoff loved TV, and it showed. As NBC’s visionary chief in the ’80s, Tartikoff took immense risks to pull the cellar-dwelling Peacock into first place, programming everything from no-brainers (ALF, The A-Team) to groundbreaking dramas (Hill Street Blues). Even when he was under attack from Hodgkin’s disease, which eventually took his life at 48, Tartikoff let literally nothing stall his crusade for new ideas. As he wrote in his memoir, 1992’s The Last Great Ride: ”I vomited frequently and felt sluggish all the time, but I never missed a day’s work.” In 1991, Tartikoff left NBC to be head of Paramount Pictures, where he greenlighted the TV-derived hit Wayne’s World. Though his illness sidelined him again, Tartikoff formed a TV production company last year and even started to bring his innovations to the Internet, helping to create America Online’s Entertainment Asylum. In a world of copycats, Tartikoff’s new ideas will be sorely missed.
— Kristen Baldwin

JAMES MICHENER, born 1907

”A storyteller,” figured James Michener, ”is somebody who’s going somewhere.” And, boy, did he go places. The tireless workhorse of the historical epic, Michener spent most of his 90 years galloping the globe, personally conducting the legwork for his 40-odd books. Many were exhaustively detailed 1,000-page sagas with names like Poland, Hawaii, and Space, and together they amassed over 75 million copies in print. Yet the author and philanthropist — who died of kidney failure Oct. 16 after wearily choosing to end four years of dialysis — was probably best loved for his first novel, Tales of the South Pacific, which won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize but didn’t become a best-seller until Rodgers and Hammerstein set it to music. No screen version of Michener’s work would ever equal South Pacific‘s success, but his material’s panoramic sweep would prove ideal TV-miniseries fodder (ABC’s 1995 Texas). Some critics scoffed that his volumes were about only that — volume. But the nomadic author took the carping in stride and never strayed far from his readers’ hearts.
— Alexandra Jacobs

LAURA NYRO, born 1948

Maybe Laura Nyro never had a hit record, but everyone else who sang her songs seemed to shoot to the top of the charts. From Barbra Streisand (”Stoney End, ” No. 6 in 1971) to Three Dog Night (”Eli’s Coming,” No. 10 in 1969) to the Fifth Dimension (”Stoned Soul Picnic,” No. 3 in 1968), her peers knew what too few record buyers realized: This girl — who sold her first ballad at 17 — was a brilliant songwriter. She was a pretty damn good singer, too.

Her music was an innovative concoction of soul, jazz, folk, blues, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley. No wonder it appealed to such diverse performers. Yet nobody did it like Nyro: keening through moods and octaves, hitting gospel heights, always swooping back down to that warm, caressing croon. It wasn’t just that she had great pipes; she also had great passion, infusing her confessional lyrics with deep emotion.

Feeling ”like a commodity,” Nyro walked away from the business in 1972, and in the last 25 years of her life, she made music all too infrequently. But when she died April 8 from ovarian cancer, at 49, the artist who eschewed the limelight left a bright afterglow.
—MS

CHARLES KURALT, born 1934

Unlike your average TV journalist, Charles Kuralt had no use for a blow-dryer. His baldness, his rumpled appearance, his casual mien — he used his 13 Emmys as hat racks — made him One of Us. And it was us he took for his subject matter, logging over a million miles On the Road to celebrate commonplace America. Kuralt, who was 62 when he died July 4 of lupus-related complications, knew how to stop and sniff the cornflowers — not to mention how to meet the gas-station poets, the singing mailmen, and the water-ballet-performing pig. For 15 years, his cozy, Pall Mall-thickened voice chronicled art and nature on CBS News Sunday Morning. And he displayed his old-school newsman’s writing flair in best-sellers On the Road With Charles Kuralt (1985) and A Life on the Road (1990). ”You can close your eyes and stick a pin on the map of the world and find interesting stories,” said Kuralt. Under that shiny pate, of course, his eyes were wide open.
— AJ

WILLIAM BURROUGHS, born 1914

If ”creativity comes from a series of shocks,” as William S. Burroughs once said, then the Beats’ elder statesman had creativity down. The pistol-packing author, who was 83 when he died of a heart attack Aug. 2, spent much of his career hooked on heroin. In 1951, he accidentally killed common-law wife Joan while trying to shoot a whiskey glass off her head William Tell-style (he served 13 days in a Mexican jail). Most notable among his works was 1959’s Naked Lunch, a collection of stream-of-consciousness dispatches from deep within his drug-addicted brain, and the source for some choice phrases in musical history (”heavy metal,” ”Steely Dan”). With his ”cutup” technique of randomly juxtaposing texts, Burroughs acted as informal muse to the avant-garde, from rockers David Bowie and Patti Smith to filmmaker Gus Van Sant — in whose 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy he played an unrepentant junkie. And who could have predicted that this antiestablishment bad boy would appear in…a 1994 Nike ad? Shocking.
— AJ

BIGGIE SMALLS, born 1972

Brooklyn-born ex-crack dealer Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.) rose to prominence by rapping about what he knew best: drugs, crime, and violence, which he detailed with unflinching bluntness (”[I’m] a big bad motherf—er on the wrong road,” he asserted on 1994’s Ready to Die). The 300-pound, 24-year-old rapper was already a commercial behemoth when he was killed in a still-unsolved March 9 drive-by shooting in L.A. Yet even in death, B.I.G.’s voluminous shadow looms: His second album, Life After Death, went multi-platinum, while ”I’ll Be Missing You” — Puff Daddy and Faith Evans’ musical tribute — spent months in heavy MTV rotation. With another posthumous album on the way, B.I.G. is likely to keep living large on the charts.
—Tom Sinclair

MICHAEL HUTCHENCE, born 1960

Video may have killed the radio star, but it worked wonders for INXS frontman Michael Hutchence. In the ’80s, the Australian band brought outback rock to the world, thanks to its proficient white-boy funk and Hutchence’s bacchanalian swagger and unruly mane. Unlike many of his peers, Hutchence took instantly to the new form called music video, leaping into it (and the patented rock-star high life) with a roguish zest. The ’90s, though, were far rockier. INXS’ record sales fell way off; they were mocked by a new generation of musicians (members of Oasis publicly derided them as has-beens); and Hutchence’s relationship with Paula Yates, former wife of Bob Geldof, landed him in a vicious real-life soap. The latter problem may have been a factor in the 37-year-old singer’s apparent suicide, by hanging, in a Sydney hotel room Nov. 22. In one of those dark ironies that seem to occur only in pop, Hutchence was supposed to have been at a recording studio to promote a series of 20th-anniversary INXS concerts — a tour with the now-mordant title Lose Your Head.
—DB

RED SKELTON, born 1913

He couldn’t help but be a funnyman — it was the family business. The son of circus clown Joseph Skelton, Red knew from the time he was doing pratfalls as a tot in a traveling medicine show that all he wanted to do was ”sing, dance, and above all, make people laugh.” Throughout his six decades in vaudeville, movies, radio, and TV, Skelton’s comedy was peopled with characters like seedy Freddie the Freeloader and yokel Clem Kadiddlehopper. All along, Skelton’s style remained wholesome — even when it cost him. In 1970, his unhip insistence on clean slapstick comedy led CBS to cancel his 17-year-old The Red Skelton Show. (The clown got the last laugh, though: In 1989, Skelton was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.) Well into his 70s, the comedian continued to take his show on the road for a series of personal appearances. He was 84 when failing health forced his final exit Sept. 17. Good night, Red, and God bless.
— KB

JEFF BUCKLEY, born 1966

When Jeff Buckley waded into a Memphis harbor and accidentally drowned May 29, the world lost more than a 30-year-old rocker with killer cheekbones. It lost a virtuoso guitarist, a songwriter whose soul-searching hymns suggested a budding Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell, and, most of all, a singer capable of angelic delicacy and demonic fire. It was Buckley’s heart-stopping tenor that rose above the din of New York City folk clubs in the early ’90s, when he landed a deal with Columbia Records. Like his father — folksinger Tim Buckley, who had died of a 1975 drug overdose at 28 — Jeff Buckley sang like a hopeless romantic. Mysterious and brave, his music is best described by the 1994 title of his only full-length album: Grace.
— Jeff Gordinier

Other Noted Passings

12/9/96 Patty Donahue, 40, lead singer of the Waitresses
12/21/96 Margret E. Rey, 90, writer, cocreator of Curious George
12/30/96 Jack Nance, 53, actor (Eraserhead)
12/30/96 Keith Anthony Walker, 61, screenwriter (Free Willy)
1/1 Townes Van Zandt, 52, folk-country singer-songwriter
1/5 Burton Lane, 84, composer (Finian’s Rainbow score)
1/6 Catherine Scorsese, 84, occasional actress, Martin’s mother
1/8 Jesse White, 79, actor (the Maytag repairman)
1/10 Sheldon Leonard, 89, actor, TV producer (The Andy Griffith Show)
1/17 Nirvana, 3, Siegfried and Roy’s white tiger
1/19 Adriana Caselotti, 80, actress, voice of Disney’s Snow White
1/19 James Dickey, 73, poet, author (Deliverance)
1/21 Col. Tom Parker, 87, Elvis’ longtime manager
1/21 Irwin Levine, 58, songwriter (”Tie a Yellow Ribbon…”)
1/23 Richard Berry, 61, songwriter (”Louie, Louie”)
1/25 Jeanne Dixon, 79, renowned astrologist
1/27 Michael Braun, 60, film and stage producer
2/1 Herb Caen, 80, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist
2/1 Marjorie Reynolds, 79, actress (The Life of Riley)
2/2 Sanford Meisner, 91, seminal acting instructor
2/8 Robert Ridgely, 65, actor (Philadelphia)
2/10 Brian Connolly, 52, glam-rocker (with Sweet)
2/11 Don Porter, 84, actor (Gidget’s father)
2/19 Frank Delfino, 86, actor (McDonald’s ”Hamburglar”)
2/22 Robert Sarnoff, 78, NBC president, TV pioneer
2/26 David Doyle, 67, actor (Bosley on Charlie’s Angels)
2/26 Larry Stewart, 66, TV director (Fantasy Island)
3/7 Frank Pacelli, 72, director (The Young and the Restless)
3/8 Alexander Salkind, 75, film producer (Superman)
3/10 LaVern Baker, 67, legendary R&B belter
3/13 Robert Saudek, 85, TV producer (Omnibus)
3/14 Fred Zinnemann, 89, director (High Noon, The Day of the Jackal)
3/15 Gail Davis, 71, actress (Annie Oakley)
3/20 V.S. Pritchett, 96, critic, author of 40-plus books
3/21 Wilbert Awdry, 85, author (Thomas the Tank Engine)
3/21 Fred Spielman, 90, songwriter (over 900 titles)
3/24 Martin Caidin, 69, sci-fi novelist (Cyborg)
3/24 Harold Melvin, 57, singer (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes)
3/30 Jon Stone, 65, Emmy-winning writer-producer
4/2 Tomoyuki Tanaka, 86, Japanese producer, Godzilla creator
4/5 Allen Ginsberg, 70, Beat founder and poet (Howl)
4/8 Mae Boren Axton, 82, singer, songwriter (”Heartbreak Hotel”)
4/11 Michael Dorris, 52, author (The Broken Cord)
4/15 Donald Bexley, 87, actor (Sanford and Son)
4/20 Jean Louis, 89, Oscar-winning costume designer
4/24 Pat Paulsen, 69, political satirist, presidential candidate
4/25 Nancy Claster, 82, Romper Room cocreator
5/1 Bo Widerberg, 66, film director (Elvira Madigan)
5/2 Eugene Vale, 81, screenwriter, author, playwright (The Dark Wave)
5/4 Alvy Moore, 75, actor (Hank on Green Acres)
5/5 Walter Gotell, 72, actor (Alexis Gogol in Bond films)
5/11 Howard Morton, 71, actor (Gimme a Break!)
5/14 Harry Blackstone Jr., 62, magician and illusionist
5/24 Edward Mulhare, 74, actor (Knight Rider)
5/28 Sydney Guilaroff, 89, Hollywood hairdresser (for Marilyn Monroe and others)
5/29 George Fenneman, 77, TV announcer (You Bet Your Life)
6/2 Doc Cheatham, 91, jazz trumpeter
6/3 Dennis James, 79, TV emcee (The New Price Is Right)
6/4 Ronnie Lane, 51, rock bassist, cofounder of Small Faces
6/5 J. Anthony Lukas, 64, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, author (Common Ground)
6/14 Richard Jaeckel, 70, actor (The Dirty Dozen)
6/20 Lawrence Payton, 59, singer (the Four Tops)
6/23 Rosina Lawrence, 84, actress (Miss Lawrence in Our Gang)
6/24 Brian Keith, 75, actor (Family Affair, Hardcastle & McCormick)
6/29 William Hickey, 69, actor (Prizzi’s Honor), drama teacher
7/6 Dorothy Chandler, 96, philanthropist and Oscar-pavilion namesake
7/8 Max E. Youngstein, 84, former United Artists cochair; film producer
7/14 J. David Jones, 61, aerial-stunt coordinator (Apocalypse Now)
7/16 William Reynolds, 87, film editor (The Sound of Music)
7/20 Linda Stirling, 75, actress (Zorro’s Black Whip)
7/31 Edith Fore, 81, commercial actress (”I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up”)
8/2 Fela Anikulapo Kuti, 58, Nigerian Afrobeat superstar
8/15 Ray Heatherton, 88, actor, singer; father of Joey
8/16 Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, 48, Pakistani religious singer
8/19 Robert ”Jeep” Swenson, 40, wrestler, actor (Batman & Robin)
8/20 Leo Jaffe, 88, former Columbia Pictures president
8/27 Sally Blane, 87, actress (The Silver Streak)
9/2 Sir Rudolf Bing, 95, Metropolitan Opera general manager
9/5 Georg Solti, 84, Grammy-winning classical conductor
9/7 Derek Taylor, 65, author, Apple Records publicist
9/10 Burgess Meredith, 88, actor (the Rocky films, TV’s Batman)
9/10 George Schaefer, 76, former Directors Guild president
9/12 Stikkan ”Stig” Anderson, 66, manager of ABBA, rock promoter
9/13 Georges Guetary, 82, singer, actor (An American in Paris)
9/18 Jimmy Witherspoon, 74, blues eminence
9/19 Rich Mullins, 41, contemporary Christian singer
9/20 Nicholas Traina, 19, punk singer (Knowledge)
9/23 Shirley Clarke, 77, early indie filmmaker
9/26 Dorothy Kingsley, 87, screenwriter (Pal Joey)
9/29 Roy Lichtenstein, 73, Pop-art pioneer
10/3 John Ashley, 62, actor, producer (The A-Team)
10/3 Millard Lampell, 78, screen and TV writer (Rich Man, Poor Man)
10/6 Robert H. O’Brien, 93, former MGM president
10/13 Joyce Compton, 90, actress (more than 200 films)
10/14 Harold Robbins, 81, author (The Carpetbaggers)
10/14 Hy Averback, 76, actor, TV director and producer (M*A*S*H)
10/16 Adam Kennedy, 75, novelist and actor (Gunsmoke)
10/16 Audra Lindley, 79, actress (Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company)
10/18 Nancy Dickerson, 70, CBS’ first female TV reporter
10/23 Luther Simjian, 92, inventor (TelePrompTer)
10/25 George Vicas, 71, documentary film producer
10/28 Paul Jarrico, 82, screenwriter, producer (Salt of the Earth)
11/3 Wally Bruner, 66, TV personality and ABC news correspondent
11/4 H. Richard Hornberger, 73, author (M*A*S*H)
11/5 Louise Campbell, 86, actress (The Buccaneer)
11/11 William Alland, 81, producer and actor (Citizen Kane)
11/15 Saul Chaplin, 85, Oscar-winning film composer (West Side Story)
11/16 George O. Petrie, 85, radio, film, and TV actor (Mad About You)
11/20 Robert Palmer, 52, rock critic and musician
11/23 Robert Lewis, 88, acting coach
11/24 DeVallon Scott, 87, screen and TV writer
11/25 Charles Hallahan, 54, stage and TV actor (Hunter)
12/1 Stephane Grappelli, 89, jazz violinist, composer
12/2 Michael Hedges, 43, New Age/ folk guitarist, composer

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