Mourning in America
A raft of 2009 celebrity deaths, including Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze, and Farrah Fawcett, illustrate the business of grieving
Since his death on June 25, Michael Jackson has earned at least $100 million. He’s sold more than 5 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 8.7 million song downloads. Soon he will become the star of what’s sure to be a hit movie — something he was never able to pull off during his lifetime. For a two-week run beginning on Oct. 27, he’ll be appearing in Michael Jackson’s This Is It, a documentary edited from footage shot during rehearsals for the London concerts he was planning before his tragic overdose. There’s even an upcoming memorabilia tour — a museumlike exhibit of his outfits and other possessions — slated to kick off in London on Oct. 28. Strange to say, but Michael Jackson is now the No. 1 artist in the world, despite the fact that he has departed from it.
It’s an uncomfortable but incontestable truth that death can be good for business. Jackson’s passing may have been the most widely felt, but what’s been most shocking is simply how many entertainers the world has lost in just a few months. Last week, Patrick Swayze became the latest 20th-century icon to exit the stage, following Natasha Richardson, Bea Arthur, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Walter Cronkite, and John Hughes, among others. Each death triggered a flood of memories on the part of fans — and, often, a flood of merchandise to capitalize on it. On TV, in bookstores, on the Internet, and, yes, on newsstands, there’s been no escaping the commingling of nostalgia and grief.
Farrah’s Story, the documentary about Fawcett’s long battle with cancer, pulled in more than 9 million viewers when it aired last May, while the actress was on her deathbed. It was such a success — the network’s best Friday night of the year — that it was reaired June 26, the night after Fawcett passed away, drawing another 3.6 million viewers. A sequel is being discussed. Even a struggling cable show like Swayze’s The Beast, hurting for viewers all year, tried to get a bump in the ratings when the star passed away Sept. 14. A&E dedicated a Beast marathon to the actor. ”I think A&E put it on out of respect for all the hard work Patrick did on the show,” says Beast coexecutive producer William Rotko. ”And also because of a renewed interest in Patrick Swayze since he died. But that’s a good thing. Patrick did good work on The Beast. The more people who see that, the better.”
Swayze also has a book coming out Sept. 29. The Time of My Life, which he co-wrote with his wife, Lisa Niemi, is already No. 26 on Amazon. No. 3, as it happens, is the late Ted Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass. And there are more posthumous best-sellers to come. In November, HarperCollins will publish a 1.25-million-copy first printing of Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes, an old manuscript found on one of the superstar author’s hard drives after he died last November. The publishing house also plans to release the half-finished thriller Crichton was working on before his death, just as soon as it can find a ”co-writer” to complete it.