Late Greats: Tributes to stars we lost in 2020
In a year devastated by a global pandemic, every death felt a little heavier. And while we may not have personally known the many stars we lost, we did know them — for the words they wrote, the songs they sang, the characters they inhabited. Entertaining us, challenging us, and moving us with their art, their talents, and their stories, all of these luminaries left an indelible mark on pop culture. Here, their costars, collaborators, and celebrity fans pay tribute.
Alex Trebek (1940–2020)
Alex and I first met when we were in our 20s at NBC Studios in Burbank, and I was immediately struck by his demeanor. He had a quiet grace and didn’t play the part of a star.
I’m not a game-show authority, but over the years, when I came across Alex, I’d always pause to watch. He was pitch-perfect as a host. In charge but not overbearing, elegant but not flamboyant. The contestants’ friend in the same way your favorite English teacher would be.
As a cancer patient myself, I so admired his matter-of-fact fashion of dealing with his much more serious diagnosis while continuing to work. Like everyone who watched his graceful exit, I thought, “Please, God, let me be as brave and humble.” —Tom Brokaw
Alex Trebek died Nov. 8 after a battle with pancreatic cancer at age 80.
Conchatta Ferrell (1943–2020)
I was always amazed to see how easily Conchata Ferrell inhabited Berta — Charlie’s gruff, sardonic housekeeper, on Two and a Half Men, the show she and I both appeared on for over a decade of our lives. In real life, Chatti (as she was known) was nothing like Berta. But she was a great actor, and a true artist, and chameleonic in her work; she made that character, and so many others (in Heartland, Hot L Baltimore, Mystic Pizza, Erin Brockovich, L.A. Law), come so fully to life.
As a friend and colleague, she was kind, exceptionally generous, and incredibly insightful. She had a way of giving you a compliment that — every time — would bolster the exact thing in you that was feeling vulnerable that day; it was like a little superpower she had.
The environment we were working in was not always easy, but Chatti was nothing but grateful every single day. Grateful to be working, and grateful to be able to shop a little bit, because she did like to shop.
Chatti was so full of life, so full of love. Her laugh was tremendous; it filled the room in a way that was almost orchestral. She loved her gorgeous daughter, Samantha, and her sweet husband, Arnie, ferociously, and they loved her back. Arnie sat in the audience for over 200 tapings of Two And A Half Men — he missed only one of Chatti’s episodes in 12 years.
On her Zoom memorial after she passed, which was organized by Samantha, people gathered from every part of her life — cousins from West Virginia, friends from her days in Circle Rep, recent colleagues, and many, many, friends of Sam’s. Everyone had a story about her generosity, from the single mom who said Chatti would quietly ensure that she and her daughter always had whatever they needed, to our script supervisor Marilyn, who Chatti surprised with amazing tickets to see Barbra Streisand at the Hollywood Bowl. We shared stories for hours, and laughed and cried together, and it was incredible to see how much joy she brought people even after she was gone.
Chatti, you were cherished. We will miss you so much. —Melanie Lynskey
Conchata Ferrell died Oct. 12 of cardiac arrest at age 77.
Little Richard (1932–2020)
We were new friends [after recording a duet of Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else”] and I would go see him every now and then in the lobby of the Hilton in downtown Nashville where he had a piano, and we’d sing some songs and had a great time. I really enjoyed the time we performed together on [the CMA Awards] — there was Little Richard in a bright red jacket and I was in a leather miniskirt, and the one thing I really wanted to do was jump up on the piano. Me and Little Richard, rocking the stage...I would love to do it over again.
He was a gentle soul, and more intelligent than people gave him credit for. He was definitely put on this earth to do what he did, and he changed music. There's nobody like Little Richard. I was a big fan and blessed to have him in my life. I'm a better person for having known him. —Tanya Tucker (as told to Gerrad Hall)
Little Richard died May 9 after a short illness at age 87.
Sean Connery (1930–2020)
With his interpretation of [James] Bond, Sean Connery came out with this essence of manhood that every man has tried to copy since. I watched a lot of his classic Bonds before [directing] No Time to Die. It’s interesting because we live in a very different era now, and the things that he was doing and getting away with aren’t necessarily acceptable, but in the time he was the epitome of what’s considered to be cool and attractive.
I came up in a generation after Sean Connery was Bond. I was actually introduced to him more as an actor in Highlander and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The best actors play roles in a way that you feel you know them, like they’re family. With the most incredible stars, you have this quality that makes them feel so familiar and so likable and approachable. Even in The Hunt for Red October he turns what is supposed to be our mortal enemy at that time into someone who we want to survive and win.
I wouldn’t say I got to meet him, but I briefly shook his hand at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2009. He’s a legend. What do you say anyway? —Cary Joji Fukunaga (as told to Clark Collis)
Sean Connery died Oct. 31 in his sleep at age 90.
Naya Rivera (1987–2020)
I was nearing 29 years old when Glee debuted. Not quite the target audience for a musical comedy about a high school show choir. And yet each week I’d tune in live to hear the cast belt out some of my favorite pop tracks.
Glee was deceptive, centering characters who often aren’t centered (BIPOC, LGBTQ+, differently-abled) without pandering to the audience. Naya Rivera’s Santana Lopez started out as an antagonist. Mean, messy, complicated. All the things Latinx women often don’t get to be in prime-time television because they’re too often too loud, too sexy, too fiery. But Naya shattered the tropes and gifted the audience with a complex, queer, Black Puerto Rican woman. Naya imbued Santana with equal parts resolve and vulnerability, and she quickly became a hero herself when Santana disclosed she was a lesbian. Naya served as a vessel for truth and by doing so brilliantly cracked the lid wide open on the possibilities of what Afro-Latinx representation could look like on TV.
Like Santana, Naya didn’t ask for permission. An important lesson to all the GLEEKS (even 29-year-old ones), regardless of race, class, gender identity and expression, or sexual orientation. She quietly inspired all of us Afro-Latinx storytellers to craft characters that center our identities authentically and unapologetically. What a gift. One I hope to continue paying forward. Thank you, Naya. What a gift you were. What a gift you continue to be. —Steven Canals
Naya Rivera died July 8 of accidental drowning at age 33.
Jerry Stiller (1927–2020)
He had a bar set up outside his dressing room. After every show, he would sit and talk to the whole crew, ‘cause everybody just loved Jerry. If [the crew] had family in town, they’d say, “Oh Jerry, would you talk to my cousin?” or whatever. And he'd sit there and talk to them for an hour. He would tell stories about the business, or about him and [his wife] Anne Meara, and there he is with a cocktail with ice swirling around. He just reminded me of old Hollywood. Sometimes Anne would come to set, and the two of them together — I mean, I almost felt like I should have paid for this because it was like watching their comedy routine. Jerry would start to tell a story, and Anne would be like, “Jerry, Jerry, be quiet. That's not what happened, Jerry.” And he’d say, “Yes, Anne, please just tell the story. Anne Meara, everybody.”
Jerry was so consumed with not messing up in front of the audience that he would stay after work and go to each set and run his lines with his assistant, because he was petrified that he would slow things down on show night. Jerry cared about the art, and respecting your other actors and the audience. He would scare the crap out of me all the time, because most people go into their dressing room and wait [until it’s time to shoot] their scene. You know how sets are built: You go through a door and then you're just backstage. There's nothing there. I came out through the door once [during a scene], and Jerry was sitting there, waiting for his cue. So I fall over him — cause he's sitting in a chair, it's dark back there — and he's like, “Honey! Honey! It’s me! It’s Jerry!” He just wanted to be there, so nobody had to go and get him, which I just thought was so cute. —Leah Remini (as told to Kristen Baldwin)
Jerry Stiller died May 11 of natural causes at age 92.
Kirk Douglas (1916–2020)
I worked with him on an episode of Tales from the Crypt [also starring Douglas’ real-life son Eric]. He was one of the most professional, intense, hardworking actors I’ve ever worked with. It was an homage to Paths of Glory and Stanley Kubrick, and you can’t do a World War I trench story and not think about Kirk Douglas. He’s got real screen presence, and he’s extremely intelligent. You put that combination together, and you get an actor who makes the right decisions.
Kirk was the first and only actor I’ve ever worked with who would not step on the set to get a cup of coffee unless he was camera-ready. He would not even get breakfast until he was ready to be put in front of the camera. That’s my favorite memory: He was in wardrobe and makeup, and then he’d come in to get a cup of coffee — just in case we needed him. I was grateful to experience that with such a great, iconic actor. —Robert Zemeckis (as told to Devan Coggan)
Kirk Douglas died Feb. 5 in his home at age 103.
Eddie Van Halen (1955–2020)
I never met him. I’m simply one of the millions of human beings, musicians and nonmusicians, that Eddie spoke to when he played. Actually, it was more like being put under a spell. His musicality would stop me in my tracks like hypnosis — not just his guitar playing, either. How about that synth intro to the classic "Jump"?! (Yep, that’s Eddie.)
The history of great guitar players is rich and densely packed with all kinds of innovators. But the fusion that Eddie created was what set him apart from all the rest. His mind-blowing finger-tapping style, his tone, his rhythmic pocket, his dynamics, his humor, swagger, and sexy cockstrut all effortlessly flowed... It rolled into our eyes, ears, hearts, and souls.
His face joined the Mount Rushmore of Pioneer Guitar Players alongside Robert Johnson, Charlie Christian, Jimi Hendrix, Les Paul, and only a handful of others. Guitar players who brought unexpected influences to six strings. In Eddie’s case, it was classical. Mozart.
To bring that melodic complexity to the instrument was extraordinary, but to make it relatable and accessible to mainstream ears all over the world for decades was, well…genius. —Keith Urban
Eddie Van Halen died Oct. 6 after a yearslong battle with cancer at age 65.
Bill Withers (1938–2020)
The first song I knew of Bill’s was “Lean on Me.” It’s such a simple, beautiful sentiment. So many of his songs had that: great storytelling, a wealth of humanity. He represented the perspective of a true working man. As I got older I was able to dig into more of his catalog, and he had such a range. Then the Roots and I released our own version of “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” It became our favorite song to play from that album. Bill discovered our version and reached out to me. It was one of the most exciting emails I’ve ever gotten. He told me we were doing him proud and he thought our version of the song was beautiful. What I loved about the song was how plainspoken it was. But that was his whole MO as a songwriter, to tell a story in a matter-of fact way but still be poetic. He wrote with such authenticity, honesty, and connection. He’ll always stand out. —John Legend
Bill Withers died March 30 of heart complications at age 81.
John Prine (1946–2020)
John had me at “Hello in There.” It still staggers me. My favorite songwriters (Randy Newman, Shel Silverstein, Loudon Wainwright III, various Beatles) can make me laugh or cry. John was funny enough to be classified a humorist, but he could straight-up break your heart, too. “Sam Stone” followed by “Christmas in Prison,” right?
My one interaction with John, whom I never met, was like this: I tweeted something about happily imagining the hereafter as being much like John Prine’s version of "When I Get to Heaven" (“Kiss that pretty girl on the Tilt-A-Whirl”). John tweeted back: “See ya there!” —Michael McKean
John Prine died April 7 of COVID-19 complications at age 73.
Fred Willard (1933–2020)
What struck me most when I first met Fred at a table read for Back to You was how quiet he was. He seemed to be such a straightforward, Midwestern guy. But when he was performing, there would be these explosions of comedy that totally belied his perfectly parted hair and straight-down-the-middle demeanor.
The comedy came in such a vanilla package, it would slap you in the face — he’d just sneak-attack and knock me over with some hilarious, completely unexpected idea. I learned a ton from him: Go into every scene as prepared as possible, but be prepared with other jokes that might take the scene in a different direction. His ability to be earnest and oblivious but so on his toes and not come across as dumb — it almost defies gravity. That was a miracle to watch. I love him, and I miss him. —Ty Burrell (as told to Dan Snierson)
Fred Willard died May 15 of cardiac arrest at age 86.
Olivia de Havilland (1916–2020)
I met her socially in Paris first. She was just lovely and stylish and Parisian. Then when I did The Woman He Loved, she played my aunt. [It was] the last thing she did. She’d remembered meeting me in France [before], and we got along famously. I kept pinching myself, saying, “I’m actually working with Olivia de Havilland.” When I was growing up, [Gone With the Wind] was one of my favorite movies ever. She was always spot-on, an amazing pro, very down to earth and easy to work with. I remember her being wry and humorous, and it comes across in the way she played the character.
She was obviously very comfortable in her own skin and still enjoyed acting. She carried herself with such dignity. [She was] one of the all-time great leading ladies of cinema, and here she was working on an American-British television program about Wallis Simpson. You felt at the end of the time you worked with her, you’d worked with one of the greats. —Jane Seymour (as told to Maureen Lee Lenker
Olivia de Havilland died July 26 of natural causes at age 104.
Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020)
Every single time he stepped onto the screen, he gave us a mirror that showed us the beauty of us as a people, as a culture. We’re so often limited to stereotypes, and Chadwick instead showed us just how beautiful we truly are. It felt like every single role he did was with a love for us.
It’s weird to talk about him now in the past tense. I’m still stunned. I know of kids personally who mourned him, and held little memorials for Black Panther in their bedrooms. It shows the impact he had through that one character alone. And I think I’m hurt more because we’re not going to get any more of that. The hardest part of his death is we’re not going to get any more Chadwick Boseman films. We’re not going to get to see him craft these love letters to us on screen. It’s truly one of the most devastating losses of this year.
I hope he’s remembered for more than Black Panther, because it would be unfair to limit him to that role.
I hope he’s remembered for his passion and dedication.
I hope the grace that he walked with finds its way to all of us in some form or another. I hope he’s remembered for the gift that he was. —Angie Thomas (as told to James Hibberd)
Boseman died Aug. 28 of colon cancer at age 43. You can read Thomas' full tribute to him here.