Late Greats: Stars Pay Tribute To Those We Lost in 2016
Joanna Kerns on Alan Thicke
"I met Alan for the first time as we walked down the long hallway at ABC to audition for Growing Pains. We were in similar places. My first marriage was falling apart, and he was in the middle of a divorce. We both had young kids, both had recently canceled shows, so we needed this one to work. We talked as we walked. He made me laugh. A little flirting was going on, as it always was with Alan... with everybody!
Alan was my biggest supporter, and we truly loved and trusted each other. When I wanted to move from acting to directing, I asked his advice because he was a major writer-producer, the Emmy-nominated star of a Canadian talk show. And without a second thought, he said, 'Well, you're old... but you'd make a great director. You're opinionated, stubborn, strong, and you love telling everyone what to do.' Then he smiled. That was Alan. He was snarky but direct. Outside of my husband, he was probably the most supportive guy I've ever known. He knew so many people and touched so many lives. You know the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? With Alan, it was actually three. Maybe two.
Alan had this way about him. He was handsome, cocky, and fiercely intelligent, but he was no saint. That was what made him so much fun. He lived to connect with people, and even more important, he loved to make them laugh. He was happiest when he could perform. It's very hard to have a self-deprecating humor about the silliness in yourself, but he could do it better than anybody. He was oddly humble because he did not really consider himself a great actor. He often said, 'I'm a master of B talent. I can do a little bit of everything.' It didn't matter where: cruise ships, shopping malls, used-car lots. If you wanted an emcee, no one was better or worked harder at making the event fun. I admired him for that.
Growing Pains was a gift. It lifted us both out of insecurity and changed my life forever. Best of all, it introduced me to Alan. He was my mentor and friend, and I loved him."
Thicke and Kerns played husband and wife for seven seasons of Growing Pains. Thicke died in Burbank on Dec. 13 at the age of 69.
As told to Dan Snierson.
Henry Winkler on Garry Marshall
"Wisdom. Generosity. No-nonsense. Warm. Funny. Loyal. These are the words that frame his life. He carved his own avenue through the world. He did it Garry's way. He was allergic to 132 things. He spent most of his life sneezing. A watchword of his was zippy. 'Move it along! It's too long! Comedy is not long!' Zippy. He was my teacher: 'Instinct.' 'There's always a solution.' 'Listen.' 'Don't take bad behavior as a given.' I learned to be an executive producer from him. He always said, 'Doesn't matter what show you're doing. As long as we're a nice bunch of people doing it.' He was one of a kind. He was always available. He was always loving. Everybody on a set of Garry Marshall's — from the runner to the craft-service person to the star — counted it as a blessing to be in his presence. Honest to God. Not hyperbole. He said, 'You could do it without yelling! You don't have to yell. You don't have to be a mean person.' This sneezer had a brain that never turned off. I will never get over missing him. I will never get over the gratitude that I have that I was able to have him in my life."
Winkler played Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli on Marshall's Happy Days from 1974 to 1984. Marshall died in Burbank on July 19 at the age of 81.
As told to Dan Snierson.
Barbra Streisand on Pat Conroy
"I fell in love with The Prince of Tides the first time I read it, and as soon as I finished all 567 pages, I went back to the beginning and started it all over again. I responded to the theme of forgiveness, of being able to accept people with all their flaws, and that includes accepting yourself. Do you know how you just feel comfortable with some people immediately? That's how I felt with Pat. I wanted to hear his stories: about his father, his mother, his family, his whole life. I was greedy for any detail that would help me flesh out the characters and understand his world. After I showed the movie to Pat, he wrote me a long, beautiful letter that I will treasure forever, and one of the lines was, 'You gave me my book back to me.' At the very end, he said, 'Let me tell you this: I love the movie version of The Prince of Tides. I simply love it. The book has many flaws based on basic flaws of my character. But the movie sings and soars.'"
Streisand directed, produced, and starred in the Oscar-nominated 1991 adaptation of The Prince of Tides. Conroy died in Beaufort, S.C., on March 4 at the age of 70.
As told to Tina Jordan.
Sheila E. on Prince
"With Prince, there were no limits and rules. It was basically, 'Let's just set up and play. That's how the [musical] gear should sound — the way that we hear it.' It was genius how he would work these things out. He was very experimental in the studio. People put limits on what we think we can and cannot do, but recording for him was just like, 'Let's just try it. Let's just do something different.' His sound was unique. He wasn't trying to be someone else. He was influenced by so many artists — like Santana, the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix — but he created his own sound. You can hear periods of time where his music sounded a certain way, and then he moved on to something else. I was there at the beginning of his career, and you see the transition of almost, like, punk rock to rock & roll to a sound that synthesized analog keyboard sounds. But the way he used those melodies and sounds to create something, that was totally different. And the things that he talked about were sometimes taboo — sex, drugs, and women. You're first attracted by the melody of what he's created, and then you start singing those lyrics. It was just incredible how he would talk about something so personal and specific, but in a way that you're thinking, 'Wait. What did he just say?' Some of the rock & roll bands did that as well, but he did it in a different way. He was an amazing songwriter and, I think, one of the greatest guitar players ever.
The Purple Rain tour was like living a dream. People went crazy and screamed. He loved it, but at the same time I remember him saying to me that it was a little bit scary. That's when everything changed. It was like being a part of the Beatles. But even during that tour, if we weren't recording on a day off, we were playing concerts at some children's hospital. He continued to do things like that, quietly. We would turn the hospital auditorium into a concert hall for kids with severe illnesses. He really admired the kids and wanted to encourage the youth in picking up an instrument and learning. We would just set up and play."
Musician Sheila E. first met Prince in 1978 and performed and toured with him for 1984's Purple Rain album and film. Prince died in Chanhassen, Minn., on April 21 at the age of 57.
As told to Eric Renner Brown.
Ray Romano on Doris Roberts
"The first time I met Doris was when CBS was auditioning the mothers for Everybody Loves Raymond. I was just a comic who nobody had heard of. I really didn't believe the sitcom was going to happen. We read a scene from the pilot where the parents, Frank and Marie, overreact because I bought them Fruit of the Month for their anniversary. There was a line in the pilot where Marie is hysterical and goes, 'I can't talk anymore! There's too much fruit in the house!' After Doris delivered that line and walked out, in my head I thought, 'Holy s---, I'm gonna have a TV show.' She played this woman who was intrusive, jealous, and overbearing, who could have easily been hated by the audience. But they adored her because she showed where it came from — love. That's who she was in real life."
Romano starred on Everybody Loves Raymond from 1996 to 2005. Roberts died in Los Angeles on April 17 at the age of 90.
As told to Lynette Rice.
Paul McCartney on George Martin
"George was unflappable, the master in control. He was clever and very scientific, which I always admired. He knew all the stuff the band didn't. George was there as the professional, the perfect guy to translate our ideas. That was a big part of Beatles music. For instance, I needed a trumpet player for 'Penny Lane,' and we didn't have anything written. I just sang the line, and George was like, 'Hang on,' and he wrote it down on a bit of manuscript paper and gave it to Dave Mason, the great trumpet player. He'd talk to the musicians in their own language. Yet he was never the guy to say, 'No, chaps,' if an accident happened in the studio, like when the amplifier started to make John's strings do a feedback thing at the beginning of 'I Feel Fine.' We all hit the roof: 'We have to use it!' Other people would have turned it off, but George was really cool: 'What a great idea.' He let us experiment like nutty professors. I can't think of anyone who was as good a producer and whose input was as significant to a band as George Martin was to us."
McCartney worked with Martin, often called the fifth Beatle, consistently for more than three decades. Martin died in Wiltshire, England, on March 8 at the age of 90.
As told to Kevin O'Donnell.
John Cameron Mitchell on David Bowie
"I was 10 at a Scottish Benedictine boys' school when I saw him on Top of the Pops singing 'Jean Genie.' His androgyny scared the hell out of me, but it also graced me with a vision of escape. Then came his marionette body on SNL doing 'Boys Keep Swinging,' which pretty much set me on my creative path as queer-punk multimedia weirdo. Yet I never loved Bowie, much less trusted him. You are possessed by Bowie. He lies to you, pulls you close, and injects the poison that cures you. I'd even find myself buying his LPs that I didn't like, knowing I'd somehow love them in the future. At times I longed for him to let his divinity slip more often, because I craved the deep empathy and longing that burned behind the brilliant facades of 'Sweet Thing,' 'Repetition,' 'Conversation Piece,' and 'Heroes.' I could certainly relate — it was only behind the drag mask of Hedwig that I could express certain feelings. But his mask remained in place to the end. Who else would have the audacity to use his dying body as a medium for his work? I think of the mortally wounded samurai who used their own blood to paint until they bled out. And of course his timing was impeccable: He and his co-deity, Prince, may have executed the perfect French exits just in time to avoid the end-times they prophesied. Let's send a twilight prayer up to the Trickster God — though he'd probably prefer a sacrifice."
Mitchell wrote and starred in the 1998 award-winning transgender musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and its movie adaptation. Bowie died in New York City on Jan. 10 at the age of 69.
As told to Leah Greenblatt.
JJ Abrams on Anton Yelchin
"It's impossible that we're talking about him in the past tense. My clearest memories are just about being on set with him and having him always be this funny, surprising, and ribald personality. In between shots, it was — not a party atmosphere, because that makes it sound like people weren't working really hard — but it was an incredibly fun place to work hard. That was in large part because of what Anton brought to it. He had an incredibly wonderful and specific laugh that you heard all the time. He never was on autopilot. He was always curious and determined and searching, always maximizing his weekends and free time. When he was cast in the first Star Trek film, he was 19, and he was working on translating a Russian novel into English. He was a photographer; he was a poet. Anton was made to be a storyteller and was about to direct his own film. He was just a wildly promising artist who was taken away too early. It's not like there's some kind of wisdom or normalcy in regards to Anton's passing. It still is as surreal and shocking as it was the day we heard."
Abrams directed the first two Star Trek reboots starring Yelchin as navigator (and later chief engineer) Pavel Chekov. Yelchin died in Studio City, Calif., on June 19 at the age of 27.
As told to Anthony Breznican.
James L. Brooks on Grant Tinker
"Allan Burns and I had a bad idea for The Mary Tyler Moore Show to begin with — Mary was going to be divorced. When we went to pitch it to CBS, this research guy said there were three things that the public didn't want to see in a series: divorce, men with mustaches, and Jews. They hated our idea and asked us to wait outside while they kept [then MTM Enterprises president] Grant inside. Grant came out, and we went home to work on another idea that we liked better. It was sometime afterwards that we found out that Grant had been ordered to fire us and he wouldn't. There is no way you can exaggerate how great he was. He was enormously attractive, elegant, and with extraordinary manners. At the company softball game, he would hit the home run. And he was consumed with doing the right thing, even to the point that he gave himself such a hard time internally. He bought a Rolls-Royce one day and returned it two days later. It was, like, revulsion. He couldn't bear to ride in it."
Brooks co-created The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Tinker died in Los Angeles on Nov. 28 at the age of 90.
As told to Lynette Rice.
Leon Gast on Muhammad Ali
"Ali was on 90 percent of the time. He was always playful. And the combinations of punches that he could throw at you: He'd throw a combination — 1-2-3 — he'd come a half inch from your nose! It was wonderful. Ali had a kindness about him. When you would drive from the airport in [the Congolese capital] Kinshasa to where the hotels were, there were these big green billboards along the highway that advertised the fight against George Foreman. But hidden behind those signs were shacks, dirt roads, and the worst poverty you see in Third World countries. Ali went out into these villages, and if we were around a group of cute kids, without even knowing it, he would pick out the least attractive of all of them, the heavy one or the boy who was disfigured in some way. That was the one he would pick and hug. He just had that sense: 'This kid needs my arm around him.' He was the kindest human being I have ever been around in my life. I can't even come up with a second person. Ali, Ali, Ali."
Gast directed the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. Ali died in Scottsdale, Ariz., on June 3 at the age of 74.
As told to Jeff Labrecque.
Carol Kane on Gene Wilder
"My phone hadn't rung for a year, but when it finally did, it was Gene. He'd written this beautiful sort of fantasy script called The World's Greatest Lover, and for someone who'd never done a comedy, I really landed in the right one. It was a great lesson because although it was written hysterically funny, I never felt any obligation to break character or go too far. It never felt like he was winking at the audience or asking for laughs. Wearing three hats [as writer, director, and star] would probably panic me, but Gene was always calm and sure of what he needed to get from the actors. He was soft-spoken, and that is kind of funny because so many of his most famous characters are so wacky and intense — but they're always true. In The Producers, that's some wacky business he's got going there, but there's a complete honesty in it, so it's moving and it has an emotional truth to it. And that is what's so valuable in his work. It's always connected to the heart, and that really is not an easy thing to execute. Certainly not all comedians connect in that way to their inner self—all while being hysterical."
Kane costarred with Wilder in 1977's The World's Greatest Lover. Wilder died in Stamford, Conn., on Aug. 29 at the age of 83.
As told to Devan Coggan.
Anthony Daniels on Kenny Baker
Making movies is hardly glamorous, especially for people like Kenny and me who are completely hidden inside a metal shell. But I fondly remember one evening in Yuma. We had been shooting exteriors for Jabba's sail barge in Return of the Jedi. I was in civvies in a bar, but if you were a Brit in Yuma in 1982 you'll know it was no place like home. So I felt a moment of nostalgic homesickness when Kenny took center stage with his harmonica and wistfully played "Danny Boy" for us all. It was very touching. In the years that followed, Kenny went on to become the human face of R2-D2, signing autographs and giving pleasure to his many fans. It's not always true that fame brings immortality, but with the abiding and increasing world-love for the Star Wars saga, Kenny's name will be there... forever.
Daniels costarred alongside Baker as C-3PO in six Star Wars films. Baker died in Preston, England, on Aug. 13 at the age of 81.
Bob Seger on Glenn Frey
"I met Glenn when he was 17 or 18. He was from Royal Oak, Mich., and I was living in the same area, a little bit north. He was very charismatic, very likable, whip-smart. He was in a group called the Mushrooms, and I wrote this song for him called 'Such a Lovely Child.' Then he sang on my first hit, which was called 'Ramblin' Gamblin' Man.' Around '79, Glenn and I started writing 'Heartache Tonight' together. Glenn had the verse: 'Somebody's gonna hurt someone before the night is through.' We hadn't been sitting down for more than five minutes and I just blurted out, 'There's gonna be a heartache tonight!' His eyes lit up huge. Because he knew, 'Oh my God, Seger and I, we finally wrote a hit together!' Later, he worked out the rest with Don Henley and JD Souther. So that was the song that I sang at the memorial. It's still really hard to imagine he's gone. I wrote this song about him, 'Glenn's Song': 'When I think about you/I always smile.' For me, that's the way it was. He was always a positive force in my life, never a negative one. It's hard to replace 49 years of that."
Singer-songwriter Seger was Frey's friend and occasional collaborator for almost five decades. Frey died in Manhattan on Jan. 18 at the age of 67.
As told to Clark Collis.
Melissa Gilbert on Patty Duke
"I met Anna [Patty Duke's given name] when I was 14, before we started production on The Miracle Worker, which we did as a play in Florida before we did it as a TV movie. Years later, she told me the director had told her specifically not to help me [play Helen Keller], even though she had done this role on Broadway and had also won an Oscar for it. I floundered badly to the point that before we left for Florida, my manager sat down with my mom and said I wasn't getting the part. I was terrified. Anna was sitting behind me on the plane and asked, 'Do you want some helpful hints?' I said, 'Yes, thank God!' We talked the whole rest of the flight. It made a world of difference. We bonded because our working relationship forced us to be really close, but also we had a lot in common growing up as child actors. She forded the waters before I got there. She was really open about her struggles and her childhood and the difficulties of growing up in the public eye. She was like a second mother to me throughout my entire life."
Gilbert costarred with Duke in the 1979 TV-movie adaptation of The Miracle Worker. Duke died in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on March 29 at the age of 69.
As told to Lynette Rice.
Wally Lamb on Harper Lee
"I was a high school English teacher for about 25 years and started writing fiction in the midst of that, encouraged by To Kill a Mockingbird. When I was teaching that novel, those characters just began to seep into my bones. Scout comes upon a world that is not just black-and-white but has a lot of shades of gray in it, and those are important lessons to learn as we grow into adulthood. As a writer, I realized that you can tell a story that's entertaining but doesn't dodge political issues. Righteous anger can motivate people to action, and that's one of the values of the book—but it's also just a very engaging story. In some ways, sadly, we're kind of taking backwards steps in terms of racial equality. Stories like To Kill a Mockingbird are still very valid, keeping us on track and making sure that this is a country that is fair and just for all people. My understanding is that Lee was not really reclusive so much as she was well protected within her Alabama community. She didn't want to become a brand. Her work is the teacher. She led a private life in her hometown and still had a global influence on writers and readers."
Lamb wrote the best-selling 1992 coming-of-age novel She's Come Undone. Lee died in Monroeville, Ala., on Feb. 19 at the age of 89.
As told to Isabella Biedenharn.
Kate Winslet on Alan Rickman
"In Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson wrote a line that her character says about Colonel Brandon: 'He is the kindest and best of men.' And that was Alan. When we made that movie together, I was 19 and absolutely terrified of everything. And he was terrifying. The first time I met him, he walked onto the hair and makeup bus and he seemed gigantic—just impossibly tall and impossibly intimidating. It actually felt like I was standing underneath this vast architectural structure. But really, he was always a great big softy. If there was one word I could use to really describe Al, it would be kind. He was so kind. My daughter actually had a tiny role in A Little Chaos, and I kept saying to her, 'When Alan is directing you, you've got to just try and not think, "My God, it's Snape!" ' But she couldn't do it. She said, 'Mommy, he was so kind to me, but I just kept thinking, "Snape isn't this kind!"' At Al's memorial, [actress] Juliet Stevenson told the story of how whenever Al would go out to supper and anyone else would try and pay, he would somehow have phoned ahead or slipped his credit card ahead of the meal so no one even got a look at the check. He'd just say, 'I've got two words for you: Harry Potter.' And he became known for doing that. What can you say but 'thank you'?"
Winslet starred opposite Rickman in 1995's Sense and Sensibility and 2015's A Little Chaos. Rickman died in London on Jan. 14 at the age of 69.
As told to Chris Nashawaty.
Loretta Lynn on Merle Haggard
"The first time Merle and I met, I just remember thinking how good-looking he was. And how great he sang! He was a total package. He had just gotten out of the pen, and his track "Mama Tried" was out. When I'd first heard it, I said, 'Who is that guy?!' We saw each other many times over the years — and we was finally going to record together. The last time I saw him [in 2015], he parked his bus right next to mine and walked over. We were discussing which songs to record and I said, 'Merle, "Today I Started Loving You Again" is my all-time favorite song.' He kind of blushed and looked up at me and said, 'You always did like a good song, Loretta.' I recorded [it] the week that he passed away. That broke my heart. But I think he will be remembered as great as he was. Everybody loved Merle Haggard. He was a good guy — and if he wasn't, I don't want to hear about it!"
Lynn was friends with Haggard and performed with him often throughout their long careers. Haggard died in Palo Cedro, Calif., on April 6 at the age of 79.
As told to Madison Vain.
Eve Plumb on Florence Henderson
"Everybody wanted her to be their mother. She had her own real children. I have remained friends over the years with Florence's daughter Barbara, as well as [her other children] Joe, Robert, and Lizzie, who don't always get named. I've always felt very aware that she was their mom. In a way, it was unfair to her kids to have this other [TV] family. Her children would come visit the set, and during the summer we [the Brady kids] would go swimming at her house. We would have sleepovers and play on the swing set in the backyard. She had this glamorous house. All of her memorabilia was beautifully and tastefully displayed, the awards and letters and stuff. Florence was a teacher on how to be a good celebrity. She always kept up with sending thank-you notes, birthday and Christmas cards, handwritten throughout the years. I don't know how she ever learned all of that. "
Plumb starred as middle daughter Jan Brady on The Brady Bunch from 1969 to 1974. Henderson died in Los Angeles on Nov. 24 at the age of 82.
As told to Lynette Rice.
Barbara Kopple on Sharon Jones
"Reflecting on Sharon and her incredible, remarkable life and work just fills me with reverence, inspiration, sadness, and a lot of determination. She taught me so much about life, about power, about being positive, about strength. She found a way to push on, even when the news of her health was not good. She was steady in the face of fear. And everything about her was so totally alive that I never thought for a minute, as I was filming, that she would die. I always knew she was going to be okay and that she was going to be back on that stage again. When she played at the Beacon and she got short-winded, she knew her band would take over and go into a musical riff until she got her breath back. Her positive motion forward resonates with anybody who has fought cancer. Sharon loved to dance. She would bring people up from the audience to dance, even if they didn't know what they were doing. They would try so hard, looking directly into her eyes. You just felt totally honored to be in her presence. She changed me forever."
Kopple directed the 2015 documentary Miss Sharon Jones! Jones died in Cooperstown, N.Y., on Nov. 18 at the age of 60.
As told to Eric Renner Brown.
Mercedes Ruehl on Edward Albee
"Edward was fearless. He had a brilliant and blistering command of language. He came in in the '60s and excavated a whole new area of drama. There was no one writing in the unique and disturbing style of The Zoo Story. When he started, writers were looking at John Osborne and Samuel Beckett in England and wondering, 'Where is our American groundbreaker?' And he was it. He broke new ground and stimulated a whole new wave of fierce American playwriting. Edward wanted his plays to shake people in the cockles of their hearts and make them look at life anew. Make them look at their preconceptions, at their prejudices, and at their fears. He'll be missed, but he put out a tremendous body of work, much of which we will be reexamining for years. And the well of great writers that he sprang will continue to remind us of his legacy. Personally, I'll just miss going to Montauk and sitting at his big, round table and talking with him."
Ruehl was nominated for a Tony Award in 2002 for her role in Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Albee died in Montauk, N.Y., on Sept. 16 at the age of 88.
As told to Chris Nashawaty.
Bill Maher on Garry Shandling
"When we were both starting out in the early '80s, I was an immediate fan. He was an innovator, and we talked a lot about doing things that hadn't been done before. What was the point of rehashing something that had been done? People might forget that he was a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show in the era of Johnny Carson. Johnny took a lot of days off. Letterman, Leno, and Garry Shandling were three of the young comedians who filled in. I remember doing a number of Tonight Shows with Garry as the host. He was Larry Sanders before he did the fictionalized version. The Larry Sanders Show was more what he wanted to do than to be an actual late-night host, which was more constricting. He was a friend for a very long time. He watched my show every week, and he would very often drop a note and talk about something that went on in the show. He was a great connoisseur of the art of structure. He was a structure person. He designed his own house! It was a very long process, but it was all him. Most people just buy a house. He bought a piece of land."
Maher and Shandling co-created a Fox sitcom pilot that never aired, Bill Gets a Life. Shandling died in Los Angeles on March 24 at the age of 66.
As told to Darren Franich.
Suzanne Vega on Leonard Cohen
"I was 14 when I got Leonard's first album. Before him, I was listening to very folky stuff — Paul Simon, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie — and pop music on the radio. This wasn't like either of those things — it was darker and more complicated, edgier. Years later, probably 1988, he was playing Carnegie Hall, and I went to see if I could say hello backstage. We chatted for a while, and he signed my program 'To my female shadow, LC,' which was honestly somewhat disappointing [laughs] because I had wanted 'To Suzanne, Best Wishes, Leonard Cohen' and instead he had written this really cryptic thing. But I still have it, and that was the beginning of a kind of friendship. He was very, very funny in a dry way, flirtatious, and so charming. There was a sense of formality about his speech and the way he dressed — courtly but not at all stuffy. He was still rock & roll in his soul. He worked so artfully on his songs — on the lyrics, the melodies, the arrangements, and the orchestrations. He was never going to cheapen himself to reach a larger audience, and I really loved him and respected him for that."
Singer-songwriter Vega recorded Cohen's "Story of Isaac." Cohen died in Los Angeles on Nov. 7 at the age of 82.
As told to Leah Greenblatt.