The 10 Most Dead People of 2008
Lots of people died this year. For instance, if you’re searching for chessmaster Bobby Fischer, look down about six feet. Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitzyn died, which came as a surprise since we assumed he’d already died about a hundred years ago. And mountaineer Edmund Hillary reached the end too, though, as usual, his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, got there first. Ironically, Mr. Blackwell, author of the annual worst-dressed lists, fails to make the cut of what would have been his final top-ten list. But here are the ten people who were even deader in 2008.
Paul Newman looked better at age 82 than most of us will ever look in our lives. Hell, Paul Newman’s been dead for months, and he still looks better than most of us will ever look. He was way classier too. For instance, he was married to Joanne Woodward for 50 years. Lots of our grandparents reached their golden anniversaries too, but let’s be frank: Most of our grandparents were pretty homely, while Newman was a big Hollywood star who could have had any woman he wanted with one wink of those baby blues. He also established Newman’s Own, a food company that’s donated to charity 100 percent of its proceeds — over $250 million to date — from the sale of products such as salad dressing, popcorn, and dog food. A true gentleman, he even doubled Etta Place on the handlebars of his bicycle. He served his country proudly in WWII. And yet, for his political activism, he ranked nineteenth on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, a greater honour than we could ever hope to bestow upon him here.
“Who’s the black stand-up comic with all the kids? Mac! I’m talkin’ ’bout Bernie Mac.” Sadly, not only did Bernie Mac die at the young age of 50 this year, but he was followed the next day by music legend Isaac Hayes, his co-star in their last film feature, Soul Men. While Mac died of pneumonia and Hayes from a stroke, the coincidence of their passing raises suspicions of a curse on Soul Men itself, which, by the time it hit screens, actually starred more disembodied souls than men. This must have been a pretty frightening prospect for fellow star Samuel L. Jackson. These things come in threes, after all, and 2008 was clearly not a good year to be a bad-ass black man. Fortunately, another blacksploitation legend stepped in and took a bullet for the Shaft star. Who? Dolemite, motherfucker! Rudy Ray Moore, the renowned “king of the party records”, also died in 2008. Why? Diabetes, motherfucker!
George Carlin didn’t invent the word “motherfucker”, but he did more than anyone to popularize it — along with “shit”, “piss”, “fuck”, “cunt”, “cocksucker”, and “tits” — in his 1972 routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”, which lists seven words now commonly said on cable television. Perhaps paradoxically, younger readers will remember him as the narrator for the children’s TV show Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, on which, sure enough, he never said “motherfucker”, “shit”, “piss”, “fuck”, “cunt”, “cocksucker”, and “tits”. But he sure liked saying these things everywhere else, and we sure liked hearing them. These were direct words, honest words, not bullshit. (Can we say “bullshit” on television?) Carlin hated doublespeak and euphemism. Carlin hasn’t passed away, because his like won’t pass this way again. We haven’t lost Carlin, because we’re not going to find him again. George Carlin is dead. And that’s the way he would have wanted it.
Arthur C. Clarke
It’s ironic that Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD, outlasted so many acid casualties, finally passing away at the ripe age of 102 this year. What’s more, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who famously taught the Beatles trancendental meditation, died at 91, outliving two of the Fab Four. Mitch Mitchell helped expand the limits of human consciousness as drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience too, though he was only 62 when he died this year. But for better or worse, the futurist and 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke did as much as the others to expand humanity’s vision during the 1960s. Without Clarke’s ideas, there might be no communications satellites in geostationary orbits; without these, there might be no cellular phone networks. It must have dismayed such a noted man of letters that his literary masterpieces may have directly led to the decline of the English language itself in favour of text-lingo LOL-speak, and though Clarke managed to survive the catastrophic tsunami that struck his Sri Lanka home in 2004, it’s possible that this revelation is what eventually did him in.
Quite a few sex kittens lost the last of their lives this year — for instance, former Catwoman Eartha Kitt. However, not only did Kitt pave the way for Halle Berry’s regrettable film version of the character, but she was also possibly the dumbest player in the history of Celebrity Jeopardy, somehow going about twenty thousand bucks in the hole in her appearance. And there’s Vampira, but she’s actually undead rather than dead, one assumes. No, the one that’ll be really missed is pin-up model Bettie Page, who not only ushered countless boys into puberty during the 1950s, but was also personally responsible for popularizing both bangs and nudity. Without Page, there would be no Katy Perry, Pussycat Dolls, or Dita Von Teese, which would arguably be a good thing, but let’s face it, they’re nice to look at. Her look inspired not only the early comic-book appearance of Batman villainess Poison Ivy but also the look of Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace, who was played by Uma Thurman (who coincidentally went on to play Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin, the only movie based on Batman characters worse than Catwoman).
Fewer names than usual had to be crossed off the Alive Wrestlers list this year, though Ben Weider, godfather of the related sport of bodybuilding, went from ripped to RIP. However, the final ring bell tolled for a few notables. Beaten in nine seconds at the first WrestleMania by King Kong Bundy, “Special Delivery” Jones was beaten even more conclusively in 63 years, six months, and 26 days by stroke-related complications. Gary Hart — the playboy wrestling manager, not the playboy presidential candidate — also went down for the final three-count. But the greatest mat legend to fall this year was “Killer” Kowalski, who was finally himself killed at 81 by heart disease, outlasting most professional wrestlers felled by heart attacks by a good fifty years. Living to 81 in pro wrestler years is like living to 162 in human years, so this makes Kowalski a true iron man of the ring.
After gaining notice as the young Gordie LaChance in Stand By Me, William Wharton went on to earn the loathing of geeks as the precocious Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, only to win back their respect as a celebrated blogger. Oh, wait — that’s Wil Wheaton. It was actually author William Wharton who died this year. Apologies for the confusion. This isn’t the only time this has happened this year either. When detective novelist Tony Hillerman died this year, we were inconsolable at the loss of Higgins, the snooty majordomo of Robin Masters’s estate on Magnum P.I., until discovering that he was actually played by John Hillerman. And upon hearing that Deep Throat died, we mourned the extraordinary talents of the Watergate informant and cinematic fellatio enthusiast before finally having it explained that these were actually two different people, who were both now dead. Frankly, 2008 was a very confusing year.
Wesley Crusher might be safe and sound, but the Trek universe didn’t escape 2008 without great loss. Not only did we lose the composer of the original Star Trek theme, Alexander Courage, but a multitude of characters were written out of the show with the death of series creator Gene Roddenberry’s widow, Majel Barrett. Barrett’s roles included Nurse Christine Chapel, Lwaxana Troi, and the felinoid Enterprise crew member M’ress, although she’ll always be Number One in our hearts. Barrett passed away shortly after wrapping up her work on the new Star Trek film, in which she reprised her role as the voice of the Enterprise‘s computer. The fortuitous timing of this raises hopes that, just as the late Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton will soon be revived through the magic of DNA cloning, Barrett didn’t pass on at all, but in fact uploaded her consciousness into the computer’s memory banks, to be preserved forever.
Democrat operative-turned-journalist Tim Russell died this year, but as Obama took the White House, it was mostly Republican mouthpieces who were shut up for good. (And, speaking of Deep Throat, so was another guy who the Republicans didn’t want talking; Michael Connell, the high-level consultant who allegedly helped Bush steal Ohio in 2004, just happened to die in a suspicious plane crash soon after being subpoenaed by investigators.) National Rifle Association chairman Charlton Heston went the way of Soylent Green, for example. William F. Buckley Jr. also finally shut up for once, and Jesse Helms finally dropped his resistance to Martin Luther King Day and AIDS research — the hard way. But it’s Tony’s Snow’s passing that’s most worthy of celebration. As press secretary for the Bush White House, he served as the mouthpiece for lies that resulted in the countless unnecessary deaths of American soldiers and Iraqi citizens until he was finally beheaded in front of the Black Gate by Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Oh, wait — that was the Mouth of Sauron from Return of the King, but as they had essentially the same job, you can understand the confusion.
Just as we’ve already heard every joke about Dungeons and Dragons creator Gary Gygax having failed his last saving throw and how we now face a world without Don Lafontaine, the voiceover guy from all those movie trailers that start with “In a world without …”, there’s little left unsaid about Heath Ledger becoming Death Deadger. (Except this: Brad Renfro’s fatal heroin overdose got knocked right out of the headlines by Ledger’s death the following week, in much the same way that the fatal heroin overdose of Germs singer Darby Crash in 1980 got knocked out of the headlines by the murder of John Lennon, so poor Renfro is basically Darby Crash twenty years later.) Nevertheless, his early passing easily ranks Ledger as the deadest celebrity of 2008, and he’s all the more mourned because of his work as the Joker in the posthumously released The Dark Knight, which left people wondering how anyone could possibly follow him in the role in any future Batman sequel. Indeed, how could anyone — like, oh, let’s say Johnny Depp, just to toss a name out there — possibly take over a role that hides the actor behind a heavy makeup job and an unruly mop of hair? Let’s face it — we’re not going to miss Ledger as the Joker. We’re going to miss him when Brokeback Mountain 2 goes straight to video and fills his role with one of the lesser Baldwin brothers.
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