The 10 Most Dead People of 2014

29Dec14

Well, there goes another annus horribilis, which is Latin for “horrible asshole.” And speaking of which, the Rob Ford mayoralty finally came to a merciful end, after that fat cancer on the city of Toronto was literally diagnosed with fat cancer. Jailbird plutocrat Conrad Black was stripped of the Order of Canada this year, the greatest indignity since Mad Magazine satirized him as “Conrad Blecch.” (Mad didn’t let his wife, Barbara Schlemiel, off any easier.) And it’s ironic that Bill Cosby’s most recent stand-up special was named Far from Finished; it might as well have been named Rape Allegations Will Never End My Career. But, hey, at least these horrible assholes are still alive, which is more than can be said for the following people, the very deadest people who died in 2014.

10. Robin Williams

Robin Williams was a master of improvisation. He shorted out a bomb with a paper clip. He plugged a sulfuric acid leak with chocolate. He made a rocket out of a flare gun and parachuted to freedom. And all of that happened in just the pilot episode of Mork from Ork. He was an improvisational genius, one who hated guns and loved science. And he was pretty funny too. Probably the funniest thing Williams ever did was show up on the set of Happy Days in a karate gi to fight the Fonz. “Wait,” you’re probably saying. “Wasn’t that Tom Hanks?” Well, we’re not talking about an episode of the show. Williams used to do a lot of cocaine. But all that manic energy masked some real djinns, er, demons. Williams battled depression. He may have never gotten over his idol Jonathan Winters’ death; no man should ever have to bury his child. And suddenly, he was gone, leaving behind only a suicide note seemingly cowritten by a stereotypical gay guy, a stereotypical black guy, a Baptist preacher, and John Wayne. But every comic everywhere who goes onstage, know this: Robin Williams is watching over you. And he’s stealing all your best jokes.

9. James Garner

We all remember James Garner as likable and charming. But was he really? For instance, in the pilot episode of The Rockford Files, he flat-out calls a thug “queer” to provoke him. And anyone claiming part Cherokee ancestry, as he did, is a blowhard at best and a douchebag at worst, right? And did you know he did cocaine with John Belushi? Is it at least possible that the secret of his supposed likability was a matter of cleverly positioning himself to stand in contrast onscreen with, at various points, the smarmy David Spade, insane anti-Semite Mel Gibson, and black hole of charisma Ryan Gosling? The answer to this is no, it is not possible. James Garner learned to act by watching Henry Fonda, but he must not have been as good an actor as Fonda, because while Fonda could, in contrast to his nice-guy public image, be cold, aloof, and angry offscreen, Garner just had to go ahead and be the most likable, charming son of a gun who ever lived all the dang time.

8. Ariel Sharon

Great Sid Caesar’s ghost! A lot of folks went to Jewish heaven this year (notably including Sid Caesar). There was also schlock merchant Menahem Golan, who, along with Glen A. Larson, essentially produced much of the 1980s. Saul Zaentz couldn’t dance, couldn’t successfully sue John Fogerty for ripping off John Fogerty (though he tried), and couldn’t secure the necessary rights to make The Hobbit trilogy before The Lord of the Rings, but he did give us One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, and The English Patient. And there’s Eli Wallach, the “ugly” from The Good, the Bad and Ugly, who should have died three different times during the filming of that movie, first accidentally drinking a bottle of acid, then getting caught on a runaway horse with his hands tied behind his back, and finally nearly getting decapitated by a train while lying on the track; instead, he lived to be 98. But it’s hard to imagine a world without Israel’s “Little Mermaid,” former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who died this year at the age of 85. But it was really more like 78, to be honest, as he’d been in a coma for the last eight years. When he was last sensible, Chris Brown’s “Run It!” was riding in the #2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, with the young singer’s image still squeaky clean. He never found out about Matisyahu shaving off his beard and shedding his yarmulke, or about Lil’ Wayne going into and coming out of his own coma. Ariel Sharon would have been frankly disgusted by the state of modern hip-hop, and you know it.

7. Harold Ramis

Well, well, well. It seems the Ghostbuster has become the ghost. Harold Ramis’ death left fans of the spook-hunting franchise heartbusted (except those who always preferred Tracy the Gorilla). Even in the late stages of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, bustin’ made Ramis feel good; perhaps it was the only thing that did. But Ramis was more than a mere Ghostbuster; he was also an acclaimed writer and director. With Groundhog Day, Ramis gave us arguably the finest film in the “Bill Murray failing to murder a rodent” genre (the others of course being Caddyshack and Garfield: The Movie, with an honorable mention to EPA agent Walter Peck in the TV version of Ghostbusters). Without Ramis around to direct, however, it’s starting to look like his planned adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces starring John Belushi and Richard Pryor is doomed. But maybe Dan Aykroyd will find a way to squeeze a tribute to Ramis into his long-hyped Ghostbusters sequel, the same way Slimer was the ghost of Belushi. On the other hand, given Aykroyd only wanted to make the first movie as an excuse to receive ghost fellatio, maybe it’s best to leave well enough alone.

6. Jan Hooks

It’s heaven! With! Johnnn Belushi! Chris Farley! Phil Harrrtman! Gilllda Radner! Featuring! Charles Rocket! Danitra Vance!
When ancient Saturday Night Live announcer Don Pardo finally died this year, it was appealing to imagine him bellowing these words in his now-even-more-quavery ghost voice. But it was far too soon to add Jan Hooks to this all-star lineup. Who would’ve thought that bulimic heroin addict Laraine Newman would age better than Hooks and finally outlive her? And that Victoria Jackson is alive when Hooks is dead is proof either that there is no God or that there is one, depending on whom you ask. Hooks was, as Jon Lovitz put it, like a female Phil Hartman; they weren’t flashy, but they anchored the show, and they could do anything and do it well. It’s just that Hartman is almost famous for being underrated, perhaps due to his tragic murder (forget about killing Hitler; if you ever get a time machine, go back and introduce the future Brynn Hartman to Dennis Miller first), while Hooks was just plain underrated. On the other hand, while both went on to voice Simpsons characters, Hooks also became a cast member of Designing Women (one of two to die this year) and, unless you’re cancer, you do not mess with a Sugarbaker woman.

5. Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman was perhaps the greatest three-named actor who never took a shot at a president. Now he’ll never get to. When Hoffman was discovered in his apartment’s bathroom, he left a syringe in his arm and many questions. What would this mean for the Hunger Games franchise? The Capote franchise? The Master franchise? The Charlie Wilson’s War franchise? No one took Hoffman’s untimely death harder than sensitive rapper Drake, who was downright pissed off that Rolling Stone gave away his scheduled cover story to the late actor. But the real tragedy was with Hoffman gone, we lost the perfect guy to play the late Jay Bennett in a film about the making of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. (Yes, Jay Bennett himself actually appeared in the documentary about the making of that album, but Hoffman would have been better.) No wait, the real tragedy is that with Hoffman gone, the title of “greatest living actor” now belongs, by default, to Shia LaBoeuf.

4. Joan Rivers

One of Johnny Carson’s favorite stand-up comedians and Tonight Show guest hosts passed on this year. But enough about David Brenner. Can we talk about Johnny’s former favorite, Joan Rivers? One of the most intriguing questions about the Johnny Carson sex tape that hit the market this year was whether it would show Johnny screwing Joan out of appearing on the network for decades after she took her own short-lived talk show. Forget guest hosting ever again; Johnny isn’t even going to let Joan join the heavenly host. But she persevered. She went from the blacklist to the red carpet. She was fearless—almost; the only thing she feared was not working, and so she never stopped working. It always seemed like Joan Rivers would be around forever. And it still does seem that way, since plastic doesn’t decompose.

3. The Ultimate Warrior

“Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe their final breath,” the Ultimate Warrior once said. Perhaps he meant to say “in one day,” because he died of a heart attack the day after he said that. As usual, many names were crossed off the Alive Wrestlers List, including Mabel, Viscera, and Big Daddy V, to name just a few. There’s also Mae Young, George Scott, Sean O’Haire, and Ox Baker, who once memorably appeared on The Price Is Right and killed Bob Barker in a fit of rage after losing with his signature heart punch. (You can tell the replacement Bob Barker apart from the original because of his white hair.) But the former WWF champion stands above them all, the longstanding rumors of his death now finally not exaggerated. Was he really “the ultimate warrior”? No, that title belongs to someone more like WWII hero “Wild” Bill Guarnere, who was described by commanding officer Dick Winters with reverence as a “natural killer” and, after being shot off a stolen motorcycle by a German sniper, was court-martialed and demoted for putting black shoe polish all over his leg cast, rolling down his pant leg, and walking out of the hospital in extreme pain to rejoin his band of brothers in Easy Company. But he was certainly the ultimate maniac—he did legally change his name to “Warrior,” embark on a short-lived career as a crazed, far right-wing commentator, and urge Hulk Hogan in a (thankfully pre-9/11) WrestleMania VI promo to murder two pilots, hijack a plane, and crash it into SkyDome—and he in fact now rejoins his tag-team partner in the Ultimate Maniacs, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, in the great ring in the sky.

2. James Avery

Many civil rights giants of the small screen died in the past year. There’s Designing Women‘s Meshach Taylor, widely remembered as a groundbreaking gay character on a network sitcom. (He wasn’t actually one, but he’s widely remembered as one anyway.) There’s everyone’s favorite Huxtable grandmother, Maya Angelou, who was deeply involved with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and was so emblematic of the black female experience that when she passed on, the cosmos had to delete its whitest male, blues guitarist Johnny Winter, simply to maintain its balance. And then there’s James Avery, better known to everyone but Don Everly’s children as Uncle Phil. (“Bye, bye, Phil,” crowed Don Everly, clinking glasses with fellow big winner Olivia de Havilland after their hated siblings died.) Sure, Will Smith’s rapidly not-so-fresh uncle may have lived in a fancy mansion in Bel Air, but whenever someone made the mistake of calling him a rich fat cat, the black Cliff Huxtable would get self-righteous and huffily announce, “I marched with Dr. King!” And now he’s with him again. Smell you later, Uncle Phil.

1. Fred Phelps

And speaking of civil rights, there’s Fred Phelps, believe it or not. The Westboro Baptist Church founder going from celebrated civil rights lawyer to gay-baiting, Jew-hating piece of human garbage was almost as big a heel turn as Jim Phelps turning out to be the villain in the film version of Mission Impossible. It’s tempting to think part of the reason Olympic swimming hero Michael Fred Phelps II (and—Jesus—you see why he doesn’t go by his full name) reportedly dated a trans woman this year was to prove definitively that he was no relation to this homophobic scumbag. (The rest of the reason? Well, why not?) And it would have been tempting to protest Fred Phelps’ funeral, the same way he and his followers protested the funerals of soldiers and school shooting victims, but that would have been giving him the attention he craved. He didn’t get a funeral anyway; his family booted him out of his own church and declined to hold one. But what Fred Phelps really deserved was to have his ashes divided up and anonymously flushed down the urinals of every gay bar in America. That and maybe eternal damnation for good measure.



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