The 10 Most Dead People of 2016
Well, that was some year. Lots of things ended abruptly and permanently, such as Brangelina, Fox sci-fi crime drama Second Chance (after its first and only season, ironically), and, of course, American democracy. And, as always—or seemingly way moreso—many celebrity lives. As celeb after celeb died, again and again the cry was raised: “Fuck this horrible year.” Except, as much as people blamed 2016 as a personified, spree-killing annus horribilis, it’s not 2016. It’s the natural aging curve of celebrities from the apex of mass media, before the fragmentation of monoculture. In other words, for the next little while, this is just what’s going to happen to people who got famous when we all watched the same thing, between when TV started and when we all got the internet. 2017 will be even worse, and so will every year until we’ve fully put behind us the golden age of fast-food media that served billions but offered a few basic menu choices. This will play out slowly and you’ll be screeching at whatever year it is until the cast of Friends dies. After that, it’ll seem okay again. There are more celebrities now, but they’re much smaller, so it’ll be like stars winking out rather than supernovae exploding. When former American Idol contestants die, you’ll barely be sad. By the time PewDiePie dies, you won’t even blink. See? You feel better already. So, let’s get to ranking, who exactly, the most dead people are this year.
10. Alan Rickman
Among 2016’s first dead celebrities to make fans ululate in despair, Alan Rickman is particularly missed at this time of year as the villain of the greatest Christmas movie of all time, Love Actually. Rickman played a lot of great villains, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Professor Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films, and Ronald Reagan in The Butler. And as Hans Gruber, ruthless mastermind of the Nakatomi Plaza heist in the second greatest Christmas movie of all time, Die Hard, he stole every scene he was in, thanks to his skills as the second most exceptional thief associated with luxury towers that the German race has ever produced. Rickman’s presence in not one but two great Christmas movies immeasurably improves both (in ways that never get old and won’t bother your significant other). When cold English wife Emma Thompson opens her new Joni Mitchell CD in Love Actually, you can pretend the inscription reads “Benefits of a classical education,” and when she peeks at the card from her philandering husband, you can pretend it says “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho.” Similarly, when Rickman misquotes Plutarch in Die Hard, you can pretend he adds “To continue your emotional education,” and when he examines the note attached to the dead terrorist tied to a chair in the elevator, you can pretend it says “Sorry I’m such a grumpy bugger.” Oh, his presence also arguably improves both movies because he was a really good actor. And an attractive one, it would seem; amazingly, Rickman was ranked #34 by Empire magazine’s list of the 100 Sexiest Stars in history. No offence, but wow, really? And with respect to the late Leonard Cohen, researchers found a blend of Rickman and Jeremy Irons’ voices to be the perfect male voice. Boy, are people attracted to total creeps or what?
9. Rob Ford
Of course not. That’s why reptilian sociopath Doug Ford, like the Jim Belushi of municipal politics, shamelessly furthers his own ambitions by trading off the memory of his popular brother, infamous crack mayor and big fat party animal Rob Ford. Let’s not mince words. Rob wasn’t evil like his brother, but he was a mean, petty, ignorant, foul-mouthed bully. He was a rich man who was able to somehow paint himself as a common man through sheer crudity. He was a child of privilege who presented himself as a self-made man, although his own acumen as a private businessman was wildly overstated. He wasn’t above using his office to further the interests of his own company, and it was painfully clear he didn’t even understand what a conflict of interest was. He was fond of having his ego stroked at large rallies and prone to having his security rough up people. He conducted a startlingly dishonest war on the media for reporting the true facts about him. He was capable of shockingly inappropriate behaviour with women, though his demure Eastern European wife said little about it. A self-avowed racist, he was even prone to hobnobbing with neo-Nazis (okay, just one time, but the guy was in uniform). He was somehow capable of getting away with scandal after scandal that would end any normal political career, but make no mistake, he was grossly unsuited to wielding political power even on the municipal level, and it boggles the mind to think what might happen if someone like that ever somehow became the leader of a nation, as Rob fantasized about doing. (Can you even imagine that nightmare scenario?) No, Rob Ford was not a good man, but he was a man who nevertheless did try to do good, even if it was rooted in a need to feed his own ego—but to feed his inferiority complex rather than any kind of malignant narcissism, because he was at heart an insecure little boy who just wanted to be told, Good job, Rob. You are special. So, in that spirit, Rob, you were actually honest at the end about having cancer, when the natural assumption was you were shamelessly faking it to drop out of your race for re-election to avoid certain defeat. Good job, Rob.
8. Garry Shandling
Speaking of alcohol abuse, if you somehow haven’t had your fill of dead celebrities, throw on an early season episode of Garry Shandling’s talk-show parody The Larry Sanders Show and drink when a now-deceased person is seen or mentioned. By the time you get to season 2’s Warren Zevon/Gene Siskel/John Ritter episode, the death toll is incredible, a freaky, morbid viewing experience like watching an old WrestleMania. (Speaking of which, this is a good place to slip in a mention of some prominent names crossed off the Alive Wrestlers List: Chyna, Mr. Fuji, and—with due respect to Lou Marsh Trophy winner Penny Oleksiak, Canada’s Greatest Athlete, “Iron” Mike Sharpe.) And sadly, although costar Rip Torn should by all rights have predeceased him—probably violently—it’s worse now that Garry Shandling himself has passed away. Shandling’s satire of the ‘90s talk-show wars was like a blend of two shows it greatly influenced, crossing 30 Rock’s inside-show-biz perspective with The Office’s mockumentary cringiness. But let’s not hold it against Shandling that he made Ricky Gervais’s career possible. He also gave a big career boost to Jon Stewart, who, before playing a voice of sanity on the Bush-era Daily Show, played the guest host and potential successor threatening to push Sanders out of the big chair in the show’s All About Eve-esque final seasons (with Sanders attempting to undermine the new kid by slipping him C-list guests), and if he’s not going to be relevant in these turbulent times, he could do worse than to jump back in there for a Netflix sequel.
7. Muhammad Ali
We skipped over a no-longer-extant name from one of those early WrestleManias, though it’s a mere referee rather than a wrestler: main-event special guest referee Muhammad Ali. He was known a little for his boxing as well, and with respect to the great pugilists who died in 2016, such as Kimbo Slice, Gordie Howe, and the guy who trained Apollo Creed, Ali may have been a hair above them all. In fact, save for adult film star Amber Rayne, no one who died this year was more skilled with their fists than Ali. Ali was for a considerable length of time probably the most famous person on Earth. To try to explain his level of fame, Muhammad Ali was kind of like the Elvis of the sporting world, except with a personality. Imagine if The Rock were to cross over from wrestling to movie stardom to then become president (hey, he’s mused about it, and stranger things have happened). Next to Muhammad Ali, he’s still a chump. Not only was Muhammad Ali the greatest, he was also the second greatest. Everyone else is fighting for third place. There’s a golden plaque traveling to the outer cosmos attached to the space probe Voyager 1 with a picture of Muhammad Ali as the archetypal example of a human, and if that isn’t true, it ought to be.
6. Zsa Zsa Gabor
Three notorious man-eaters met their end in 2016: a great white shark that killed an Australian surfer, a tiger that killed three Indian villagers, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. You can tell a lot about Zsa Zsa by the other women in the lives of her many husbands. One of said husbands invented the Barbie and Chatty Cathy dolls; another was great-grandfather of the equally lifelike if less articulate Paris Hilton. Yet another went on to have a decade-long affair with Anna Nicole Smith. And yet another went on to briefly marry Zsa Zsa’s older sister, Magda, after which he quite understandably began drinking heavily and killed himself. She also had a husband in common with her great rival in serial monogamy, Elizabeth Taylor, the above-mentioned Conrad Hilton. (This makes him sort of the Ian McKellen of his time: He made all-too-brief appearances in two of the great Hollywood franchises, alternately playing the part of a lord of the rings and an ex-man.) But, enough of her husbands, as Zsa Zsa herself frequently said. Zsa Zsa was more than a Larry Sanders Show C-list guest, and she was far more than, say, a mere Eastern European beauty queen turned wife to a billionaire hotelier and stepmother to his son, Barron (though she was all those things, at one time). She was also, for instance, someone who once escaped life under a Nazi regime. And she was, to many in 2016, an aspirational figure who lived out the American dream—as an immigrant, no less!—of bitch-slapping a traffic cop without getting summarily executed and having evidence planted on her. If John Lennon were alive, he’d have to add a verse to “Imagine” about that.
5. Fidel Castro
Remembered as the Cuban revolutionary leader whose face doesn’t adorn T-shirts and dorm-room posters, Fidel Castro is thus barely remembered by the younger set at all, except maybe as the guy who stole the trillion dollar bill from Mr. Burns. But this guy was a big deal. On one hand, he was an authoritarian strongman who clamped down on free speech, denied America’s greatness and allied himself with Russia, and brought the world closer to nuclear war. On the other, he championed universal education and health care for his people. So we can all agree half that stuff sounds pretty good, anyway. He also made an enemy of the CIA, which no one in his right mind wants to do. Where the CIA successfully assassinated that other great Caribbean revolutionary—Bob Marley—Castro constantly survived the intelligence agency’s attempts to remove him: the exploding cigar, the booby-trapped conch shell, the tunnel entrance painted onto the side of a desert cliff. Yet, he hung on for nearly six decades after the 1959 coup by which he seized power, the most infamous show of force against an unpopular leader named Bautista¹ until Roughned Odor’s brawl-inciting sucker punch in the final Rangers/Jays game of the 2016 season. Speaking of baseball, Castro was supposedly no slouch as a pitcher, although he was obviously far more effective as a left-wing political figure, making him sort of a Mirror Universe Curt Schilling. Could he have been a more successful video game developer than Curt Schilling, in another life? Yes, but that’s true of everyone on this list.
4. Nancy Reagan
Particularly after the Zsa Zsa Gabor entry, it feels wrong to define the only other woman² on this list by her spouse(s), but not only is this inevitable for a First Lady, it’s also how Nancy Reagan defined herself. Following her “meet-cute” with future president Ronald Reagan, in which she enlisted his help to avoid blacklisting due to the Red Scare, the then-actress selflessly decided to put her undistinguished onscreen career on hold in favour of helping him chase political power. (The scurrilous rumors, publicized in Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized biography, of her much more distinguished offscreen career as the reigning blowjob queen of Hollywood shall not be dignified here.) As his First Lady, she was technically his Second Lady because of his previous marriage to fellow actress Jane Wyman (ironically, a registered Republican who left him over political differences when he was still a Democrat, which is still only the second-biggest marital mistake by someone named Wyman, thanks to Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman somehow becoming his own step-grandfather-in-law without the aid of time travel). Nevertheless, she hearkens back to an era when the First Lady was actually the wife of the president rather than some other female blood relation, although Ronald often called her “Mommy” for some gross reason. Known to the public (and a chortling Kitty Kelley) for the phrase “Just Say No,” Nancy Reagan was also known for her tireless advocacy for stem-cell research following her husband’s diagnosis for Alzheimer’s. A cynic might wonder why she deserves so much praise for only doing good on an issue that personally affected her, but then again, she personally refused to help close friend Rock Hudson get potentially life-saving treatment when he was dying of AIDS, so she’s above reproach, really.
3. Gene Wilder
Whether it’s due to the human brain’s natural inclination toward pattern seeking or because Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who proposed the five stages of grief, was one of a set of identical triplets, death is said to follow a rule of threes. (So is comedy, which is no coincidence to those who regard the two as the same thing.) Three times five equals fifteen stages of grief, which sounds about right to describe the collective mourning of a trio of fey, puckish imps. There was Gene Wilder, the eccentric fudge-packer who ruled the Oompa-Loompas. And there was Prince, the tiny elfin sex god. And there was David Bowie, the bisexual alien rock star and goblin king. But let’s get back to Wilder. Oh, the guy who played Condescending Wonka died? you say. Please tell me more. First, stop being a jackass. And second, sure. For starters, he was more than a wearisome internet meme. He also starred in Blazing Saddles, about titans of industry enriching themselves at the expense of small-town Americans by exploiting their racism. And The Producers, about a fraudulent scheme involving a theatrical “love letter to Hitler.” And Young Frankenstein, about the creation of an imbecilic monster with poor impulse control. While these old-fashioned and far-fetched premises may seem to have little to offer the American public in 2016, they had some pretty good dick and fart jokes.
And now, dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to talk about the artist called Prince—or, as he is once again properly called, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. The flamboyantly coy androgyne known by an unpronounceable symbol came to an unspeakably early end, dying at a mere 57 years of age when it was assumed he’d rule in funky purple splendor over his court of session musicians and vaults of musical treasure at Paisley Park for centuries. He was as insanely competitive as he was ludicrously gifted (and not just at music; The Chappelle Show understated his gifts as a basketball player and trash-talker, if anything, and he regarded himself as the Serena Williams of ping-pong). He slept with—and feuded with—Madonna, because of course they did. He fist-fought Sinéad O’Connor. He dismissed George Michael as “ain’t shit.”³ He refused Michael Jackson’s offer to sing “Bad” as a duet because of the line “Your butt is mine.” Prince demanded that the world know that he owned our asses. So he did, and yet, beneficent ruler that he was, he returned the gift, shaking that skinny little thing for the world like the sexy motherfucker that he was.
And now we come to the final entry, the deadest person of the year. And look, a lot of people died this year. Narrowing it down to the deadest was no easy task. Each of the nine listed above battled stiff competition to make it into the top ten. But which stiff could make it into the final spot? John Glenn? Glen Frey? Glenn from The Walking Dead? Or is it someone else that you’ve already guessed? In the end, the choice was clear.
With apologies to David Bowie, the one dead person this year who truly gave people the permission to be first weird and then tedious was Harambe, the dead gorilla turned dead horse. After his death in a wild gunfight at the Cincinnati Zoo, the late silverback became comedy gold to an internet still mourning a certain supercilious chocolatier. The instantly tiresome meme became so popular that the zoo was forced to delete its social media (RIP to the Most Dead Twitter Account of 2016), and Harambe at one point actually polled ahead of Green party candidate Jill Stein as a write-in candidate in the US presidential election.
Well, hold on. That’s kind of interesting. Could Harambe actually have become president, had he lived? At first, obviously the answer is no, he was just a gorilla. But the rules merely state that the president must be a natural-born citizen over the age of 35. Let’s take that in parts. First, he was definitely natural-born. Despite the conspiracies that doubtlessly would have sprung up about his African ancestry, he was born in Brownsville, Texas, so despite his funny name, he was not only American but a red-stater at that. But was Harambe a citizen? Whereas citizenship and political participation were once exclusive to white males in the US, the franchise has been gradually extended, and now that the movement to grant legal personhood to non-human great apes is gaining steam, who knows? It would have been up to the courts. Lastly, Harambe was barely 17, an ideal age to be gawked at as a Miss Teen USA contestant, but far too young to be US president, right? But that’s in human years. As gorilla life expectancy is only 35 to 40 years, compared to humanity’s threescore and ten, they get two-for-one credit. By Inauguration Day, Harambe would have been nearly 17 years and 8 months old in human years, or 35 years and four months in gorilla years. So, yes, it’s possible that Harambe could have become president, had he not been assassinated.
The question is, in a year when Western democracy seemed so fundamentally broken as to allow “Boaty McBoatface” to win a poll to name a new UK research vessel, would enough dummies have been rushing to back a brutish, surly, low-browed, semi-intelligent primate accustomed to putting down challengers to his alpha status using only monosyllabic bluster, primitive displays of dominance, and sheer sexual aggression? We may never know.
²And this wouldn’t even be a problem if Carrie Fisher hadn’t suffered a heart attack on a transatlantic flight just before the end of 2016 (the lousy prequel to the death of her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the following day). You knew Fisher would be carried off an airplane someday; you just figured she’d be screaming and spitting. Her death caused a great disturbance in the Force and an even greater disturbance in this top-ten ranking.
³George Michael, for his part, lived long enough to dismiss Prince as “ain’t alive” before he went-went to his eternal reward on December 25, the “Last Christmas” headlines his final gift to us.
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