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Every generation has its own heroes, its own storyline and, too often, its own moments of forgetfulness.
Well into the 21st century, it’s not surprising that a Hollywood superstar like Doris Day, who died in May at 97, is barely remembered by many today. Blonde, pert and wholesome, Day was the No. 1 box office draw in the early 1960s, co-starring in double-entendre comedies like “Pillow Talk” before becoming a tireless advocate for animal rights.
Similarly, many of Doris Day’s baby boomer fans did not share Generation X’s sorrow in March over the death of Luke Perry, 52, the heartthrob star of “Beverly Hills, 90210” in the 1990s. Even more mystifying to all, especially the burgeoning Korean pop universe, were the deaths of singers Sulli, who apparently killed herself at 25 after hitting the heights on TV and in movies, and her friend Goo Hara, 28, who did the same.
What used to be a generation gap is now a series of generation bubbles, self-defined and too often limited by their media landscape. When it comes to “Passages,” USA TODAY’s annual remembrance of notable deaths, this fragmentation makes it even more important that those who made a difference, who changed perceptions, broke barriers or advanced the human condition, be recognized and celebrated regardless of generational branding.
That’s because the best of us leave works, impressions, even small moments of encouragement and family lore that can resonate long after we are gone. And the memories come in many forms.
Those who passed in 2019 range from the most exacting of disciplines, such as architect I.M. Pei, 102, whose daring designs include the gleaming glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, to Peter Mayhew, 74, the soft-spoken 7-foot-2 actor who delighted audiences as Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” movies.
They include Caroll Spinney, 85, the gentle puppeteer who brought Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life for decades on “Sesame Street,” and, at the other extreme, the macabre cartoonist Gahan Wilson, 89, who mixed chills and laughter in The New Yorker.
A towering literary talent was Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison, 88, an unblinking chronicler of America’s deepest wounds. Her books such as “Beloved,” “Paradise” and “The Song of Solomon” probed the divisions of class and circumstance, slavery and skin color. “Our seer. Our truth-teller,” said her friend Oprah Winfrey. “A magician with language.”
Fans of all ages rallied around actress Valerie Harper, who succumbed to cancer at 80. Her portrayal of Rhoda Morgenstern, a glib New Yorker adrift in the Midwest on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” set a standard for relatable characters on television. Another “Moore” alumna, Georgia Engel, 70, who played Ted Baxter’s wide-eyed girlfriend Georgette, also passed away.
A child of Washington politicians, ABC and NPR newswoman Cokie Roberts, 75, was still able to bring restraint and intelligence to her newscasts, a pioneer for a new wave of female journalists and so different from the often-shrill TV journalism of today.
Tony Award winner Diahann Carroll, 84, broke barriers in the series “Julia,” portraying a middle-class nurse in 1968. Despite criticism that the show painted too rosy a picture of black life, Carroll insisted the show “is not going to be about suffering in the ghetto.” It foreshadowed numerous portrayals of African Americans on TV.
Deadpan comedian Tim Conway, 85, routinely broke up the set on “The Carol Burnett Show”; squinty-eyed Arte Johnson, 90, made “Verrrrrrry eenteresting” a catchphrase on “Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In”; Bob Einstein, 76, played goofball stuntman Super Dave Osborne and, later, Larry David’s hapless friend on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”; and John Witherspoon, 77, of the “Friday” movies also memorably played father to the Wayans brothers on TV.
It’s hard to forget Las Vegas comic Rip Taylor, 88, who made wild entrances throwing confetti on the audience and sometimes taking off his cheap toupee.
“Hello, Dolly!” star Carol Channing, 97, could light up Broadway with her ever-present smile; the memorably-named Rip Torn, 88, played a foul-mouthed producer on HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show;” and Danny Aiello, 86, is remembered for “Moonstruck” and “Do the Right Thing.”
The oldest of the “OK, boomer” demographic from the 1950s will recall Karen Pendleton, 73, one of the original Mouseketeers; Russi Taylor, 75, the voice of Minnie Mouse; and Julie Adams, 92, who survived the “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
The counterculture of the 1960s was represented by a defiant Peter Fonda, 79, in “Easy Rider,” and then Peggy Lipton, 72, who tried to work from within the system as a member of “The Mod Squad” on TV.
For a much younger set, the death from epilepsy of Cameron Boyce, 20, star of Disney Channel's "Jessie" and "The Descendants," caused unexpected family discussions of fame and mortality.
Behind the scenes were several giants of show business: Stanley Donen, 94, directed iconic musicals like “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and producer and director Harold Prince, 91, won 21 Tonys for shows such as “Cabaret” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Also gone are Hollywood producer Robert Evans, 89 (“Chinatown,” “Urban Cowboy”); director John Singleton, 51 (“Boyz n the Hood”); and Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, 96 (“Romeo and Juliet”) and Broadway composer ("Hello Dolly" and "Mame"), Jerry Herman, 88.
Among actors were five-time Oscar nominee Albert Finney, 82; eternal ingenue Carol Lynley, 77; “Airwolf” pilot Jan-Michael Vincent, 74; J.R.’s adversary on “Dallas,” Ken Kercheval, 83; B-movie stalwart Dick Miller, 90; “Blade Runner” replicant Rutger Hauer, 75; character actor Robert Forster, 78, an Oscar nominee for “Jackie Brown”; and David Hedison, 92, who cried “Help me!” in 1958’s “The Fly,” and was captain on “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.”
The world of “Star Trek” lost Michael J. Pollard, 80, who portrayed an alien flower child (and was nominated for an Oscar for 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde”); Robert Walker Jr., 79; Rene Auberjonois, 79, of “Deep Space Nine”; and D.C. Fontana, 80, one of a few female “Trek” writers. “She was a pioneer,” said William Shatner.
Reflections on a more respectful political time followed the deaths of former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens, 99; former French president Jacques Chirac, 86; former senators and Democratic presidential hopefuls Birch Bayh, 91, of Indiana and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, 97, of South Carolina; and plain-talking businessman Ross Perot, 89, who mounted independent campaigns in 1992 and 1996. Perot in some ways paved the way for Donald Trump and other non-politicians now seeking office.
Several longtime congressmen left historic legacies: Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., 68, John Conyers, D-Mich., 90, and John Dingell, D-Mich., 92, together served almost 160 years. Also lost were former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, 92, and William Ruckelshaus, 87, who resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor during Watergate in 1973.
Other newsmakers included fashion designers Gloria Vanderbilt, 95, and Karl Lagerfeld, 85; Bernice Sandler, 90, who helped create Title IX protections for girls and women in education, including sports; Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, 85, in 1965 the first human to walk in space; auto industry titan Lee Iacocca, 94, who helped launch the Ford Mustang; oil and gas financier T. Boone Pickens, 91; billionaire David Koch, 79, who financed conservative causes; and Creole chef Leah Chase, 96, whose Dooky Chase's Restaurant in New Orleans became a gathering spot for civil rights activists.
Literature lost Harold Bloom, 89, a defender of classical traditions; columnist Russell Baker, 93; novelist Herman Wouk, 103; romance specialist Judith Krantz, 91; novelist Paule Marshall, 90; southern novelist Anne Rivers Siddons, 83; and poet Mary Oliver, 83. Paul Krassner, 87, was an incendiary free-speech advocate and editor of the far-left journal “The Realist.”
Familiar journalistic figures included NBC convention floor reporter Sander Vanocur, 91; ABC’s Sylvia Chase, 80; sports announcer Jack Whitaker, 95; editor Ray Jenkins, 89, who in covering civil rights said he had a “ringside seat to history”; columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, 84; and one of Broadway’s harshest critics, John Simon, 94. Also gone was controversial shock jock and political talk show host Don Imus, 79.
Sports figures reach deep into the last century, names like baseball star Frank Robinson, 83, who was MVP in both the American and National leagues and the first African American manager in either; Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, 85, winner of the first two Super Bowls; pitcher Jim Bouton, 80, whose tell-all book “Ball Four” revealed the seamier side of the game; and star-crossed Bill Buckner, 69, whose error at first base cost the Boston Red Sox a crucial World Series game in 1986.
Gone also are John Havlicek, 79, eight-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics; Nick Buoniconti, 78, linebacker for the Miami Dolphins during their undefeated season in 1972; pitchers Don Newcombe, 92, and Mel Stottlemyre, 77; motor racer and TV host Jessi Combs, 39, “the fastest woman on four wheels” who died in a jet-powered land-speed crash; and NASCAR racing legend and inaugural Hall of Famer Robert Glenn Johnson Jr., 88, better known as Junior Johnson.
Opera mourned majestic soprano Jessye Norman, 74 – “the regal mistress of this domain,” said The New York Times – whose career took her from Howard University to La Scala in Milan and later to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, a memorial for Jackie Kennedy Onassis and the opening of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
The heavy metal thunder of drummer Ginger Baker, 80, is gone, leaving Eric Clapton as the last living member of Cream. Music also lost composer Andre Previn, 89; the pop-rock wit of The Cars, Ric Ocasek, 75; policeman-turned-hitmaker Eddie Money, 70; Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere, 71; Peter Tork, 77, of The Monkees; Daryl Dragon, 76, of Captain & Tennille; the deep-voiced Leon Redbone, 69; and Robert Hunter, 78, mystical lyricist for The Grateful Dead.
Joyous yet somber New Orleans-style funerals were held for Art Neville, 81, of The Meters and Neville Brothers, and for Dr. John, 77, whose rolling piano and deep Louisiana accent so defined the city and its music.
“He was a beautiful soul,’’ said New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell in a tweet after Dr. John’s death. “We say goodnight to the Nite Tripper & goodbye to a unique talent. May he rest in God’s perfect peace.”
This is the ninth “Passages” essay by David Colton, a former executive editor at USA TODAY. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Luke Perry to Toni Morrison to Frank Robinson: Those who died in 2019