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Celebrity Death Weekend January 21, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in 1970s, Music, Television.

I remember once having an argument with a former colleague over the common belief that celebrities die in groups, usually in threes, over a relatively short period of days. “People die all the time!” he protested, and my counterargument was that people whose obits manage to make the front page or get their own headline and story opposite the regular obit page in the newspaper rank in the category of what I was talking about.

Well, this weekend I was proven right once again! First, chess grandmaster and well known curmudgeonly hermit lunatic Bobby Fischer died at age 64. Back in those Cold War days where ANYTHING could be turned into an American versus Russian, Rocky versus Ivan Drago type conflict, Fischer won the chess championship against Boris Spassky, thereby proving capitalism superior to communism. “I play chess FOR MEEEEEEEE!”

Sadder to me were the deaths of two television people who contributed to some truly classic programming. First was Allan Melvin, who began as Corporal Henshaw on the wonderful Phil Silvers Sergeant Bilko series in the 1950s (the recently released and Wagstaff recommended DVD collection features audio commentary and introductions by Allan Melvin), and then turned up in a plethora of material, like playing Rob’s old army buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show, or the voice of Magilla Gorilla, or the voice of Drooper on Banana Splits, or Barney Hefner on All In The Family, or as most of you are familiar with, as Sam the butcher on The Brady Bunch. Melvin was one of those guys who seemed ubiquitous on 1960s and 1970s sitcom television, along with guys like Charles Lane or Vito Scotti or John Fiedler. Just seeing them turn up at some random moment in some old episode of something always prompts a smile and a “Hey, it’s THAT guy again!”

Also passing was Suzanne Pleshette, best known for playing Emily Hartley on the classic Bob Newhart Show. She appeared in tons of other stuff (as this fansite documents pretty well), and her comic timing was impeccable. Evidently in real life, her raunchy sense of humor was sometimes jolting to Newhart’s (though Newhart often uses his calm/account persona to throw his audience when venturing into darker humor), and this helped them play off each other. You don’t see many comedies on the air these days that depict a marriage between intelligent people like that anymore, which is sad. What’s even sadder is how the cigarettes that may have provided smartasses like me all sorts of ways to make fun of her voice ultimately shortened Pleshette’s life. Let that be a lesson to you all: put down those damn cigarettes and pick up a stiff drink.

Also passing was Lois Nettleton, who I remember from the episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Midnight Sun,” where the Earth is burning up in ways that would even frighten Al Gore, and an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “The Dark Pool,” where she plays a guilt-ridden mom being psychologically tortured by none other than Madlyn Rhue, who played Mrs. Khaaaaaaaaan!!!! in “Space Seed.” Lois Nettleton was 80.

Finally, singer/songwriter John Stewart died of an aneurism. He started out as a folkie in The Kingston Trio, won lots of fame by writing “Daydream Believer” for The Monkees, and had a big hit with his own song “Gold” from a late ’70s album Bombs Away, Dream Babies. I’m not a big one for folk music, but it’s pretty clear that this guy had a decent impact on American pop music. And 68 is too damn young to die, if you ask me.

UPDATE: Geesh, speaking of too damn young, it just came over the ‘net today that Heath Ledger has died at 28 from some sort of drug overdose. The story as yet states it was some “powerful over the counter medication,” so I’m wondering if it was some sort of severe allergic reaction or accidental overdose or maybe even suicide. I guess the cause will be sorted out later. Wow.

And what do we say whenever someone famous dies?

“And Keith Richards is still alive! HOW????”



1. thegirlfromtheghetto - January 21, 2008

Professor, I think you are on to something ….

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