Good Bye and Good Luck

A salute to the greats who died in 2010, by the New York Observer’s star film critic

The word goodbye takes on a somber and rueful new meaning as I begin the annual task of wrapping up an old year by waving adios to the bearded man with the scythe, and welcoming a new kid on the block with his year to grow. We lost so many famous and celebrated people in 2010 that by midsummer I already had 35 pages of handwritten names. So before we begin anew, join me in a toast to those who departed in the year just ending. “Attention must be paid,” wrote Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman, and that applies to one and all.

Topping the list of my personal losses is Jean Simmons, my loyal and cherished friend for 40 years, and a legendary star. She was nominated for two Oscars, won an Emmy and starred Spartacus, Guys and Dolls and Big Country). From the good old days when we were the unbeaten partners who staged canasta parties every New Year’s Eve, to strawberry picking in muddy Connecticut and crawling around trying to find her lost reading glasses at the re-release of Spartacus, we had some laughs.

In a diminishing world of first-rate singers, the sadness was overwhelming when Lena Horne died at 92, smoldering through her last eight bars with no reprise. Lena broke every rule and crashed through every barrier with her supersonic talent and breathtaking beauty. She was an international star of films, Broadway musicals, concert stages, Las Vegas and soignée supper clubs. Yet she never achieved the respect, personal happiness or household fame she deserved. Still, Lena became a civil rights activist, proud member of the NAACP, and got even with a life well lived in an unenlightened age. I loved my friendship with Lena. She always called journalist Liz Smith and me her “adopted white children,” and one of my fondest memories was sitting on her lap one night at a party where she fed me birthday cake with long, elegant fingers dazzled by diamonds.

Who could forget Patricia Neal, 1964 Oscar winner for Hud, a model of courage who learned to walk and speak all over again after three paralyzing strokes, then returned to the screen in 1968 in The Subject Was Roses.

It’s been a terrible time for the Redgrave acting dynasty. Following Natasha Richardson, 2010 marked a final curtain call for her uncle, Corin Redgrave, and her aunt, Lynn Redgrave, who lost her battle with cancer at 67.

The year 2010 also framed final close-up for Bronx-born dese-dem-and-doser (and Las Vegas transplant) Tony Curtis, 85, whose career never amounted to much more than a T-shirt and a tight pair of jeans until Sweet Smell of Success in 1957. Then he made up for lost time with Spartacus, Some Like It Hot and others. Somewhere along the way, he also learned to act.

Who will take up the hell-raising reins surrendered by actor (and chair of CineVegas) Dennis Hopper? At 74, the cinema’s raunchiest rebel without a cause had long ago overcome his Easy Rider mantle as psychedelic guru to become a grizzled character actor riddled with repercussions from his excessive early years. He was, to put it succinctly, a mess. But he was also a far cry from his National Enquirer image.

The list of sayonaras goes on. An Unmarried Woman Jill Clayburgh lost her 21-year battle with leukemia at a still-young 66. Ilene Woods, 81, was the voice of Cinderella in Disney’s timeless classic. Peter Graves, the impossibly handsome, square-jawed hunk who never became a star until he spoofed his own image in Airplane! as the closeted all-American pedophile pilot with a special passion for little boys visiting his cockpit; child star Corey Haim (The Lost Boys) who shocked the world when he died of pneumonia at 38; James Mitchell, the brilliant American Ballet Theatre star who joined the soap opera All My Children for the next 30 years.

The cameras stopped rolling for James McArthur, forever youthful son of Helen Hayes and star of a string of Disney classics who was most famous for his role as Danno on Hawaii Five-O; Gloria Stuart, 100, glamorous blonde in ’30s horror flicks who made a miraculous, Oscar-nominated comeback in 1997 as the elderly survivor in Titanic. It was one last double-take for Leslie Nielsen, a serious actor who never lived up to the potential of his early dramatic work on Ransom! and Forbidden Planet. Sidetracked in dumb Naked Gun farces, he got rich, but the acting career went over the falls in a barrel.

Among the TV pioneers who watched their final test-pattern fade in 2010: Living-room sitcom favorite and Tony winner Tom Bosley who spent 11 years on Happy Days as Richie Cunningham’s dad; Barbara Billingsley, who, as June Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver, was the perfect Eisenhower-era wife and mother, wearing high heels and pearls even when running the vacuum cleaner. No more cable re-runs for Pernell Roberts, the eldest Cartwright son on Bonanza. No more ratings wars for Art Linkletter, the CBS House Party host for 18 years, or for the ever-precocious Gary Coleman (Diff’rent Strokes). Fess Parker, TV’s Davy Crockett, hung up his coonskin cap, and sportscaster Don Meredith called his last shot from the 40-yard line on Monday Night Football.

I was devastated by the early exits of my two favorite Southern belles—oversexed Golden Girl Rue McClanahan and honey-dripping Tennessee glamourpuss Dixie Carter (Designing Women).

Literature will be less readable without my favorite author, J. D. Salinger. One seriously weird dude, he drank his own urine and spoke in tongues, but he also raised the bar for aspiring writers throughout the world. Another man of letters who locked his typewriter away was Erich Segal (they slammed Love Story, but it sold more than 21 million copies, proving “Success means never having to say you’re sorry”).

Music will sound sour without swinging pianist Hank Jones; soul singer Teddy Pendergrass; Canada’s Rob McConnell, the last of the great jazz orchestra leaders who wrote and conducted big brass arrangements for Mel Tormé’s Velvet and Brass album (for which I wrote the liner notes).

It was a year of losses, from Glen Bell, who founded Taco Bell, to Agathe von Trapp, the last of the singing Sound of Music family. She was little Liesl in the movie who sang “16 Going on 17”, but she died at 97. Time flies when you’re humming.

Hard to believe they all shuffled off this mortal coil in 2010. Before Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) died in 1969, he said, “I’ll be back.” In my dreams, so will they all.