Each year at this time, newspapers publish their death lists. Lists of famous people who died over the past 12 months, so that we can, what? Take stock as the new year approaches? I suppose that’s it. It is, after all, interesting to see the names of those who have gone on to the great beyond, if for no other reason than to reassure ourselves that we are all equal in the eyes of mortality. That no matter how much money or fame one has, we’ll all end up in the same place. Probably. End of story. Beyond that, I like to go over the list because I am inevitably surprised to see one or two deaths I knew nothing about and a few others I’ve forgotten. Like Peter Falk.
I forgot Peter had died. Doesn’t seem possible. Columbo, dead. I started watching the adventures of the famous detective in 1971, while attending the University of Minnesota and working as a duty director for KSTP-TV. Part of my job was to monitor the programming we were sending out over the air. Consequently, I watched all the newest shows, including the three original features that went into the weekly rotation of the NBC Mystery Movie. The three were, McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver, McMillan and Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, and Columbo with Peter Falk.
22 years later I’d have the priveledge of getting to know Peter, while doing a bit part on Columbo: I’ts All In The Game. That’s one of the great advantages of spending years in journalism, or in my case, in journalism and in Hollywood. You get to meet some really interesting people. You might even luck into a small part on a hit show.
The last time I saw pianist Roger Williams, was at his home in Encino. I was there doing an interview about something or another, can’t remember what. A terrific gentleman, Williams insisted upon giving me a copy of his latest CD. He said he had a stack of CD’s in a storage room near the back of the house. I followed him into the room. In a scene reminiscent of Citizen Kane, it was jammed absolutely full of memorabilia. It struck me that I was looking at the man’s life. And that this probably, was not something a lot of people would ever see. He autographed a CD for me. I still have it. You get to meet some interesting people. Sometimes, they’re on the list. The newspaper says he died at home. I wonder if it was in that room surrounded by the autumn leaves of his life. According to Billboard, he was “the top selling piano recording artist in history with 18 gold and platinum albums to his credit.”
This year’s list is noteworthy for Minnesotans, because a couple of the names are our homies. And they’re big names, too. Jane Russel, major movie star and girlfriend to Howard Hughes (legend has it he invented a new type of wire-framed support bra for her) began her life in Bemidji. I bet you had no idea she was a Bemidji girl? No less noteworthy, James Arness, “Marshal Dillon” of Gunsmoke fame is a native of Minneapolis. During World War II, Arness, was among the first rifelmen to hit the beach at Anzio. According to a piece in Wikipedia, “His decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars, the World War II Victory Medal and the Combat Infantryman Badge.”
At 6 feet 7 inches tall, Arness must have made one hell of a target.
Also from Minnesota, Eleanor Mondale, made the list. Well, not the Los Angeles Times list, but she can be found if you click over to the Boston Globe. According to the Globe, “she is the vivacious daughter of former Vice President Walter Mondale who carved out her own reputation as an entertainment reporter, radio show host and gossip magnet, died at her home in Minnesota. She was 51.”
I was there when the carving began. I was working as a reporter for KABC-TV, in the mid-80’s. One day Eleanor Mondale showed up. As I recall no one was exactly sure what she was going to do, except that she wanted to be on the air. And so it began. The same thing happened with Ron Reagan, Jr., who showed up at KABC one day and began bird-dogging my old friend and fellow reporter, the late Fred Anderson. The younger Reagan, wanted to learn how to be a reporter, and Fred, was given the task of taking him on as his apprentice. Maybe ABC had done the Democrats a favor with Eleanor Mondale, so they felt a need to do the same for a prominent Republican family? I’m not sure, but I did get the impression that family connections matter. Except when it comes to the hereafter. Eleanor Mondale, died of a brain tumor. To the best of my knowledge, Ron Reagan Jr., is just fine.
Harmon Killebrew, wasn’t born in Minnesota, and he was only 5 feet 11 inches tall, but he had some great years with the Twins. According to the Los Angeles Times, Killebrew hit 573 home runs in 22 seasons. A giant, who stood 5 feet 11 inches. He wasn’t alone. This year’s train left the station with some very impressive people on board. Including the lady with those amazing violet eyes.
Some like to call her “Liz,” but to me, she will always be “Miss Taylor.” Because that’s who she was. She was one of the giants, one of a dying breed of true movie stars, and she really did have violet eyes. I know, because I saw them. It was at a fundraiser to fight AIDS in Santa Monica. She was no longer a young woman but her presence was commanding. She demanded (and got) respect. Even from a roomful of jaded reporters. Those amazing violet eyes had lost none of their power.
And finally, a tip o’ the hat to my old buddy and former Pirates Manager, Chuck Tanner. One of the nicest guys in (or out of) baseball. Chuck took the Bucs to a World Series win against the Orioles in 1979.
In what’s become a tradition, there are 164 names on this year’s list published by the Los Angeles Times. Maybe looking back helps us look forward? Click here for a link to the list and links to full obituaries.