People Who Died - January 2022
Buckle-up because this is a long one. Okay, I have to start by apologizing for a glaring error in last year’s (month’s) top ten list. Leaving John Madden off the list was a personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct and illegal procedure all rolled into one. I am not sure it is a sin for which I can atone but perhaps remaining a Jet’s fan will be my lifelong punishment. Madden actually would have been in the top ten and not somewhere around 17 or something. Certainly above Edwin Edwards for God’s sake. Okay, enough groveling due to my stupidity. You all can take that as a given. There are lives to discuss; some of them exemplary.
This has been an especially tough month in the loss department. We lost people whose statures were both large and small but all meaningful. Coupled with the fact that I haven’t had a drink the entire month made it all the worse. Alcohol is the lubrication that often makes life far more palatable. Without it, the bad times are amplified without the ability to numb events. Thankfully, I am back on the sauce and the world is back to being in better focus for me.
Leading off (like that use of a baseball phrase to foreshadow?) this month is the loss of Dan Reilly. Okay, you are asking. This guy is the lead? Who is he? Well, he was the first person ever to ever to sport the enormous noggin that was Mister Met, the world’s most beloved mascot. Like many a star, it took Mr. Met years to reach his full potential and for Mr. Reilly, it took until his death at 83. Mr. Reilly was a Met’s employee toiling in the ticket office in 1964 when his bosses asked him to put the rather outsized papier mâché (fancy, eh) noodle, sculpted to look like a baseball, on his own noodle. Let me tell you, the first Mr. Met head makes the first Shea Apple look like a great piece of artwork. Nevertheless, Mr. Reilly, undoubtedly looking for something to break the boredom that must have existed in the Met’s ticket booth in ’64, agreed and the rest is history. He was mobbed by the young fans as he danced about. However, in 1967, Mr. Met was sent to the showers and nothing was done until 1979 when the Met’s brought in Mettle the Mule as their mascot. This only lasted for a season. Mettle proved to be the Bobby Bonilla of mascots although thankfully his contract did not require quite the payout. With Mr. Reilly gone from the Met’s organization, Mr. Met was brought out of retirement in 1994 with A.J. Mass under the dome. After that it was all glory and honor. Mr. Met was the first baseball mascot to achieve fame and he is enshrined in the Mascot Hall of Fame, which you can all visit the next time you are out in Whiting, Indiana. The point is, we all owe Mr. Reilly a great debt of gratitude for this. When first asked, he could have easily told his bosses to stick their head up their ass. He didn’t, and for those of us who love Mr. Met, we have him to thank.
Good grief. We lost the original voice of Charlie Brown. Peter Robbins, who gave voice to Charles Schultz’s cartoon character, died at 65. I will note that he was born on exactly the same day and year that I was, making us almost twins, except I do not suffer from bi-polar disorder as he did. Perhaps befitting the character he gave life to, he committed suicide. I suspect of all the Peanuts characters, Chuck, as Peppermint Patty referred to him, would be voted most likely to take his own life. Robbins started being Charlie Brown at age 9 and went on to vocalize at least six other made-for-television movies including my favorite, “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” His Charlie Brown career was over at 15 and given how popular his voice has become, having the apex of your career at 15 must have been an incredible burden to carry for the rest of his life, especially given the mental health issues he faced. Having to watch Lucy pull that football back each time he trusted her to hold it for him would have tormented me as well. We will still enjoy him each year when we tune into “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
While on the subject of voices, Ronnie Spector, whose pipes fronted the Wall of Sound, left us this month at 78. Like the Rev. Desmond Tutu waited to die until he was sure F.W. de Klerk was gone, Ronnie, I am certain, wanted to ensure that Phil was erased from this earth before she succumbed to the inevitable. If there is an afterlife, I can only imagine the revenge she will continue to seek. But it is her voice that I should be talking about because it was really the voice of an era. “Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You,” “Walkin’ in the Rain,” amongst others, are timeless classics. Billie Joel talked about how he tried to mimic her vibrato on his “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and Ronnie did him one better by recording it with the E Street Band. After The Ronettes and her marriage to Phil, Ms. Spector tried a few comebacks and surged with an Eddie Money Duet “Take me Home.” I prefer her singing with Southside Johnny on “You Mean So Much to Me Baby.” My buddy Jimmy would always drag me to her Christmas shows which were always good events. Now it’s Darlene Love, quite a force in her own regard, who is left to carry to the torch.
Tough to die the same month as Ronnie Spector if you were in a girl band but that is just what happened to Rosa Lee Hawkins, who died at 76. She was one of the three Dixie Cups. I know you are scratching your head trying to think of the tune. It’s “Going to the Chapel.” The band first performed at a high school talent show in Louisiana and even though they didn’t win, they were noticed by a producer who signed them to a record contract. My band also lost the high school talent show but all we got was to pack up our stuff and go. Perhaps it was the talent void that separated us. In any event, Ms. Hawkins cup runneth out.
Also from that era, or just a tad before, we lost Fred Parris of the Five Satins at 85. He wrote, and they recorded, the doo-wop classic “In the Still of the Night.” Notwithstanding the name, there were only four Satins on the recording. I suspect, hiring a fifth for the session may have broken the bank. Mr. Parris never wrote another hit but if you’re only going to have one, “In the still of the Night” is not a bad one to have.
“And I think somewhere somebody must be tolling a bell.” It was a tough decision as to whether to put Meat Loaf or Ronnie Spector first, but I can rest easy knowing that Marvin Lee Aday, the Meat’s birth-name, would have preferred I go with Ronnie. Bat Out of Hell was part of the soundtrack of my youth. I saw Meatloaf at the Schaeffer Music Festival, which may have by that time been renamed the Doctor Pepper Festival in Central Park’s Wollman skating rink, and not only was he larger than life, he was larger than life. I bet a whole lot of car accidents have been caused by people belting out a Meatloaf tune from Bat Out of Hell while driving and totally losing themselves in the tune causing them to “never see the southern curve till it’s way too late.” If I was, say, rear-ended by someone belting out a Meatloaf tune instead of paying attention to the road, I would have to forgive them because it is wholly understandable. Sort of the musical exception to the distracted driving laws. Notably, the album featured two members of the E. Street Band (in addition to Phil Rizzuto) on the record – Roy Bittan and Mighty Max Weinberg. Everyone knows the Rocky Horror movie start and the like so I won’t go into it. What I will go into is how much of a nice guy everyone said he was. Many talked about his humanity and when all is said and done, that may be the true measure of the man. For a take on him and the music that I do not necessarily subscribe to, I point you to the real writer in the family, my cousin Dave, who penned a piece on Mr. Loaf for Defector. In the very first Wall I did, it was Jim Steinman who died and now we have lost the front-man. It is only Todd Rundgren and Ellen Foley left to carry on.
Tough to have a band without singers but the Ventures pulled it off and got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which is an entity for which I have nothing but disdain. I mean, RNR is all about disrupting things and going against the grain which is totally antithetical to black-tie induction ceremonies and the like. Rockers ought to heed the words of Groucho and not want to have anything to do with any organization that would want them. Anyway, back to the Ventures. Their rhythm guitar player, who co-founded the band, Don Wilson, died at 88. “Walk Don’t Run was their big tune but they also had some success with the Hawaii Five-0 theme. None other than Tom Calcagni’s favorite guitar player, Eddie Van Halen, said that the Venture’s “Pipeline” was one of the first songs he learned on his guitar. The Ventures, who put out an amazing 40 albums (remember them?) launched the surf music phenomena putting a real emphasis on the guitar. And boasting a part in the start of EVH isn’t all that bad.
While I am on the music thing, Michael Lang, who along with his partners promoted the three-day Woodstock Music and Arts festival that came to define a generation, turned out the lights at 77. Now I know that millions of people claim to have actually been at Woodstock and most of them were only there in their dreams. As for me, it was the last place I would have wanted to be. Slogging around in the mud, with little to eat or drink is not my idea of a great getaway, either today, or back then. From a professional standpoint it was a debacle. If Woodstock happened today, Lang would probably be arrested and sued for his event but that just shows how sad and devoid of fun our society has become. Back then, it was all good fun as it should have been. The promoters expected 50,000 and notwithstanding everyone’s claim that they were there, they did get 400,000. As a promoter, the fact that I lost out on 350,000 ticket sales would have made me cry but Lang and his buddies took it in stride. Lang went on to other ventures including managing Joe Cocker for many years. His festival made stars of many who appeared and has become a part of the American fabric. As for Lang, he is now getting back to the land and setting his soul free.
Sidney Poitier, an actor who transcended entertainment to gain the status of icon, left us at 94. As an actor, not only did he pave the way for other actors of color, his films, such as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess who’s Coming to Dinner,” forced America, and the world, to face its discriminatory practices; practices that we continue to wrestle with to this day. Mr. Poitier never pushed and prodded but went about forcing change in an incredibly elegant matter. He would not back down but he was not in your face either unless it was on film. His confrontation with his screen father in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is as poignant today as it was when he made it in 1967. Others have written far more eloquently about him and I will leave it to them to fully describe his life and career. I will only botch it if I go farther. I just note that his life would have been fuller had Margalit Fox written the NYT obit.
Howard Hesseman, known to many as the main DJ at WKRP in Cincinnati, signed off at 81. A few months ago we lost Frank Bonner, who played Herb Tarlek the sales manager at the station, but Hessman was the main man and even though he was the counterculture character, he and Lonnie Anderson, who had a wholly different set of attributes, were the ones with heads on their shoulders. Hessman also had a big role on Head of the Class which is a show I know nothing about. He appeared an in many other shows during his career including The Rockford Files, The Bob Newhart Show and numerous hostings of Saturday Night Live. For me, however, he will always be Dr. Johnny Fever, a memory I prefer to have cemented in my psyche.
I was never a Dobie Gillis fan but I note that he, like Woodstock, is embedded into the American fabric. Dwayne Hickman, who starred as Dobie, perhaps America’s first teenage heartthrob, died at 87. He, unlike Mr. Portier is lucky enough to have Margalit Fox write is New York Times obituary and that, in and of itself, says all you need to know. Just shows that there is often no justice in this world. Regular readers of this rag know that I would gladly slit my wrists now if she would agree to write my obituary. Anyway, back to Mr. Hickman. He never wanted to be an actor but his brother did and by trailing him around he picked up more work than the guy who wanted the work. The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis, starred not only Mr. Hickman but also Bob Denver who went on to fame as the shipwrecked Gilligan and the lovely Tuesday Weld (who rumor has it had a fling with Elvis but ended it because he was too controlling) as well as Warren Beatty. Unfortunately for Mr. Hickman, the show so typecast him that work after the show was limited to such forgettable movies as “How to Stuff A Wild Bikini.” He did spend ten years with CBS as a program executive supervising the development of such shows as Maude, Good Times, Alice and M.A.S.H. That, in addition to being Dobie, makes for quite a career in my book even if you appeared in “How to Stuff A Wild Bikini.”
Not only did Peter Bogdanovich, who died this month at 82, have a ten-year relationship with Cybil Shepherd and therefore presumably slept with her, a feat which in-and-of-itself warrants his inclusion in this blog, Margalit Fox wrote his obit. Those are things to boast even if one has to die to do so. Along the way he directed some pretty good films, such as “What’s Up Doc,” “Paper Moon,” “The Cat’s Meow” ad his most lauded “The Last Picture Show.” He also had a messy personal life and bankruptcies. He was able to end up with a recurring role as Loraine Bracco’s physiatrist who was Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist on the Sopranos. Not a bad way to go out.
Lovable Louie Anderson who in size was sort of Meatloaf-like, died at 68. I liked his self-deprecating stand-up act and sort of lost sight of him after that as his career moved to what must be lucrative but boring game-show hell. I know he won some Emmy’s for shows but none that I have watched. He wound up hosting Family Feud, although he was hardly Richard Dawson-like. Anyway, I choose to remember has stand-up so he is in a good light.
Bob Saget also died. He was 65 and generally, since he never really hit my radar, I wouldn’t include him but that would engender a few e-mails about how I missed someone so here he is. Also, his death garnered a lot of buzz mostly because it was unexpected and because people who knew him talked so highly of him. It’s that humanity thing, like with Meatloaf, that so impressed me. I knew he did America’s Funniest Videos and played Danny Tanner on Full House but didn’t realize that his stand-up act, unlike his television persona, was pretty raunchy. Good for him. Now I have respect.
Did I mention the Jets before? I think I did. There was a time when they had glory but that was long, long, ago. One of the guys who gave them glory was Don Maynard who died at 86. Maynard, a country-boy from Crosbyton, Texas, who showed up at Jets camp wearing full cowboy regalia, was the anti-Broadway Joe. However, he could run and catch and he and Namath hooked up for 633 receptions resulting in 88 touchdowns and a memorable win over the Baltimore Colts in 1969 that not only gave the Jets the Superbowl but the AFC credibility. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987, one of only three Jets players (Weeb Eubank made it as a coach) to attain such glory; the others being Namath and Curtis Martin. Since he and Namath won that Superbowl the Jets have done nothing but suck.
Sticking with sports, Clark Gillies of Islanders fame died at 67. He, along with Brian Trottier and Mike Bossy led the New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cup victories in the early 80’s, totally crushing the souls of Ranger fans like myself. I mean, they were from Long Island, for God’s, sake. How could they win anything? It’s like the New Jersey Devils winning and having their victory parade in a parking lot. There is sometimes just no justice. But I won’t let my petty sports allegiances get in the way of acknowledging the greatness of Mr. Gillies, a hockey Hall of Fame inductee. Gillies played minor league baseball for the Huston Astros but hockey was his real love and save for the last two years of his career, he played for the Islanders. Although I am a Ranger fan, when Gillies, as a rookie, pummeled Dave Schultz of Philadelphia in a brawl, who couldn’t stand and applaud? That was hockey greatness, as were the 304 regular season goals he scored. He lived on Long Island after his playing days and was instrumental in philanthropic causes for disabled youth. Just check out the Clark Gillies Foundation.
In passing, I will note the passing of Dan Reeves at age 77. Like far too many people who played professional football, the cause of his death was dementia. Like Marv Levy, Dan Reeves was a great football coach who will unfortunately be remembered for losing four Super Bowls. Three of those losses were with the Denver Broncos where he fired his offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan (father of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers coach), fought with its star quarterback John Elway and clashed with the team owner, never a smart thing to do. Not shockingly, he was fired from the Bronco’s, coached the New York Giants where, not learning his lesson, he pissed-off Giant’s management (not an easy thing to do) and wound up in Atlanta, coaching the Falcons. He made it to his fourth Super Bowl with Atlanta where he met up with his old Bronco’s now coached by Mike Shanahan who proceeded to kick Atlanta’s ass, thereby sealing Reeve’s fate as someone who couldn’t win the big one. Then again, how many of us could? Other than in the Super Bowl and with his relationship with owners, Reeves was a magnificent coach. His hard-headedness, which made him a great coach, also made him one susceptible to being fired because coaches, like the players, work for, and cannot dictate to, the owners.
And lastly in sports, we lost Eddie Basinski at 99 who is notable, not so much as a great baseball player, but one of the few who could field his position and play Strauss waltzes on the violin during pre and post-game. He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers for a time when baseball’s ranks were depleted due to players enlisting to fight in WWII. He filled in for Dodger’s shortstop Pee Wee Reese and lost his job and was sent to the minors when Reese returned from the Navy. He also played a season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Prior to his baseball career, he played the violin in the Buffalo University Symphony Orchestra. Between games at the minor league Portland Beavers, he would play for the fans. That is what you call a utility player.
Finally this month, a colleague of mine when I was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Neil Gallagher, died at 68. Neil was a gentle soul with a good, dry, sense of humor who did not chase riches but rather fair results. When we leave this earth, it matters not how many toys we have in the garage. What matters is the relationships we formed and the lives we touched. In this, Neil died a rich man.