20 Famous People You Didn’t Notice Died In 2016 (Part 1)
In the time it takes you to read this sentence, it's likely that at least eight more beloved celebrities will have died. This year has already claimed David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Prince, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, and many, many more. So many, in fact, that it's easy to overlook that some true greats you might not have heard of also left this realm. In keeping with tradition, we now look at the folks whose passing didn't create Prince-level national mourning, but who still deserve a posthumous tip of the hat.
Note: There are enough of these that it takes two articles to cover them all. We'll be back with the rest tomorrow.
Jan. 11: The Mayor Of Ghostbusters
David Margulies, film and stage actor.
He's got one of those super-recognizable faces. Margulies was a veteran of the stage before he started taking movie roles in the late 1970s. And soon after that came the role he's most associated with: the mayor of New York in the Ghostbusters movies. Clearly modeled after real-life NYC mayor Ed Koch, Margulies offered a cool head and confident leadership in the two films, even as Slimer and pink ooze were deep-dicking the city.
Margulies might have even had the funniest line in the otherwise-not-great-but-not-terrible-it's-alright Ghostbusters II. When confronted with a river of slime and its connection to negative emotions, he asks, "What am I supposed to do? Go on television and tell 10 million people they have to be nice to each other? Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker's God-given right!"
Jan. 11: The Black Baseball Pioneer You Don't Know
Monte Irvin, professional baseball player and MLB executive.
Most people are aware that Jackie Robinson was the first baseball player to break the sport's color barrier. Of course, he wasn't the only outstanding player who was left out of the good ol' boys club of Major League Baseball. Countless other athletes were toiling around in the Negro Leagues hoping for a shot at the big time. Irvin finally got his chance in 1949, two years after Robinson made history. Irvin was already at a ripe 30 years old, however, so he was heading into the later stages of his talent. He still put up fine numbers for his short time in the majors, and even mentored a young Willie Mays.
"When you swing, pretend the ball is some racist saying the N-word."
But Irvin's most important work would come after he stopped playing in 1956. He would go on to serve as the sport's first black executive in 1968, handling the position of promotions and public relations, which he did for 16 years. He also had a hand in getting all of those amazing Negro League players into the baseball Hall of Fame, heading up a committee that got Irvin himself inducted in 1973.
So when you hear of Jackie Robinson and his incredibly important contributions, also remember that there were tons of guys like Monte Irvin who couldn't have the chance to display their talents on the biggest stage because of a bunch of petty shitheads.
Jan 26: Wait, He Just Died This Year?
Abe Vigoda, actor.
The most notable traitor in American mafia movie fiction, Abe Vigoda actually died this time. A running joke since 1982, the death of the actor was such a frequent subject of reporting that a website was launched in 2001 to keep people abreast of how Abe was doing:
But there was more to the man than an internet myth. As we mentioned, Vigoda's most celebrated role was Tessio in The Godfather, in which he betrayed the Corleone family so he could get all the cannoli (or something).
"At least Fredo will live to see the success of this family."
After the depressing daily routine of acting alongside the squirrel-cheeked lunatic Marlon Brando, Vigoda took on some comedy roles, most notably in Barney Miller, Look Who's Talking, and the criminally underrated Joe Versus The Volcano.
But still, the joke of perpetually being thought dead was kind of his thing. It was referenced on numerous late-night shows. There was at one time an iPhone app that kept tabs on him. They even talked about it in the movie Good Burger, proving that he was always fine with being in on the joke.
"Tell Ed and Dexter it was only business."
Jan. 28: Two Founding Members Of Jefferson Airplane
Guitarist Paul Kantner and vocalist Signe Anderson, founding members of the rock group.
Yes, two members of the same band separately on the same day, both of natural causes. Weird.
Anyway, you've likely heard the hits from Jefferson Airplane. "White Rabbit" is in every war movie and every scene that involves something trippy. "Somebody To Love" was immortalized by a rabid Jim Carrey in a karaoke performance in The Cable Guy. But they had a story before their hits started rolling in.
It was Kantner who put the group together in 1965. He played guitar and did some of the singing, but it wasn't until he met Anderson that they truly had their first true singer and frontwoman. They recorded an album and began gaining a legit following. As Jefferson Airplane was gaining popularity, Anderson gave birth and opted to forego the grueling schedule of touring and band life to focus on her family instead. Grace Slick would replace her as the lead singer, and things took off for the group from there.
Kantner would be around to enjoy the success, and would stay with the group through several eras and incarnations. He was even there when the group morphed into Jefferson Starship, which would one day record the unfortunate '80s hit "We Built This City." Kantner wasn't around for that turd, but he did gather the Airplane gang together again in 1989 and 1996, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So the first true Jefferson Airplane singer, whom most fans may not even know much about, and the guitarist who recruited her passed on the same day. Man, that's trippy. We bet there's a song for that ...
Feb. 15: The Police Academy Commandant
George Gaynes, actor in Punky Brewster and the many, MANY Police Academy movies.
George Gaynes got a late start at the whole acting thing. He was born in Finland, served in the Royal Netherlands Navy, and afterward embarked on a journey to the States. He got his citizenship and then did some work on Broadway, getting a few bit parts here and there. He was in Tootsie, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and The Way We Were, but it wasn't until 1984 that Gaynes got his break. That year, he took the role of the foster parent Henry Warnimont in the Punky Brewster TV show, in which child star Soleil Moon Frye dealt with his grouchy-ass antics while also softening his rough edges.
It's also possibly a haunting tale of an elderly man hallucinating a daughter to deal with crippling loneliness.
That same year, he was offered the legendary part of Commandant Eric Lassard in Police Academy. One could argue he was the worst person at his job ever, but his graceful, aloof leadership calmed the waters, and that's the kind of spirit you need when Mahoney and Captain Harris are butting heads, right?
Just don't fuck with his fish.
Gaynes would embrace the role, and returned for all six sequels. Which is proof that if you find something you're good at, you ride it until it the wheels fall off.
Feb. 25: The Trainer From Rocky
Tony Burton, aka "Duke" Evers from the Rocky franchise.
Before he got cast in history's most famous boxing movie, Tony Burton had experience with the real thing. Hailing from Flint, Michigan, he won two major boxing awards in 1955 and 1957. He took that knowledge and applied it to the tough-nosed Tony "Duke" Evers, who trains the veteran boxer Apollo Creed against the chicken-chasing, meat-punching, English-language-mangling upstart Rocky Balboa.
Things take an an abrupt left turn in the fourth Rocky movie when Apollo is killed in the ring by walking embodiment of the USSR Ivan Drago. "Duke" decides to help Apollo's legacy live on by being Rocky's cornerman.
"He's not really dead, doh, right?" -- a confused Stallone
And so it went. Burton was one of four actors to appear in all six of the first Rocky movies, though he wasn't in Creed (he is mentioned in it). Odd side note: Burton played the guy in charge of snowplows in The Shining ...
... and developed a sweet off-screen friendship with director Stanley Kubrick. He was only in two brief scenes, but stayed on the shoot for several weeks because he and Kubrick were playing chess so much.
"You win, you get to open the blood elevator."
Feb. 28: Frank Drebin's Partner
George Kennedy, actor.
One of the Old Hollywood "man's man" types, Kennedy won an Oscar for playing chain gang prisoner Dragline in Cool Hand Luke. There was probably a reason he was cast as the tough-guy type -- he spent 15 years in the army before diving into acting. And Kennedy was a large fuckin' guy, too.
It takes a lot of man to dwarf Paul Newman.
He served under the legendary George Patton (whom he would also play in a 1978 film), and was fairly decorated before a weird preexisting leg condition forced him to leave and start acting. And military acting came easy to him, as one would expect; he had a part in the early Sgt. Bilko TV series.
Yeah, the old one. Not the Steve Martin one that won all those awards.
But the role that stole our hearts was the clueless Ed Hocken in the Naked Gun series. It was a complete break from the kind of roles he was known for. He was the perfect foil to bumbling Frank Drebin, and played off of the total goodhearted innocence of O.J. Simpson.
Pictured: Kennedy with co-star Enrico Pallazzo.
Mar. 22: The Lovable Crack-Smoking Canadian Mayor
Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto.
There is logically no reason for anyone in America to know the name of Toronto's mayor. But holy shit, did a bunch of us know about Rob Ford. Imagine a drunken politician character in a sitcom, then imagine how that character would behave in season 11, long after the show had jumped the shark and every character had become a walking caricature.
Ford was one of those "anti-politician" types who gained the trust of the voters through a working-class persona. He fought his way into Toronto's mayoral seat in 2010. In classic Canadian fashion, his platforms were fiscal conservatism and subway expansion. None of that is why most of you know his name.
Sadly, the only man capable of playing him in the biopic is also dead.
During his time in office, Ford pretty much put on a Belushi-esque performance when it came to public drunkenness, DUI's, and, most famously, a crack-smoking incident. While initially denying his involvement (even with video evidence!), he came around and admitted to that he did indeed smoke crack, "probably during one of drunken stupors." He once got drunk at a hockey game and had to be escorted out by security after getting into a confrontation with fans sitting behind him. When a former colleague accused him of telling a female staffer, "I want to eat your pussy," Ford defended himself by saying, on television, "I'm happily married, I have more than enough to eat at home."
His 2014 reelection bid was cut short when he found that he was developing cancer approximately everywhere. His brother tried to run in his place, but it seems the novelty had worn off by that point.
Mar. 22: The Small Rap Giant
Phife Dawg, rapper and founding member of A Tribe Called Quest.
Born in Queens and growing up during the great NYC age of early rap, all 5 feet, 3 inches of Phife Dawg helped propel the music of the city to a wider audience, with the help of his hugely influential group A Tribe Called Quest. While tiny in stature, his signature gruff delivery and minimalist rap flow meshed perfectly with the cerebral stylings of Q-Tip (whom he had known since age two).
The group's first three albums are widely considered classics, with their inventive samples and jazzy sound. In an era when gangsta rap was blowing up, Tribe had a little more of a thoughtful side. Cuddly, even. But while the group was doing well, Phife (born Malik Taylor) was having all sorts of health problems that didn't lend themselves well to touring and the constant grind of the music business. His rampant diabetes led to a kidney transplant in 2008. (He once said he was addicted to sugar -- how many musicians must we lose before we address this?)
Phife was able to show up for the odd reunion show after the transplant, mostly to help with the costs of treatment. Their performance on The Tonight Show in late 2015 would be the last time that Phife would share the stage with the group that changed the face and attitude of hip-hop.
Mar. 27: The Infomercial Nun
Mother Angelica, Global Catholic Network founder.
Have you ever flipped past your main bubble of TV channels and accidentally wandered into the upper numbers? If you've stumbled into that hodgepodge of commercials for Beach Boy hits, squinting evangelists, and ads for space-age egg cookers, you've probably seen Mother Angelica a few times.
Born in 1920s Ohio, she quickly developed a love of religion, and she joined a monastery nearby at age 21. She stayed there until she went to help open a new one in Alabama in 1962. She took her last 200 bucks and began broadcasting a religious talk show out of a garage near the monastery.
That little operation would grow into the Eternal Word Television Network, which now has 11 networks which beam religious programming to 145 countries and, let's see here ... 258 million fucking households.
Apr. 19: The Man Who Gave A Song To Ice Cream Trucks Everywhere
Les Waas, jingle writer.
Founded in Philadelphia in 1956, the Mister Softee ice cream company soon spread all over the country, like a delicious river of sweet milk. Fifteen states and, oddly enough, China, now have the famous ice cream trucks dragging a cloud of running children with them through the streets every summer. Those kids came running at the sound of the catchy, tinkling song that would play in commercials and through the speakers on top of the ice cream trucks. Les Waas was responsible for that particular earworm.
Waas had been an ad man in the 1950s, writing over a thousand jingles for a diverse group of companies, from the Coast Guard to American Bandstand to Holiday Inn. But his best work would come in 1960, when Mister Softee fired its original mascot, "Drippy the Impotent Waffle Cone," and enlisted Waas to create a theme for the company. The music-box-like jingle has since become a huge part of pop culture, being featured as a Curb Your Enthusiasm plot in which the song irks Larry because of a traumatic experience he had in a Mister Softee truck, and in a larger, way more hilarious situation in New York, where turf wars over ice cream truck routes have led to a Sopranos-like standoff.
May 2: Tupac's Activist Mom
Afeni Shakur, activist, one-time Black Panther, and Tupac's mom.
Afeni Shakur was more than just Tupac's mama. She also lived a long life of activism and fighting for the creative arts. When she joined the Black Panther party in the late 1960s along with Tupac's father, she became indispensable to their operations, even raising bail money for other jailed Panthers.
She gave birth to Tupac in 1971, not long after being acquitted on bombing charges in New York. She later fell into a spiral of drugs and sporadic homelessness. Despite that shitty haze of despair and addiction, she recognized a charismatic spirit and creativity in her son, and enrolled him in an arts program in Harlem. He did well there, so they continued his schooling in a prestigious creative arts school in Baltimore.
He was especially gifted in ballet. No, seriously.
Tupac recognized the troubles his mom was having, even as he was succeeding in following his endeavors. Someone told her in 1990 that he was going to be on The Arsenio Hall Show, and in her state, she was convinced it was a lie. 'Pac had all the local dealers agree to quit selling to her and implored her to seek treatment, which she did the following year.
After her son's murder in 1996, Afeni championed his cause and music, and even spent a cool few million dollars opening an arts center in Georgia. Afeni and the mother of the Notorious B.I.G., who was killed around the same time, also appeared on an awards show to encourage unity in the hip-hop community, and there hasn't been a single rap beef since.
May 13: The Real-Life Don Draper
Bill Backer, advertising legend.
Bill Backer started off in the mail room of advertising giant McCann Erickson in 1953. Twenty years later, he was creative director of the entire company. He either mailed the shit out of some letters or came up with some good ideas while down in that department, and a flight layover in Ireland holds the answer.
While on his way to London, dense fog caused the flight to touch down at Shannon Airport. The next morning, Backer noticed the once-disgruntled passengers hanging around with each other in the airport cafe, sharing Cokes and coffees and probably Jameson (this is Ireland we're talking about). The mood of this diverse group of travelers was much more jovial than before, causing Bill to see Coke not as a carbonated syrup delivery system, but more as a bringer-togetherer of people of all walks of life. So he hastily scrawled "I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company" on an envelope. That became this:
If it looks and sounds a little culty, hey, it was the 1970s. Coke hated the song before they flew to a mountaintop and filmed the commercial spot for it.
Type 2 diabetes for everyone!
Mad Men based Don Draper and his final moments in the series on the exploits of Backer. The way Draper conceives of the advertisement is a lot different, and Backer didn't much care for the tone of the show. Still, he had to know that's a much sexier fictional representation than most of us can ever hope for.
May 15: The Woman Who'd Been Playing In The Same Orchestra Since World War II
Jane Little, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bassist.
Orchestral bass sections aren't usually where women are found. Jane Little respectfully said "screw that" and played bass in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, beginning in 1945 at age 16. For the non-math-whizzes out there, that's 71 years straight including this year, which is by far a record for any musician playing in an orchestra for an extended period of time. Keith Richards is a hack, is what we're saying.
Jane Little was just that: tiny. Four-foot-11 and 98 pounds, she was initially interested in learning the clarinet, but the girls' school she attended instead plopped a giant-ass bass in her diminutive hands. She taught herself, and as the then-Atlanta Youth Orchestra gradually morphed into the major entity it is today, she slapped the bass throughout the decades.
Seen here slapping that bass on the Star Wars theme ... while being conducted by John motherfucking Williams.
Playing with the ASO was literally her entire life, so how fitting is it that she died onstage? And not only that, it was while playing "No Business Like Show Business." The 87-year-old was taken backstage by her fellow players in the bass section (those folks stick together), but she did not survive. Whoever takes her spot in the orchestra is going to have some extremely tiny shoes to fill.
May 19: The Voice Of Scrooge McDuck
Alan Young, actor.
Alan Young had been in entertainment since age 13, and his career was on the downward arc when he was approached to act alongside a talking horse on the Mr. Ed show in 1961. Comedy legend George Burns hand-picked Young because he looked like "the kind of guy a horse would talk to." That's bizarrely specific typecasting, but it worked. The show would do well in its five-year run, and it is now always in the rotation of shows on TV Land and other late-night networks.
"Yeah, the horse is tellin' me to kill the president again, and this time I'm thinkin' about goin' through with it. No, he's not in the room."
After he and horse parted ways, Young went into some voice acting, and eventually began voicing Scrooge McDuck in various Disney cartoons, including the legendary DuckTales. The horse who played Mr. Ed, as many of you already know, would tragically be killed in 1970 after ingesting a massive amount of ketamine and attempting to ramp his motorcycle into a public pool.
June 13: The Guy Who Brought ALF To Life
The 2'9" Michu Meszaros began as a circus performer with Ringling Brothers, advertised as the smallest man in the world. We're not sure how deep folks dug into the veracity of those claims, but he was indeed a tiny man. He learned acrobatics, juggling, pantomiming, and numerous other old-timey circus skills. One of his acts was having poodles stand up on their hind legs, and everyone would lose their shit because the dogs would look taller than him (this was before computers).
He appeared in numerous other pop culture works, most of them centered around "Can you believe how goddamned small this man is?!" His face graced the 1967 Doors album Strange Days.
It's the one with Jim Morrison's bad poetry.
He was also in a Pepsi commercial with Michael Jackson:
At least, we think this is a Pepsi ad ...
But his most memorable role would be the man inside ALF, the television series about a furry, shit-talking alien from planet Melmac. Sure, they used a puppet for a lot of close-up shots, but whenever they needed ALF to chase a cat or do something else that showed his full body, that was Michu running around and sweating his ass off inside that furry costume.
June 24: The Backbone Of Funk Music
Bernie Worrell, keyboardist for Parliament/Funkadelic and Talking Heads.
The "Wizard of Woo," Bernie Worrell was a Juilliard student when George Clinton met him in the early '70s. Clinton enlisted him in both Parliament and Funkadelic, and funk music was essentially born there (with a James Brown appetizer beforehand). Parliament was known for a more horn-backed, orchestrated feel, while Funkadelic was a more loose, guitar-heavy rock band. Worrell was a constant in both, with his futuristic keyboard sounds and otherworldly composing.
Worrell, having had an amazing education in music, was able to take the then-new synthesizers and bend them to his will, recreating the sounds of strings, horns, even bass. In fact, his lower-octave work on Parliament's "Flash Light" is considered some of the best in music history:
When Parliament-Funkadelic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, its veritable seahorse litter of band members (15 in all) were brought together after a couple decades of squabbling. After P-Funk dissolved in the early '80s, Worrell joined the Talking Heads to help them out on tour. He would stay with them for 12 more years.
Bernie also welcomed collaboration, and definitely didn't discriminate -- Les Claypool from Primus, Jack Bruce of Cream, and Fred Schneider from the B-52's all shared the stage with him at one time or another. Though not all at the same time, because we're assuming the sound they'd have produced together would have induced madness in any listener.
June 28: A Women's Sports Pioneer
Pat Summitt, college basketball coach.
Pat Summitt was a trailblazer in the sports world. She had the kind of spirit that told herself and her players "Figure that shit out," and that can-do attitude was likely instilled in her by her father when she was 12. He took her out to the family farm, pointed to a tractor, and without explaining what exactly she was supposed to do, told her, "When I come back, this work better be done."
And it was. She had about as much idea of how to do grueling farm work as most 12-year-olds, but she overcame the natural wide-eyed shrugs you'd expect from a child and handled. That. Shit. She learned from her brothers how to play basketball in their Tennessee barn, became an All-American in college, and even won an Olympic medal in 1976. She then won Olympic gold, this time as a coach, in 1984. That's awesome, but her tenure as coach at the University of Tennessee eclipsed all of that.
Where she death-stared every player she ever coached.
In 38 seasons of coaching, Summitt never once had a losing record. She won eight national championships. She had a career coaching record of 1,098-208, which is a freaking 84 percent winning percentage. She had the most wins of any Division 1 basketball coach, ever. Not wins by a female -- most wins by a human college basketball coach. EVER.
June 28: An NFL Defensive Mastermind
Buddy Ryan, NFL coach
Buddy Ryan was so schooled in the defensive aspects of professional football that he invented his own defense. It was called the 46 defense, and it emphasized taking the largest men on the defense and making them form a large pile atop the opponent's quarterback. Ryan was just tough enough a sumbitch to pull it off, and it worked wonders.
As he toiled through assistant coaching jobs in Houston and Chicago, he was known to talk shit about the head coaches, even swinging at one, and having to be separated from Mike Ditka in another instance.
We're just here to do The Super Bowl Scuffle
His defensive acumen would propel the 1985 "Super Bowl Shuffle" Chicago Bears to a legendary season and championship. Ryan must have had the coaching thing in his blood, because his twin sons, Rex and Rob, have become good (and famous) coaches in the NFL in their own right. While they haven't hauled off and hit another coach on live television yet, they've still got time.
Holy shit, we're only halfway through the year! Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, and hope that a dozen more celebrities don't pass between now and then.
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