Where Aren't They Now? 25 Overlooked Deaths Of 2018 (Pt. 1)
If you hadn't noticed, it was a bit of a busy year. The political arena was lit with fire, the weather decided to do literally the same thing, and something called Fortnite clutched our youth in its sinister tendrils.
So you'd be forgiven for forgetting how many important people died this year. Anthony Bourdain, Aretha Franklin, Stephen Hawking, freaking Burt Reynolds ... the swath of Death's scythe is far and wide. But there were also many notable souls who slipped under the radar in their passing, who made their own important contributions to our weird little planet. Every year around this time, we like to stop and salute them.
January 7: America's First Female General
Brigadier General Anna Mae Hays.
Little girls were never told they could grow up to be generals -- not in Anna Mae Hays' youth, anyway. So she wanted to be a nurse, one of the three jobs young ladies were taught were socially acceptable. Once she graduated, she signed up for the meat grinder of WWII and served as an Army nurse (her first choice, going to Juilliard to study music, was financially out of reach). She tended to the injured in the Chinese and Southern Asian theaters of the war for two years, learning unique survival skills such as burning leeches off of her skin and fending off cobras that ended up under her bed. She soon decided that she wanted to keep doing that forever.
This was followed by a seven-month stint at a field hospital during the Korean War, then she later built up the Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam. All of this led President Nixon to promote her to brigadier general in 1970, with her getting the stripes pinned on her uniform by none other than General William Westmoreland himself. She was the first woman to receive this honor.
Reflecting on her career of saving an incalculable number of lives in the worst conditions possible, Hays would say, "If I had to do it over again, I would do it longer." Goddamn.
January 20: Rosie The Riveter
Naomi Parker Fraley, the model for one of the most famous pieces of propaganda of all time.
The iconic 1942 poster of Rosie the Riveter urged six million American women to enter the workforce during the Second World War. But just who the woman was in that famous image has always been somewhat of a mystery. The poster itself was not titled "Rosie the Riveter." It merely said "We can do it!" The linking of the phrase with the poster came about through a conflation of it with a Norman Rockwell painting that came out around the same time, which featured a similar woman with a lunchbox labeled "Rosie." This in turn was linked to a song called "Rosie The Riveter," released the same year. See, 1940s memes were just as confusing as ours!
Naomi Parker Fraley probably had the most legit claim to being the inspiration for "Rosie," because of a suspiciously familiar image snapped in 1942 depicting her at work in a red bandana and blue jumpsuit. Fraley herself was not aware of any connection between herself and the icon until she went to a museum exhibit in 2009. Too bad the photograph in the exhibit listed another woman, Geraldine Hoff Doyle, as the subject. Fraley was understandably befuddled by this, having had a copy of the very picture in her collection at home for decades.
Fraley was vindicated when a researcher dug up a newspaper article with the image of her hard at work on a lathe, which identified her as "Pretty Naomi Parker." See? Compliments like that are your reward for keeping society running during Armageddon!
March 8: Keyboard Cat
Bento the cat.
If you thought unraveling the mystery of Rosie the Riveter was complex, well, get ready to have your genitals blown clean off your body. Bento the cat left us this year, but he and his connection to the "Keyboard Cat" mythology have left plenty of questions in his place.
The meme is now ubiquitous: a goofy synth-and-drum loop plays while a VHS-level video shows a plump kitty smashing away at a keyboard.
You probably giggled the first time you saw the clip when it took over the internet in 2009 (helped along by an Ashton Kutcher tweet, no less). But let's make one thing clear: That first video of Keyboard Cat was not Bento. It was from 1984, and featured a man named Charlie Schmidt's cat, named Fatso. That cat died in 1987. Right as Schmidt's Keyboard Cat video was slowly buffering in every college dorm room in 2009, our new friend Bento was born. And this fat kitty already had a purpose chosen for him. By his owner, Charlie Schmidt.
The second-generation Keyboard Cat was almost more popular than the first. Bento found himself with a whole lot of work on his paws. He starred in a Wonderful Pistachios commercial, led a campaign to encourage shelter adoptions, and helped out with a parody of Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball." He brought a few seconds of joy to millions of people, and let's face it, that's more than what most cats -- or people -- can say.
March 23: The Total Recall Dwarf Prostitute
Debbie Carrington, actress.
In 1981, when Debbie Carrington was still in college, she answered a call for actors from the Little People of America looking for cast members for a Wizard Of Oz-related, Chevy-Chase-backed production. It sounds like the kind of "casting call" that would end with Chase hunting you through the woods behind his mansion, but it was a real movie, and more (largely faceless) roles followed for Carrington. She was an Ewok in Return Of The Jedi and a duck in the infamous turd Howard The Duck (there historically hasn't been a great range of roles for dwarfs out there, guys).
Her size also made her appealing to directors looking for stunt people for child actors in movies like Titanic and the Child's Play franchise. But the role she's probably most associated with is one where you do indeed see her face: the prostitute Thumbelina from Total Recall, in which she got to be an action hero, at least for a little bit.
After that, more roles followed in which she got to play a human, in shows like Seinfeld and The Drew Carey Show and films like She's All That. But in our hearts, she'll always be a rebel on Mars who knifes a man in the belly and then goes positively apeshit with a machine gun. In a perfect world, everyone would be remembered that way.
March 25: A Civil Rights Pioneer
Linda Brown, from Brown v. Board of Education.
Normally it's not a good thing when your name goes down in history as part of a famous, contentious court case. But this is the one that would eventually lead to the downfall of segregation in American schools. When she was nine, Linda Brown's father attempted to enroll her in Sumner Elementary School, a blindingly white school near her Topeka home. This being 1951, they denied her application out of a fierce belief in being on the wrong side of history. Linda's father sued the Topeka Board of Education, setting in motion one of the most pivotal events in the Civil Rights Movement.
Four other cases were wrapped into her father's and presented to the Supreme Court, and in 1954, the court took the position of what should have been common sense, stating that separate institutions for education were by nature unequal, and in fact violated the 14th Amendment. America did its best to dig its racist heels in, but the wheels of change were set in motion because of Linda Brown and her family.
Linda Brown never got to attend the school that she fought so hard to be a part of, having moved during the course of the lengthy lawsuit. And even years later, in 1979, when she had her own children in the Topeka school system, it seemed desegregation still had not been taken seriously. She sued the schools again, resurrecting the same lawsuit name used years before. After another lengthy judicial process, the school board pinky-promised they'd get desegregation right this time. In 1993.
April 11: The Godmother Of Stand-Up Comedy
Mitzi Shore, Comedy Store owner.
Robin Williams. Chevy Chase. Richard Pryor. Chris Rock. All were given stage time at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, and were very much influenced by the mother hen / owner of the establishment, Mitzi Shore. David Letterman babysat her kids in the '70s. Jay Leno slept off late nights on the back steps. Jim Carrey worked the door.
Opened in 1972, the comedy club on Sunset Boulevard earned notoriety quickly, refusing to pay the comics who performed and instead pointing to Hollywood exposure and the opportunity to train on a famous stage. This lasted until 1979, when comedians went on strike, forcing Shore to begin paying them for their work. On the other hand, she was also a voice for women in the business, opening the second floor of the Comedy Store and filling it exclusively with female comedians.
She's also the mother of Pauly Shore, which should answer some questions about his career that you've probably had for decades.
April 13: The Director Of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
Milos Forman, filmmaker.
Milos Forman doesn't have the lengthy IMDb page of, say, a Woody Allen or a Robert Loggia, but the list of movies he's directed has a rightful place in cinematic history, especially after he hit peak form with 1975's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
That's not to say that the films the Czech emigre to America had helmed before that were forgettable dogshit. 1965's Loves Of A Blonde was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and The Fireman's Ball three years later greatly upset the Czech government with its perceived anticommunist themes.
But Cuckoo's Nest vaulted him into the Hollywood limelight, garnering the "Big Five" Oscars that year (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). His 1984 Mozart biopic Amadeus raked in eight more. Then in the '90s he opted to focus on a few famously eccentric Americans, directing The People vs. Larry Flynt, about the Hustler publisher, and Man On The Moon, about comic Andy Kaufman. Soon after the latter film, he married his third wife and named their twin sons after Jim Carrey and Kaufman. They probably would have preferred "Wolfgang" and "Amadeus," but whatever.
April 15: Hollywood's Drill Sergeant
R. Lee Ermey, drill sergeant and actor.
If you've ever heard the words "golf ball" and "garden hose" used together in the same sentence, you can probably thank the gruff stylings of R. Lee Ermey. The Army sergeant he played in Full Metal Jacket had a way with putting words together that made people, oh we don't know, blow their heads off in a latrine.
There's a reason Ermey was so terrifyingly good in that movie. He was an actual Marine staff sergeant, eventually hanging up his combat boots for some Hollywood acting boots, playing a small part and serving as an advisor in Francis Ford Coppola's ode to chaos Apocalypse Now. He famously got his role in Full Metal Jacket by putting together a video of himself screaming obscenities (which he wrote himself) and using it to convince Stanley Kubrick he was perfect for it.
The guy was typecast after that, to be sure, but he parlayed that face and that voice into a long and rich career. He played a judge in Murder In The First, a police captain in Se7en, and the beloved Army Men toy sergeant in the Toy Story series. He was also in, um, Fletch Lives. (A man's gotta eat, right?)
April 16: The Night Court Funnyman Judge
Harry Anderson, actor, magician, and comedian.
Harry Anderson gained most of his fame for portraying the quick-witted, smarmy Judge Harry Stone on the popular '80s sitcom Night Court, but he began his career as a magician. A hustling street magician, as he told it. "I started in magic and then I got out on the street and realized I can make more money on the street hustling with the shell game," he said in an interview with Johnny Carson in 1988. "So I hustled until I got my jaw broken and then I sat around with my mouth wired shut for six weeks and figured out maybe linking rings were safer. And went back to the magic, and on the street, comedy was a great tool."
He took some of that wisecracking street hustle into a recurring bit on Cheers, as well as numerous appearances on Saturday Night Live in the early '80s. NBC took note and tapped Anderson to lead its new show Night Court in 1984 (if you're too young for it, let's just say that making the show with literally anyone else would have been unthinkable). Anderson was nominated for three Emmys for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series during the show's eight-year run. Not bad for a guy who could have easily gotten stabbed on a street corner over a game of Three-Card Monte.
May 1: The Other Half Of James Brown's Funky Percussion Duo
John "Jabo" Starks, drummer.
Last year, we talked about how one of James Brown's most famous (and sampled) drummers, Clyde Stubblefield, passed away. As rhythm sections are much like elderly couples, his partner in percussion only made it through half of this year before joining Clyde in the funky afterlife.
Jabo Starks played alongside Clyde in a two-drummer powerhouse for many of Brown's biggest hits, including "Super Bad," "The Payback," and "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine." Roots drummer Questlove described Jabo as "The Beatles to Clyde's Rolling Stones," meaning he had a clean, succinct style that complemented Clyde's rough and sexy edges.
Jabo also played with many of the featured performers that Brown was associated with, including the J.B.'s, Bobby Byrd, and Lyn Collins. His performance and punchy beat on Collins' 1972 hit "Think (About It)" was heavily sampled on the 1988 Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock hit "It Takes Two."
Aaaand now you've got that stuck in your head the rest of the day.
Born in Alabama in 1938, Jabo learned how to drum on a rudimentary kit fashioned from a bass drum and snare tied to a chair, while the cymbals sat perched on a dinner stand. He played with some of the most famous blues men of the '50s and '60s before Brown recruited him into his band in 1965. Even after Jabo split from the band in the mid '70s, he and his musical soulmate Stubblefield would continue to collaborate into their golden years, even crafting some of the music for Superbad in 2007 together. Imagine that, their music was so good that they made Michael Cera seem cool for two hours.
May 19: A Musical Chameleon
Reggie Lucas, musician, producer, Madonna collaborator.
You may think of Miles Davis as a trumpeting bebop jazz guy, but during a stretch where he became a jazz fusion guru in the late '60s and early '70s, he had maybe some of the most funky virtuoso guitars that no one has heard of. At one point, he had three guitarists in the same band who could all give Jimi Hendrix a run for his money. Reggie Lucas was one of them.
Lucas was making a name for himself as an 18-year-old guitarist in New York City in 1972 when Davis noticed him and began an intensely elaborate offer for him to join his band, which reportedly consisted of asking, "You wanna be in my band, motherfucker?" During his tenure with Davis, he played on several classics, including the album On The Corner, which dared to stir in some funk to complement the jazz. Lucas and fellow band member James Mtume would form a songwriting team after they left the group, penning several hits into the '80s.
Lucas then found an unlikely partner in Madonna. He produced several of her early hits and most of her debut album, and even wrote "Borderline." We like to think she recruited him in the exact same way that Davis did.
May 24: The Last Living Wizard Of Oz Munchkin
Jerry Maren, actor.
As the member of the Munchkins who handed Dorothy a big-ass lollipop in 1939's The Wizard Of Oz, Jerry Maren assured himself a place in the canon. In real life, he went to bat for fellow actors of his size, even helping to found the Little People of America (which you may remember from earlier on this very list). Maren was the last surviving little person from the film, but he had quite the body of work outside of Oz. He had over 100 film and TV credits to his name, and even appeared as several iconic McDonald's characters, like Mayor McCheese and the Hamburglar.
Maren was 18 when he moved from his hometown of Boston and set out for Hollywood, instantly getting a part in The Wizard Of Oz because he already knew how to tap dance. Later in life, he'd make all sorts of appearances in everything from The Gong Show to Battle For The Planet Of The Apes to a small role in the legendary "Yada Yada" episode of Seinfeld. Still, he never forgot what initially made people fall in love with him, singing his Lollipop Guild song until the very end of his life:
Holy shit, we're not even through May yet! Come back tomorrow for Part 2.
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