Death Watch '98

Dec 30, 1998 at 12:00 am

The bets have been tallied in office celebrity dead pools around this vast, cynical land of ours. Obituaries have been written (and, in some cases, written and written and written). The TV news crews have all gone home.

"Take Me Out To The Ballgame" has an added poignancy.

"Riding high in April/Shot down in May" has become a cliché of mourning.

Cher doesn’t got Sonny anymore, babe.

The Soul On Ice met with its maker when Eldridge Cleaver passed.

While tragic death this year didn’t have a worldwide figurehead such as Princess Di, there were other passings of note. The Chairman of the Board resigned, a Beatle lost his Linda and powerful, seemingly unstoppable Olympic runner Florence Griffith Joyner just, well, stopped. Legendary baseball announcer Harry Caray called his last game.

But in smaller type througout this year, there were little losses that added up to, in all, a banner year for the reaper and a gaping hole in the hearts of music, culture and pop culture devotees.

Minor stars are as likely to elicit "Oh my gawd! He/She died?" discussions around the water cooler as do the exits of folks who have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. When Norman Fell died in mid-December, it spurred a surprisingly intense discussion of "Six Degrees of Norman Fell" here at MT. The man who was known to most people as a landlord (Mr. Roeper to Jack, Chrissy and Janet on "Three’s Company," Mr. McCleery to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate) was in more than 50 films including such semi-classics as Bullitt, Catch-22, The Killers and Ocean’s 11. But I digress.

"Entertainment Tonight" may not have led its broadcast with news of rockabilly legend Carl Perkins taking his blue suede shoes to the big matchbox in the sky, but rock still lost one of its finest, most underrated crossover founding fathers. Another Carl, this one a Wilson, checked out earlier this year, too. Brother Carl’s departure left Mike Love beached, touring state fairs with a band called the Beach Boys but lacking anyone with the last name Wilson.

Even less noted by tabloid and electronic media was the passing of ska ace Desmond Dekker (if you don’t know the name, you’ve probably heard his music, particularly "The Israelites," which popped up in, among other places, the film Drugstore Cowboy), whose fine, somewhat nasal island soul singing was an inspiration to generations of reggae artists.

If you were one of those jaded and psychic folks laying your money down on the office death pool, you’re probably still patting yourself on the back for predicting the passing of two of Germany’s most famous (and infamous) pop music icons — Milli Vanilli’s Rob Pilatus and synth popster, Falco.

In the I’m-not-a-German-but-I-played-one-on-television category, Werner Klemperer — known to most of the world as Colonel Klink from "Hogan’s Heroes" — reuinites with his onscreen foil in the big wacky POW camp in the sky.

While these men were by no means at the world’s cultural epicenter, they each had their 15 minutes. Enough of us were there to listen and watch to warrant comment.

Figures who became embedded in our cultural and political unconscious shook off their bodily trappings, leaving their legacies to do the talking: Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa, feminist and anti-war crusader Bella Abzug, feminist literary icon Kathy Acker, Benjamin Spock (the man with the answers for three generations of new parents), Mexican writer and poet Octavio Paz, Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins (best known for West Side Story) all danced the mortality tango this year.

It was a banner year for the curse that stalks former cast members of "Saturday Night Live." The same curse that has helped the careers of SNL alums Garrett Morris and Anthony Michael Hall swiped one of the most genuinely funny and talented former cast members. Phil Hartman was a bona fide laff riot, adding, through his dozens of character voices, a snarky, disingenuous sense of wicked satire to the shows "News Radio" and "The Simpsons."

The grim reaper took a little bit from every pot this year: Cultural, political, artistic, athletic, TV and, surely, personal. For his part, Jim Carroll’s still out there workin’, but as he puts it, these are people who died.