2016: the Year the Stars Went Out?
No question, there have been many sad losses of celebrities this year. For one thing, mainstream news has reported on several actors who played iconic geek-friendly roles…from Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) to Chekov (Anton Yelchin) to The Man Who Fell to Earth (David Bowie).
People have suggested that this is the worst year to date for celebrity deaths…what we could call “The Year the Stars Went Out”.
Is that the case, though?
Every death matters. It’s not a competition, and each person deserves individual attention.
However, I thought it was worth looking at this idea…I’m always reluctant to frame things in a negative way. Have more celebrities died this year? If that’s not the case, why is that perception there?
My first thought was that there have been other years…and not just recent ones. After all, the In Memoriam segment at the Oscars always takes some time.
The year that immediately occurred to me was 1977. I remembered offhand that Groucho Marx and Zero Mostel had both died in 1977, and that at the time, I noted that there were several other big stars. I speculated then that babies named after celebrities that year might have some odd names (not that I’m someone to speak about the oddness of someone’s name).
To refresh myself, I ran a search for celebrities with a “death year” of 1977 at IMDb:
My recollection had been correct. Just from that list:
- Elvis Presley…arguably, there are no bigger music stars
- Bing Crosby: an iconic figure, a giant of music, then movies, and TV
- Charlie Chaplin: a very nostalgic figure at the time
- Groucho Marx
- Zero Mostel
- Joan Crawford
- Ethel Waters
- Howard Hawks
- Andy Devine
- Eddie “Rochester” Anderson
- Freddie Prinze: a popular actor of the period, in the category of “dead too young”
- Of more specifically geek interest were Richard Carlson, Allison Hayes, Jacques Tourneur, William Castle, and Henry Hull
That search returns more than 1,300 names (not all of which will be well-known).
Still, I would say that there was at least a higher public awareness of celebrities who died in 2016 than in 1977.
I think there may be three main reasons for that:
- Pop culture now has a much longer “shelf life” than it used to have. Thanks in part to the preservation and distribution enbaled by the internet (following television giving audiences the ability to see older movies, starting especially in the 1950s), people can easily see media which is one hundred years old, which wasn’t the case even twenty-five years ago. Electronic distribution of public domain works is very low cost. There are lots of sources. My own The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project is built on the concept of enjoying older media. When Andy Warhol popularized the idea that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes…” in 1968, the suggestion was that someone would be famous, and then not famous. Now, it’s much more that if you become famous, you will at least continue to be known to the public forever. See also You’re showing your age when you say, “You’re showing your age”.
- Geeks honor their own…and the vast majority of famous actors has a geek connection. Now that geeks are the mainstream (look at the most popular movies in any week), this tradition of ours to recognize actors who have had even a single credit or a small recurring role means that geek-friendly actors get a lot more respect than they used to get. Oscar winners always got coverage: that wasn’t the case with non-stars of geek-friendly TV shows, for example, but I’m now likely to see several articles on the passing of someone like that
- The multiplicity of media: there are 24 hour news channels, but also blogs and websites which specialize in geek topics…and those may be picked up by the mainstream
So, I do think part of it is perception…and that perception will continue next year. We will hear about the deaths of stars of the 1960s, 1950s, earlier, and also later. The news media will cover the passing of geek-friendly stars, and we will honor their lives.
Over the next few weeks, we will be updating our 2016 Geeky Goody-byes, where you can see more of a list.
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