Leavitt: Still waiting for famous people to die   

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Irv Leavitt


In an era when so much is unnerving, I have a comforting message. 

I have for years confidently expected a profoundly depressing event to befall us. But it has failed to occur. 

It may still be coming. But we seem to be OK for now. 

This is all about death. Not yours or mine, or anyone you actually know. But you like them anyway. 

I had theorized that because television had years ago greatly expanded the number of famous people, those icons and semi-icons would have to start, about now, departing this vale of tears at the rate of about three per day. 

That’s 21 dead celebrities a week. If that were happening, we would usually just be getting over some childhood hero’s death when the next one keeled over. 

My three-a-day conclusion was not backed by anything as flimsy as math. I just figured that for as long as I can remember, one famous stiff has turned up every day or so, and it seems to me that famous folk are at least three times more prevalent since TV started getting really big 50 years ago. So when they start dying, they’ll have to come in bunches similar to their numbers when they were elevated to the heights of the community consciousness. 

I had assumed the die-off would be underway at this point. After all, a lot of those who got famous 50 years ago were about 30 then, and so are about 80 now. That’s the age when people stop, as my dad used to say, reading continuing stories. That’s older than the American life expectancy. 

As you may have noticed, it’s not happening.  The fancy hearses are still rolling along at the rate of about one per day. 

I did expect that some famous old people would last longer, of course. But that wouldn’t matter, because others would die a little early. 

For instance, Peggy Lipton, the youngest member of “The Mod Squad” and by far my personal favorite, died May 11 at 72. One would think that her death would have been preceded by at least one other in the trio first identified in 1968 as “one black, one white, one blond.” 

But Michael Cole and Clarence Williams III are still hanging on. 

On May 14, Tim Conway, one of the most beloved short bald people on television, went to the big variety show in the sky. He was the second to die, after Harvey Korman, of the six people who became familiar figures while on the Carol Burnett Show in the late 1960s. Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry and Steve Lawrence remain with us. 

Once again, for every famous person in the sample who died, two didn’t. I don’t think that’s a high enough death rate to bring us three notable corpses every 24 hours. And it hasn’t. 

I had assumed that the world of sports would be sending a lot more well-known athletes to the grave by now, since not only did athletes get more famous on TV, but there were more of them to be famous. 

Major League Baseball, for instance, expanded in the 1960s. One of those expansion teams was the 1962 Mets, which fielded a total of 45 players that first year. 

But 28 (about two-thirds  again) have survived. That’s impressive, because the average age of the players, living and dead, is 86. 

I’m not sure how many Mets, who won a grand total of 40 games in 1962, were really well-known west of the Hudson River, however. Richie Ashburn is the only one who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ashburn, then 35, hit .306, but was so shaken by toiling daily for the worst team in history, he retired at the end of the season. 

Only seven years later, in 1969, the Mets had, miraculously, become champions. Their World Series with the Baltimore Orioles featured five players, one coach and a manager who would later be elected to the Hall of Fame. All the players except Frank Robinson, who died only this year, survive. The coach, Yogi Berra, and the manager, Earl Weaver, died earlier. 

So, again, about two-thirds of a sample size of famous people who are plenty old enough to die, haven’t. 

The Orioles were back to play the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970 World Series. Seven Hall of Famers played or managed, and three have died: Robinson and both managers. 

In 1968, Detroit Tigers vs. St. Louis Cardinals: seven Hall of Famers, five survivors. The year before, Boston vs. St. Louis, again seven Hall of Famers, again two dead (both managers). 

Altogether, in the four World Series of 1967 through 1970, 26 Hall of Famers emerged, and 18, a little over two-thirds, are still alive. 

The longevity and fame of football players is harder for me to measure. They tend to die a little sooner, but those of the sixties and early seventies are generally less well-known, so most of their biographies have tended to run farther down on the obituary pages than those of good dog trainers, and maitre d’s in fancy New York restaurants. 

Occasionally, three famous folk actually die on the same day. For instance, June 17’s first headline death was that of Gloria Vanderbilt, 95, who established that having more money than God needn’t preclude a successful life. Then there was Mohamed Morsi, the dude elected to run Egypt after the Arab Spring ejected Hosni Mubarak. 

Morsi was kicked out the following year, after he grew fond of dictatorship, too. He’s been convicted of various things since then. 

The third much-discussed death was that of a plant. 

A shaggy Monterrey Cypress tree in La Jolla, California, had allegedly been Dr. Seuss’ inspiration for the odd trees in “The Lorax,” the book named for the hairy orange critter that maintained, “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” 

The cypress was found healthy-appearing but lying down, in what would appear to be a suicide. 

But since the Lorax doesn’t actually exist, no one really knows. 

The deaths of May 17 were even stranger. They started with Herman Wouk, a much-loved novelist who was still writing as his 104th birthday approached. Despite an arguable claim that Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” was the Great American Novel of World War II, barely anybody learned of his passing, because it was eclipsed by the death of a cat named Tardar Sauce. 

Tardar Sauce, 7, had the stage name of Grumpy Cat, because it had a permanently peeved look on its puss brought on by feline dwarfism. This was hilarious to millions of people, who followed news of the cat on social media. The actual cat, however, had rarely been seen in public for the last three years of its life. 

The third death reported on May 17 was that of retired wrestler Ric Flair, 70, known for yelling “Woo” at his opponents. 

The man some say was the greatest ever became a wrestling manager in retirement. He had been ill lately despite giving up drinking, which he was quoted as having done immoderately every day for 20 years. He also said he had sex with 10,000 women. 

Flair was the titular subject of “Ric Flair Drip,” a 2017 song by the rapper Offset that has reportedly been played on Spotify 500 million times. 

Before the sun set on the death of Flair, Offset had something to say about it on Twitter. Since it was written ungrammatically and entirely in upper case, I feel free, in the interest of clarity, to break it into sentences just as a telegram would be: “RIC FLAIR IS NOT DEAD U DUMB ASS BLOGS (STOP) WTF U GETTING YOUR INFO FROM (STOP) JIST TALKED TO MY MAN (STOP) GOD IS WITH HIM (STOP) HE HAS NOT PASSED AWAY STUPID ASS MF (STOP) DONT WISH DEATH ON MY FRIEND (STOP) HE HAD A LONG LIFE AND HE DONE IT ALL SOME BAD BUT MAJORITY GOOD (STOP) HE IS A LEGEND (STOP) GOD BLESS YOU RIC GET WELL.” 

It seems hard to get to three celebrity deaths in a day right now unless you pump up the numbers with things like cats and trees and people who are still alive. 

This had seemed unlikely to me, considering the U.S. life expectancy is well under 79. But that statistic is brought down by everybody who dies young of unexpected mayhem or despair. People of 65 are still expected to live another 20 years or so, I have discovered. 

So I have amended my prediction. In about five years, the surviving two-thirds of the celebrities of the late 1960s and early 1970s will start hitting the obituary pages, if any still exist, in mass numbers. 

The 1962 Mets are pushing their luck right now.