That headline may seem odd, but I was just trying to think of something that sort of addressed my topic, but wouldn’t sound as nekulturny as “Top Five Dead People of 2022.” Which would have reflected the post more honestly.
This is a time of year when newspapers and other outlets crank out “Best _____ of the Year” lists. I’m not sure why they still do it. In the dead-tree days, we had a reason: It was the time of year when you had the greatest amount of space (on account of all the Christmas-shopping ads) and the least amount of real news. But I guess the beast still has to be fed. We also did it because at that time when content was badly needed, a lot of people were taking end-of-year vacations, before things got busy in January. And this didn’t require reporting — someone just needed the patience to dig through the year’s pages.
Such non-news stories generally mean little to me. “Best Books of 2022” means nothing to me, because I’ve never been interested in the hot books of the moment. When I read, I’m going to choose from the best (or at least, most engaging to me) of that which has been published since (and frequently before) Gutenberg, knowing that I’ll never live long enough to read everything I’d like to read from the best of the 19th century, not to mention other eras. Why waste time on the latest tattle, or the hottest young novelist?
And as I’ve grown older — and especially since COVID — I’ve gotten the same way about current movies. Why go see the “Avatar” sequel when I didn’t much like the original, and I can stream something like “The Grapes of Wrath” or “His Girl Friday,” or “Is Paris Burning?” far more cheaply and conveniently, and without some popcorn-munching kid kicking the back of my seat? (By the way, those three aren’t my three fave films. They just popped into my head, for different reasons. They are: the film I won’t let myself watch until I finally finish reading Steinbeck’s original, which I have steadily failed to do; my actual fave comedy; and a film I’d always meant to see, but didn’t see until recently, and I was more impressed than I thought I would be.)
But you know what does interest me, aside from Dave Barry’s always-entertaining review of the year? The annual list of who died. I like to be reminded of the passing of people who have left a significant mark on our world — not so much because it tells me something about the past year, but because it provides a fascinating, personal perspective on the entire time in which they lived. It’s an interesting, fresh way of being reminded why the world I live in is the way it is, told through the lives of people who played memorable roles in making it that way. These deaths bring history to life, you might say.
And occasionally I’m surprised by the deaths I have missed. I was particularly surprised to learn that Bette Davis had left our presence in 2022, when she would have been 114. (She actually died at a more reasonable age in 1989.) It took me a moment to realize why The State had placed her picture with this story, and initially the search function was unhelpful. But then I searched on “Davis” instead of “Bette,” and found that someone associated with publishing the “Extra” pages of The State‘s e-edition didn’t recognize that the screen legend was not Miles Davis’ wife, Betty. So it was worse than simply misspelling “Bette” in the cutline.
But we all make mistakes — you’ll probably spot some below — so let’s move on from that before I get embarrassed, too.
Looking back, here are the Top Five People Who Actually Died this year, in my view…
Dang it! I don’t have time to whittle it down that far! With apologies to Nick Hornby, here are the Top 25. Of course, I’m putting them in order, so you can see what would have been my Top Five. But I thought those would all be boringly obvious, and it was more interesting to keep going:
- Elizabeth II — I doubt I need to explain this, except to say that I had to think for a moment before putting her ahead of the first pope to abdicate in 700 years. But still, she was such a part of our lives for SO long. She set too many records to get bumped to second place. And Pope Benedict only held on for less than eight years before, you know, quitting. Lilibet wasn’t one to quit. And she was a good queen.
- Pope Benedict XVI — Oh, and since stories I read this morning failed to name him, to my frustration, the last pope to quit, without external pressure (unlike Gregory XII), before this one was Celestine V, in 1294. He only lasted five months. I suppose I could write a book about the more recent ex-pontiff, but since I’m just getting started on my list and need to move on, I’ll just say nothing against him, but note that I’m glad our pope is now Francis.
- Mikhail Gorbachev — On another day (that is, a day on which Benedict had not just died) I might have put Gorby in second place, and debated whether to put him in first. He had more effect on the world than any Soviet leader since Stalin, only in a good way. Don’t try telling Putin that, though.
- Pelé — As you know, I’m constantly trying to throw in a little something for sports fans out there, conscious that most of y’all care more about athletics than I do. But I didn’t have to strain myself on this one. This guy was a superhero, and his superpower was football. (Real football, the kind where you use your feet.) Not having been a big fan of this sport, the first thing I usually think of when Pelé’s name comes up is that scene from “Vision Quest” when Elmo the cook talks about seeing him on TV. That was great…
- Jerry Lee Lewis — He wasn’t the King, but he knew the King. There are a lot of things to remember about The Killer — hammering the piano with his feet, marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Great balls of fire. But you know what I always think of? The time when he was arrested trying to break his way into Graceland. He had come to show E who the real king was. Well, he wasn’t the King, but he knew the King, you see.
- Sidney Poitier — I wrote about his passing earlier, and thinking back, it hits me that I still haven’t seen “A Raisin in the Sun” or “Lilies of the Field.” But I’ll tell you this: I definitely intend to see them well before I shell out money to see that “Avatar” sequel. In fact, I’d much rather sit and watch “To Sir With Love” another five times, back-to-back, than see that CGI nonsense.
- Madeleine Albright — She and Dick Riley were my two favorite members of Clinton’s Cabinet. Hers, of course, was the weightier position. She came along at the time when Democrats were going on about the “peace dividend,” and reminded us that in keeping with the liberal notion of America’s postwar role, we were still “the indispensable nation.” That ticks some of y’all off, I know, but not me. I appreciated it.
- Loretta Lynn — I was never a big fan myself, but I’m fully cognizant of her impact on our culture. I also enjoyed the movie. My favorite part was the way Levon Helm (see Ronnie Hawkins, below) absolutely embodied the Coal Miner himself.
- Wolfgang Petersen — My favorite Clint Eastwood movie wasn’t directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s Petersen’s “In the Line of Fire.” He also gave us “Air Force One,” and before that, “Das Boot.”
- Ray Liotta — One of the people who are here because they were “so young,” not so long ago. And he had a distinctive quality on screen. The first time I saw him was in Jonathan Demme’s action-comedy “Something Wild.” Jeff Daniels was funny, Melanie Griffith was sexy, and Ray Liotta was scary. Of course, he expanded on that in later roles, especially “Goodfellas.”
- James Caan — From Sonny in “The Godfather” to the Dad on the “naughty list” in “Elf,” he made his distinctive mark on the Hollywood of his times.
- Tony Dow — Yeah, I know Wally was older than the Beave and me, but it’s still a shock for him to be gone.
- Dwayne Hickman — Again, youth personified when we knew him. Oh, and for you clueless kids out there — we’re talking Dobie Gillis here. You don’t know who that was? Next, you’ll say you don’t remember Maynard G. Krebs.
- Ivan Reitman — Not one of the great filmmakers of his time, but he certainly had an impact, via Meatballs (1979), Stripes (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Ghostbusters II (1989), Twins (1988), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Dave (1993). My fave might be “Dave.”
- Hilary Mantel — An unusual character, but an impressive writer. And while I read and enjoyed Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I can congratulate myself that while she is gone, I still have the experience of reading The Mirror and the Light in my future.
- David McCullough — He not only told us, compellingly, the stories of Harry S. Truman, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, and the Wright brothers. He also narrated Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” Dude got a lot done in his 89 years.
- Meat Loaf — In drafting a list of notable names, how could I leave out this one?
- P.J. O’Rourke — A gifted commenter on our times, even if he was a libertarian. And don’t forget, he also was a frequent panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”
- Ronnie Hawkins — I don’t put him here because of his own music, about which I know little. I put him here because The Band’s first job of note was backing him up — before they did the same for Dylan. So nice work, Ronnie, because I do love those guys.
- Mark Shields — I enjoyed his commentary on PBS, and when he was spoken of upon his death as a decent man and a man of faith, that was no surprise. I attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for the first time in 2004, when I was there for the Republican National Convention. At one point I looked around me, and saw someone familiar: It was Shields, sitting there alone. I suspect he was much in demand on the Sunday morning network political talk shows, but there he was at Mass. Not a big thing, maybe, but it made a favorable impression on me.
- Bill Russell — He may not have been as big as Pelé, but he was a giant in professional basketball (and not just because he was 6’10”). He was “the centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty that won 11 NBA championships during his 13-year career.” Red Auerbach called him “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.”
- Ronnie Spector — With the Ronettes, she gave us “Be My Baby.” And you can’t beat that, can you?
- Dirck Halstead — Another celebrity journalist. Don’t know him? Well, you’ve seen this picture, haven’t you? And this one? Does this guy look familiar?
- Nichelle Nichols — Better known to you as Lt. Uhura. I wasn’t a huge Trek fan, and I can’t say I knew her, but my old friend Burl Burlingame could. So I’m including her, as much as anything, as a way of remembering Burl.
- Sonny Barger — The only member of the Hell’s Angels I would have been able to name if you had asked me (you can thank Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson for that). Not that that’s a good thing, but he was a significant figure in the culture — and the nightmares — of the ’60s.
That’s enough for me. Who makes the top of your list?