Cherish the stars still among us
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It's been an awful year, one in which we've lost David Bowie, Prince, and Muhammad Ali. It's been a horrific week, one in which 49 people died in Orlando for the crime of being inside a gay nightclub and an alligator killed a child. A giant demagogic Cheeto is running for president and he won't GO AWAY.
Do you mind if I use today's column for the strictly lightweight task of appreciating some people who are still with us?
I was reminded of this while watching the Tony Awards last Sunday night and seeing Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones take the stage as presenters. She's 90 and he's 85 — that's 175 cumulative years of performing greatness — and they're both still active. Lansbury will be back on Broadway next year in "The Chalk Garden." Jones has one film in the can and a second one in pre-production. He'll be playing God.
If you want to see them in their youthful primes, by all means rent "The Great White Hope" (1970), Jones's breakthrough screen role, or 1945's "Gaslight," in which a 17-year-old Lansbury was Oscar-nominated for her debut screen performance as a tarty Cockney maid. Better yet, value their vast careers while they're still here instead of waiting for the "In Memoriam" segment on Oscar night.
We've lost two legendary rockers in 2016 and a handful of major figures. But look who's still alive and working, to one degree or another: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis. These guys invented rock and roll. Make a playlist; play it for your kids. Remind yourself why these performers mattered and still matter.
The problem is that the big, bulging baby boomer generation is nearing the end of the road, and so are the people who defined and sustained it. (Actually, this isn't a problem. It's life.) Some of them are spending their golden years doing great work on TV: "Game of Thrones" in particular has been kind to Diana Rigg (77) and Max von Sydow (87).
Better batten your emotional hatches, though, because our storied musicians, actors, and public figures will be vanishing from the stage in greater numbers in the coming years. When you triangulate your cultural self-worth off the youthful pop stars who've embodied it, you have to be prepared to absorb some pain when they age and die. But maybe that's just a side-effect of being part of the first all-media all-the-time generation.
The performers don't even have to be superstars to prompt a sense of loss that can feel weirdly personal. When Madeleine LeBeau died in May, so went the last surviving cast member of "Casablanca." William Schallert, Madeleine Sherwood, and Abe Vigoda have all passed away in the past few months; you probably remember them as, respectively, the TV dad of Patty Duke (also recently departed), Sally Field's superior on "The Flying Nun," and Detective Fish on "Barney Miller." Hard-working actors all, with serious credits and mildly goofy pop legacies. But I'm surprised how much I miss them.
But enough with the black crepe — you know who's still alive? Olivia de-fricking-Havilland. The eternally gracious Melanie of "Gone with the Wind," de Havilland will be 100 on July 1, is living in Paris, and is reportedly not in the best of health. Send her a postcard. Failing that, watch her best actress Oscar winners "The Heiress" (1949) and the heartbreaking "To Each His Own" (1946), or 1935's gonzo all-star "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which the breathtakingly lovely 18-year-old plays Hermia.
Kirk Douglas? Also 99 and still going strong, having fought back from a major stroke in 1996. I moderated a Q&A with him several years ago and he was as sharp as a tack. These days, he's enjoying his retirement by writing a blog for the Huffington Post .
According to the website The Film Experience, which regularly updates a list of the "200 oldest living screen stars of note," the oldest of them all is Mexican screen actress Lupita Tovar, born in 1910 and turning 106 next month. Her grandsons, Chris and Paul Weitz, made the "American Pie" movies and many others. Honor her ongoing life by renting the alternate Spanish-language version of 1931's "Dracula," filmed on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi version but with a different cast. Yes, it really exists.
The Film Experience site also reminds us that actress-socialite-"Tonight Show" fixture Zsa Zsa Gabor is still with us (she's 99) and so is Carol Channing (95) of "Hello Dolly" fame. Rose-Marie (92) and Dick Van Dyke (90), too — maybe it's time to get together with Carl Reiner (94) and that kid Mary Tyler Moore (79) for a "Dick Van Dyke Show" reunion. (Sadly, Ann Guilbert, the show's Millie Helper, died just this Tuesday at 87.)
Janis Paige of Broadway, film, and TV is 93. Still with us. June Foray — the voice of Rocket J. Squirrel! — is 98. Still with us. Silent child star Baby Peggy — a.k.a. Diana Serra Cary — is 97 and was profiled in London's The Guardian last year. Very much still with us. Nanette Fabray (95), Rhonda Fleming (92), Glynis Johns (92).
Betty White (94), you know about. Probably Cicely Tyson (91) and Eva Marie Saint (91), too. But maybe not Doris Day (92 or 94, depending on the source), since the great pop singer and professional Hollywood virgin hasn't made a movie since 1968's "With Six You Get Eggroll" or appeared on TV since "The Doris Day Show" wrapped in 1973.
What I'm saying is appreciate these people. Now, while they're alive. OK? Watch Day in her best movies — Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) and the twisted show biz melodrama "Love Me or Leave Me" (1955). Or stream "Golden Girl," a fine collection of Day's big band hits and pop recordings for Columbia.
Maybe someone can even get her on "Game of Thrones." It's never too late. And that show could really use a virgin.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.