Sometimes it is the untrue urban legend which makes the best story. Remember Jerry Mathers who played the Beaver on Leave It To Beaver? (What can I say? Those were much more innocent times.) Several years after that show went off the air, there were rampant rumors that he had been killed in the Viet Nam War. It was probably started as anti-war propaganda because, the fact is, he’s still alive today. In the ’60s, there were many rumors and clues that proclaimed Paul McCartney was dead. One such clue would supposedly be revealed if you played the song Strawberry Fields Forever backwards. Then you would allegedly hear John Lennon’s voice saying, “I buried Paul.” Some people swore it worked, but I could never figure out how to play a vinyl record backwards without scratching the hell out of it.
Once in awhile a celebrity passes away that most people didn’t know was still alive.
When Trini Lopez recently died, many people were surprised because thought he was already dead. Wilford Brimley just passed away and even his immediate family thought they’d buried him. When Chuck Berry died a few years ago, everyone thought he’d been performing in Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven for years. What confused matters even more was the fact that Chuck Barris (of The Gong Show fame) died just three days after Chuck Berry. So conversations about these two similar sounding celebrity deaths often played like an Abbott & Costello routine.
“Did you hear that Chuck Barris just died?”
“I heard that a few days ago.”
“No, that was Chuck Berry.”
“Then who’s Chuck Barris?”
“You remember, he hosted The Gong Show.”
“Oh yeah. Didn’t he sing, My Ding-A-Ling?”
“No, he wrote, Palisades Park.”
“I thought you said he hosted The Gong Show?”
“That was Chuck Barris.”
“Then who sang, My Ding-A-Ling?”
“That was Chuck Berry.”
“Did you know he just died?”
Some celebrities should have died sooner.
I mean, as far as their legacies go. Imagine if Elvis Presley had died right after he joined the army, at the very peak of his career. He would have been remembered as the young King of Rock ‘n’ Roll who left the world wondering what might have been. But no, he had to live long enough to make all those terible movies and become a drug addicted, overweight caricature of his former self who suffered the final indignity of dying on the crapper. Which, by the way, is a surprisingly common place for people to die. Think about that next time you’re sitting on the toilet.
Imagine if Orson Wells had died right after making Citizen Kane. He would have been remembered as the most brilliant young filmmaker of all time, struck down before he could show us the limits of his artistry. But no, he had to live long enough to become the fat old guy who did those wine commercials on TV. (Remember “Paul Masson will sell no wine before it’s time”?) The first time I saw Orson Wells was on The Tonight Show where he was doing cheap magic tricks for Johnny Carson. I was not impressed. It wasn’t until a few years later when I discovered his old movies and realized that he was once considered a genius. It was like seeing a Bible movie before finding out it was based on a book.
Joe Paterno missed it by just a few months. After becoming the most winning coach in the history of college football, his legacy was shattered by the Penn State sex abuse scandal. Not only was he abruptly fired but they also took down the larger than life statue of him faster than Sadam Hussein’s statue after the fall of Iraq. Poor Joe had the bad timing to pass away just two months after they fired him. I think it’s safe to say that if he had died just a year earlier, they would not have dragged his name through the mud and they never would have punished him. That’s because most people don’t like to speak ill of the dead. But as you can tell by now, I’m not one of them.
Perhaps most notably, there’s Bill Cosby. Few entertainers are as accomplished and were as beloved as he was. While they can never take away his accomplishments, they certainly can take back the love. If he had died before 2014 then comedian Hannibal Buress would probably never had made the joke about Cosby being a rapist that later went viral. Then all of those women would not have come forward and all of us would have been spared from seeing the overexposed Gloria Allred yet again. Some of those accusations were already a matter of public record, but the public didn’t care. If he had died before that joke went viral, they would have continued not to care. He would have been remembered as one of the greats, instead of one of the worst.
Sometimes jokes about death can be “too soon.”
But I believe that nothing is sacred. If you can’t eventually laugh about something, then you’re probably having a problem coming to terms with it. In the end, it’s all gallows humor. We’re just laughing in the face of death, even though we know that death always gets the last laugh.
Check out Richard Basis’ Celebrity Deaths Part 1 and Part 2 below: