Sunday 17 December 2017

Farewell to the legends

A relentless and unforgiving 2016 has seen some of the world's very finest entertainers slip away from us, writes Hilary A White

David Bowie
David Bowie
Robert Vaughn
Alan Rickman
Terry Wogan
Frank Kelly
Paul Daniels
Garry Shandling
Ronnie Corbett died on March 31 at 85.
Victoria Wood
Muhammad Ali
Leonard Cohen
Andrew Sachs (left) died on December 2 at 86
Anthony Foley
Hollywood icon Zsa Zsa Gabor died on December 18 at 99.
Gene Wilder with Richard Pryor in 1980 comedy 'Stir Crazy'
George Martin
Caroline Aherne

Relentless, is the only word. From start to finish like a virus through the calendar year. Even the very day I began writing this, two names - two! - were added to an already lengthy list of icons, legends and beloveds we now have to do without. Yes, 2016 became the year the world braced itself each morning for news of another famous face subsiding. Ubiquitous totems got it every bit as bad on God's chopping block as those who slipped away quietly.

From Lemmy to Lenny, the year was particularly unkind to musicians. Facial warts and an obsession with Nazi memorabilia couldn't stop bikers everywhere shedding a tear over the death of Motorhead and Hawkwind rocker Lemmy Kilmister on the eve of 2016. If Lemmy's passing woke us up to rock-god mortality in the dying hours of 2015, 2016 would begin with a merciless slap to the face.

Early on the morning of January 10, my partner told me to sit down as she had some bad news. For the next hours, days, months and right up to now, David Bowie's death two days after his 69th birthday and the release of staggering 25th LP Blackstar landed a punch to the planet's gut that is still felt.

Grown men wept for the death of their youth and whole generations saw the brightest of lights extinguished.

The internet collapsed as millions tried to make sense of a world without the Starman.

"Bowie was always there," Brendan O'Connor said in a moving piece at the time, "even when he wasn't. You knew he was out there somewhere. And now he's not."

But even in the secret grip of liver cancer, the Thin White Duke's artistic drive couldn't be tempered, and Blackstar's recording, release and veiled symbolism emerged as a grand installation he used to soundtrack his passing.

Such a loss would put a pallor on any year but 2016 was only getting started.

A founding member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey, succumbed a week later to a list of health complaints that included rheumatoid arthritis and gastrointestinal complications. He was 67, and in an earlier interview attributed his ailing health to "burgers and beer and blow and broads" during the group's heyday.

In March, we bid farewell to George Martin (90), the 'Fifth Beatle' and super-producer who had played midwife to The Fab Four's lofty catalogue.

After Bowie, you'd think we'd be better prepared to lose Prince in April from an accidental overdose at the age of 57. The truth, however, is that the Purple One came to be part of a Grand Iconic Trinity that began with Bowie and would culminate in November with the departure of Canada's laureate ladies' man and the late-20th century's Voice of God, Leonard Cohen (82). Between the trio, even those with a passing interest in music had a reason to feel aggrieved. Any other year, the passing of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer singer Greg Lake earlier this month at 69 would dominate a retrospective, but this was no ordinary year.

Almost 12 months before his untimely death in January at 69, I had interviewed Alan Rickman for this paper. He spoke with passion and thoughtfulness about Irish family connections and learned opinions on the Collins-De Valera dynamic.

The voice was that deep caramelised purr, and the smile the very same John McClane and Robin Hood had confronted. The world is poorer without either.

Another luminary I'd had the privilege to interview was Terry Wogan. Sitting on a sunny terrace in his back garden in Maidenhead, the broadcasting giant hadn't an ounce of fakery to him and chuckled away softly as if cameras were rolling.

It was 2011 and he had nothing to plug and was not fulfilling any media obligation, but his generosity of spirit and the sheer brightness of his wit was extraordinary.

Limerick's favourite son succumbed to cancer at the end of January, sending the whole of the UK (and most over here) into mourning.

And still they kept falling. Bona-fide comic geniuses such as Garry Shandling (the face and brain behind The Larry Sanders Show) and Mrs Merton writer and star Caroline Aherne left us in March and July, respectively. Shandling's death was the result of a massive heart attack, while Aherne had been battling cancer after some troubled years away from the spotlight.

Cancer also came for the brilliant, sparkling wit of Victoria Wood in April. The UK comedienne and polymath died at home with her family around her aged 62. Another titan of the golden age of UK comedy was Ronnie Corbett, who passed away in March aged 85 after a glittering career as one half of The Two Ronnies.

Key components of what are considered two of the finest sitcoms of all time departed this world. Having overcome cancer, Frank Kelly had a heart attack in late February. The Father Ted star - whose Fr Jack Hackett character will forever be an icon of lecherous, whiskey-sozzled anarchy - was also a stalwart of TV and radio drama, both here and in the UK.

More recently, Andrew Sachs (86), creator of the brilliantly buffoonish Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers, checked out following some years of illness.

Like fellow Dubliner Kelly, Johnny Murphy was synonymous with one career-defining role (Joey 'The Lips' Fagan in The Commitments) and passed away in February at 72. And like Kelly, there was more to him than this, as anyone who witnessed his definitive turn as Estragon in the long-running Gate production of Waiting for Godot will know. Similarly, US actress Florence Henderson's death in late November at 82 gave people a chance to look beyond her long-running portrayal of Carol in The Brady Bunch at a rich CV.

For Robert Vaughn or Paul Daniels, their careers were so varied that it was almost a chore to think of one thing to hang our affections on. For Vaughn, the suave, dark-eyed US actor, there were gold standards in film (The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, Superman III) and TV (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The A-Team) in his formidable 20th-century screen resume.

Daniels, meanwhile, was principally a magician but his talents, hewn on the 1960s UK variety-show circuit, saw him branch into children's TV, and chat and quiz shows. Daniels (77) died in mid-March following the discovery of a brain tumour, while Vaughn stepped out in November after losing a battle with leukaemia at 83.

In August, we bid adieu to the prodigious Gene Wilder, a man who gifted laughter via classics such as The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and Mel Stuart's gorgeous 1971 musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years previously and passed away at home age 83 listening to Ella Fitzgerald's Somewhere Over The Rainbow. It's hard to imagine celluloid not having those wild, blue eyes and elastic clowning at its disposal.

Michael Cimino, the Oscar-winning director of The Deer Hunter, died in July at age 77 after some years in Hollywood's critical and commercial wilderness. Among the New Yorker's projects that never saw the light of day was apparently a biopic of Michael Collins he scrapped in 1987. Illness following heart surgery forced Curtis Hanson off the set of his final film, Chasing Mavericks, in 2011.

By that time, LA Confidential, Wonder Boys, 8 Mile and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle had marked him out as one of Tinseltown's most respected filmmakers. He was 71 when he passed away in September. Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride director Garry Marshall died in July aged 81 following a stroke, just weeks after the release of his swansong, Mother's Day.

Arthouse cinema also lost one of its greatest visionaries in July when Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami died after a short illness. The 76-year-old's death was mourned by heads of state, film stars and Hollywood directors alike.

All three died in their 70s after long and fruitful decades in their vocation. Cruelly, Anton Yelchin was just 27 when he was killed in a bizarre accident involving his own jeep at home in California in June. Just a few weeks before, the Russian-born Star Trek actor had reminded us of his dexterity and presence in Jeremy Saulnier's excellent thriller The Green Room. The same month, another 27-year-old with a bright future, US pop star Christina Grimmie, was shot dead by a deranged fan after an Orlando concert.

The same feeling of being cut down before one's time struck in Paris on October 16 and rippled out through the world of rugby. Anthony "Axel" Foley died in his sleep the night before Munster were to face Racing 92, the team coached by former teammate and fellow Irish rugby legend Ronan O'Gara. Disbelief - he was 42 - turned to grief as the international rugby community rallied around to mark the death of one of its own. Grief in turn turned to resolve as Munster found some long-lost steel out of the loss (last weekend's defeat to Leicester was their first since Foley's death).

Indeed, when Ireland faced the All Blacks' haka in Soldier Field with an "8" formation to honour Foley's jersey, the gesture thrummed with quiet power. History was written 80 minutes later.

In June, the sporting world certainly got the 2016 treatment when Muhammed Ali left this world aged 74 a day after being admitted to hospital for a respiratory illness.

Although Parkinson's had severely affected him since his mid-1980s diagnosis, Ali had long since discarded the description of mere "boxer" by that time. So enormous was his charisma that by 1974's "Rumble in the Jungle" he was bigger than boxing itself, and probably more popular than God.

It may be some time before anyone, in any field, achieves something remotely similar.

Like Foley, JT McNamara was another of our southern sporting greats taken far too young. And like Ali, McNamara had suffered irreparable injury in his chosen arena. The Limerick jockey had been confined to a wheelchair since sustaining spinal damage in a fall in Cheltenham.

He was 41 when he died after being rushed to University Hospital Limerick at the end of July while the Galway Festival was in full swing.

Walter Swinburn, the flat-race jockey and trainer who died this month 55 years young, was another of racing's household names. As the 19-year-old rider of Shergar, Swinburn secured his place in history by winning the 1981 Epsom Derby by a whopping 10 lengths. He continued to race after Shergar's famous kidnapping in 1983 before becoming a trainer in 2004. Two luminaries of the O'Connor Irish golfing dynasty, Christy Snr and Christy Jnr, both died within four months of each other this year. The former was 91 and had a career on the fairway that took in 10 Ryder Cups and 23 British and Irish circuit wins. His nephew, Christy Jnr, was both a hero of the 1989 Ryder Cup team that retained the trophy for Europe and a tireless charity fundraiser. He was 67 when he died in Tenerife in January.

Other corners of culture and society felt the sting. Kay O'Loughlin Kennedy, who co-founded Concern Worldwide in 1968, died age 77 this month. The great Irish laureate John Montague was 87 when he died in Nice. Montague was ordained the first Ireland Professor of Poetry in 1998, and had only just been honoured at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

The same day Montague died, Sunday Times columnist and critic AA Gill was felled by an aggressive cancer. The lethally articulate 62-year-old's final piece (detailing his illness and its implications) just happened to hit newsstands the following day.

Three Whitbread prizes and five Booker nominations were evidence (were it needed) that William Trevor was a literary treasure. Born in Mitchelstown but moving to England later in life (where he died in November at 88), Trevor was renowned as a master of the short-story and was regularly compared to Joyce and Chekhov without a shred of hyperbole.

A cunning wordsmith of a different kind was PJ Mara, Haughey's infamous press secretary, political advisor and general Fianna Fail grandee, who was 73 when he died in January. Slippery and tactical as Mara undoubtedly was, even those in opposition could not deny the potency of his razor-sharp wit and lyrical alacrity. Opinions clashed more sharply when 'El Comandante' himself, Fidel Castro, at last accepted death at age 90. While Cuban ex-pats and the right vilified Castro over his regime's human-rights violations, the left - including our own Uachtaran Michael D Higgins, controversially - focused more on Cuba's health and education record and Castro's revolutionary spirit.

Either way, a Cold War relic has been consigned to history.

There was no let up. The ink was still drying on this article when news broke of the death of self-parodying Hungarian screen siren and glamourpuss Zsa Zsa Gabor at the ripe old age of 99.

Maybe it's just the age we happen to find ourselves living in. But now we need a break, and if death comes knocking one last time this year, we'll leave a final word with jazz guru Louis Stewart, whose death in August at 72 has made Dublin just a little less cool. When taking a breather, he'd usually tuck his guitar under his arm and have a smoke while his backing band soloed away. I saw him many times, and once, a mobile phone began to ring. And ring. And ring. Perched on his stool, Stewart puffed away listening to his bandmates.

As if rehearsed, he stubbed out the fag and swung his guitar back around into position just as the ringing suddenly stopped. Stewart flashed a wry smirk at no one in particular and retorted: "We're not in."

Sunday Independent

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