It seems we’re always captivated by the “In Memoriam” segment of the Academy Awards telecast. And I’m always interested in the montage that Turner Classic Movies puts together at the end of the year, paying tribute to those in the movie industry who have passed throughout the preceding twelve months. Too often I find myself surprised: “When did he die?” Or even worse: “I didn’t realize she was still alive”. Seems we’re losing legends at an alarming rate. The ‘golden era’ of anything, really, is getting to be so long ago that those who contributed to these eras are generally no longer with us. Particularly those who really stood out in their field.
I know I feel that when someone dies and the tributes are flying, I want to express my love of this person and share the ways that he or she has contributed to my life but in the days after they pass it can be so much white noise. It can seem insincere. An artist dies and his or her body of work is revisited and it’s revealed they’ve made lasting contributions. Everybody is suddenly ‘reminded’ of them. But by then it’s too late to see the person live or even to just view them as a living person. I’ve often thought it would be a good idea to pay homage to some legends that are actually still alive and while we can still enjoy their work or just the fact that we’re still sharing the same space with them.
So, I checked it out and, sure enough, there are some heavyweights still with us. I’ve compiled a list focusing on those 80 or older. I’ve also stuck to people that have really made an impact, icons. Sure, the original prop man from “The Maltese Falcon” may still be alive at 110 but I’ve concentrated on the truly cool and tried to sum up briefly why they’re significant and therefore why it’s cool that they’re still standing. Lennon and Brando may be gone but there’s still some greats left. Let’s give them some love while they’re still here because once someone dies it’s ‘I always loved him’ – whether that’s true or not.
KIRK DOUGLAS, actor, 98. I’ve started with the oldest. 98! Kirk is a true Hollywood legend. Not conventionally handsome, this shortish spark plug of a man could handle the subdued scenes as well as anyone in film. But get him angry and look out. My kids and I used to joke that when he got angry in a movie with teeth-clenched rage it was enough to make you soil yourself. No one did rage, fury, anger or volatility better. Kirk made “Spartacus” almost single-handedly. ‘Nuff said. He also dealt a huge blow to the McCarthy blacklist of the early ’50’s by hiring – and crediting – Dalton Trumbo, a writer ostracized in Hollywood by the red scare. He’s been married to the same woman for better than 60 years and he’s got a dude of a son in Michael. Kirk owned the rights to the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and gave them to his son to produce. Michael’s career really took off when “Cuckoo’s Nest” became only the second film to win all four major Oscars. Mike was an Oscar-winning producer before he was an accomplished film actor. Kirk has survived a helicopter crash and a stroke. After the stroke, doctors said he would likely never speak again. Well, that don’t fly with Kirk. He was able to accept his honorary Oscar two months later and say a few words of thanks to the audience. Kirk is so cool that he has made seven films with Burt Lancaster, a legend in his own right. If all this isn’t enough, Kirk has also written ten novels and memoirs. Legend.
BILLY GRAHAM, evangelist, 96. Graham is perhaps the largest single Christian prescence in U.S. history. He was the spiritual advisor to most American presidents between Harry Truman and Barack Obama. In the 1950’s, he insisted his audiences be integrated, at times inviting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach jointly with him. Graham even bailed King out of prison when King was jailed for a peaceful demonstration. It is estimated that Graham has preached to more than 2.2 billion people and a yearly Gallup poll of the Most Admired Men has placed him at the top 55 times since 1955. “His presence converred sanctity on events, authority on presidents, acceptability on wars, desireablity on decency and shame on indecency and many deemed him America’s pastor.” There’s the Pope, Mother Theresa and Billy Graham.
DORIS DAY, singer/actress, 93. Some of these people need their own post. Doris started out as girl singer for Les Brown and His Band of Reknown in 1939 and soon made the transition to the big screen. By the early 1960’s, she was the biggest box office star in the country – male or female – for four years, the only woman of the era to top the list. Here’s what really blows me away, though: Doris Day is the single biggest female box office star of all-time and 6th – male or female – of all-time. Unreal. Here lies the purpose of this post: the people on this list have truly scaled the heights in their field and the fact that they’re still alive, I think, is cool. Doris is also the oldest living artist to score a top ten album of original material in the UK. When her husband and producer Martin Melcher died in the mid-’60’s, Doris learned that she had been robbed. Not only was she broke but she was heavily in debt. She also learned that without her knowledge Martin had committed her to do a weekly television show! (She proceeded to make “The Doris Day Show” a modest hit) She successfully sued the people involved in misappropriating her funds. She was awarded, wait for it: $22,835,646! Her son, Terry Melcher, is a whole other story. A music producer in the 1960’s, he was affiliated with, among others, the Beach Boys and through them with a budding folk singer name of Charlie Manson. A case could be made that the Manson Murders took place because of Doris Day’s son, Terry. Doris has lately devoted her time to the cause of animal welfare, and endevour in which she has made much progress. An interesting note about Doris: in 1950 she made the film “Young Man with a Horn” with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. I often like to point out that this classic film is unique in that it’s stars Doris and Kirk – and Lauren until last year – are still alive. Also: Doris was born on the exact same day – April 3, 1924 – as Marlon Brando.
JOHNNY BOWER, goaltender, 90. Any guy who played goal in the NHL without a mask is alright by me. Years before his spells between the pipes for the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Bower served in World War 2 with the Canadian Army. Despite his small physical stature and rheumatoid arthritis, he returned from England to toil in the minor leagues for years until – at the age of 33 – he was picked up by the Maple Leafs. He played the next 11 years with the Leafs and although he was plagued by poor eyesight (NHL goalie with no mask and poor eyesight) he won the Vezina trophy twice and three consecutive Stanley Cups. His fourth Stanely Cup victory came when the Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens in 1967. During that series, Bower shut out the Habs and became the second-oldest goalie to play in the final – he was 42. Two years later, he became the oldest goalie to play in a play-off game but at 44 it was time to hang them up. He remains the goalie with the most career wins and shut-outs in the AHL. He’s been featured on a postage stamp and has had a street named after him. Always a welcome sight at the Air Cananda Centre, Bower is a true NHL legend who keeps on truckin’.
TONY BENNETT, singer, 88. Talk about someone needing their own post. Bennett was the first major singer that did not come from a big band. He has been with Columbia Records since, get this, 1950, 65 years. He’s won 18 Grammys and sold 50 million records. Tony is the oldest ACTIVE member on our list. He continues to release albums of new material and while I could discuss the merit of these recordings all day the fact remains that they are succesccful, highly visible affairs. Nobody – nobody – debates that Frank Sinatra is the pinnacle of the male singer of popular standards. Scholar Will Friedwald insists that Mel Torme should be considered the next name mentioned. Tony Bennett should certainly come after that, though. He belongs on a VERY short list of the greatest singers of all-time. In terms of enduring popularity, only Sinatra surpasses Bennett. The thing about Tony is that he has never compromised. He has never ceased to herald the integrity of the Great American Songbook, the Standards. In the late 1960’s, the evil Clive Davis coerced Tony, much against his will, to record an album in the ‘hits of the day’ vein that were so popular at the time. Tony obliged but was physically sick – actually throwing up – during the sessions. Never again did he make this descent but instead continued to share with the world the glory of Gerswhin, Porter et al. To this day he has never strayed from the kind of music that has been loved by the world for almost a century. He figures if it ain’t broke…
CHUCK BERRY, 88. FATS DOMINO, 87. LITTLE RICHARD, 82. JERRY LEE LEWIS, 79, rock ‘n’ rollers. It’s outstanding, really, that most of the architects of early rock ‘n’ roll are still with us. Out of all the major heavyweights, only Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly are gone. These artists are important not only because they played the type of music that eventually led to the bulk of the music we know and love today but also because they made massive cultural contributions to the burgeoning teen-age society. The biggest, most influential artists in history will tell you themselves that they were directly influenced by these pioneers. Chuck Berry, what can you say? Without question, he was the very first guitar hero and set the tone and style for rock guitar riffs and playing in general. Keith Richards once said every riff he played he stole from Chuck. Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” has placed #1 in lists of the Greatet Guitar Songs of All-Time. Fats Domino was plying his trade even before the the rock ‘n’ roll era. The piano man from N’Awlins epitomizes the rock ‘n’ roll sound. “Ain’t That a Shame” was one of the biggest chart records of the era and that and “Bluberry Hill” rank among the classics of the age. Fats also provides an essential link between rock ‘n’ roll and New Orleans. In fact, Fats so loves his hometown that not even Hurricane Katrina could make him leave. Little Richard was a wild man. A true pioneer in his love of wild clothes, hair and performing style. His voice was more consistently outstanding than any of his peers. His largest contribution may be the “holler”. A welcome addition to any rock song is a well placed yell or scream of some sort. This practice originated with Little Richard. All the outrageous rock personalities – from Elton John to David Lee Roth – can thank Little Richard for blazing the trail. At 79, Jerry Lee Lewis is a touch young for this list but he definitely deserves a mention, especially among living rock pioneers. Unfortunately, Jerry’s major claim to fame these days is that he once married his 13-year-old second cousin. But what’s lost is Jerry, like Little Richard, is an original wildman. He’s got Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley for cousins and has his own biopic starring Dennis Quaid.
GORDIE HOWE, 87, hockey legend. While the debate over who was the greatest hockey player of all-time concerns only Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, there is only one “Mr. Hockey”. After making his debut in 1946, Gordie Howe was never one for single-season records – he never scored 50 goals in a season – but where Howe has all others beat is in the area of longevity. He played in the NHL in the 1940’s and the 1970’s. He was in the top ten in scoring 21 consecutive years! The first recipient of the NHL’s “Lifetime Achievement” award, Howe has the distinction of having the “Gordie Howe Hat-Trick” – a goal, an assist and a fight in a single game – named after him. He retired from the Hartford Whalers at the age of 52 – only to come back for one shift with the Detroit Vipers of the IHL at the age of 69. It’s hard to believe that his records for Most Games and Most Seasons will ever be broken. And the nickname “Mr. Hockey”? It’s officially trademarked.
CLINT EASTWOOD, 85, actor/director. Clint is the very best example of a man who has found success on so many levels and in so many arenas that any ONE of his ‘careers’ would make him a legend. He started out on television as a cowboy actor on “Rawhide”. During this time he released an album of ‘cowboy favourites’ – which I own on CD. From here he went to Spain and created the look of “The Man With No Name” in Sergio Leone’s three ‘spaghetti westerns’. From here he began directing his own films and made definitive ‘cop movies’ as Dirty Harry. Throughout the ’70’s and ’80’s he directed 30 films, became synonymous with golf at Pebble Beach, became a pilot, and shared his love of jazz by making a film on the life of Charlie Parker, working with Tony Bennett, and even writing and performing the scores of some of his films. Did I mention he was mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea for two years? He is one of two men (Warren Beatty) to have been twice Oscar nominated for Best Actor and Best Director for the same film. He is one of only three living directors to have directed two Best Picture Oscar winners. He’s also the oldest ever recipient of the Best Director Oscar. The recent “American Sniper” proves my point that Clint is not only still alive but he’s still contributing and relevant.
ARNOLD PALMER, 85, golfer. Perhaps the most legendary and beloved golfer of all-time, Arnold Palmer is the reason golf is televised today. Palmer’s rise in the late 1950’s coincided with the dawn of television but the nature of the game of golf at the time proved a challenge for broadcasters. Then came the charismatic “Arnie”, the first hero of the televised game. It is not even debated among pro golfers today that they owe their living to Palmer. A simple man of humble beginnings, Arnie changed the perception of golf as an elitist sport reserved for the rich. When, into his 50’s, his competitive days were over, what is now known as the Champions Tour was created for him and his contemporaries. And here again he made it possible for golfers to continue to make a living at the game into their 60’s. The man has a beverage named after him. Interesting note: in 53 years as a pro golfer, Arnie earned $1,861,857 in winnings. In 2008 alone, his off-course earnings reached $30 MILLION. Arnie is a man of the people and universally loved. He also received the Congressional Gold Medal, the U.S.’s highest civilian honour, from President Obama.
BOB NEWHART, 85, comedian/actor. Along with Betty White, Newhart is a living television legend. He is the original stand-up comedian who got his own TV show. But before this he became the world’s first solo straight man and was an extremely successful recording artist in the era when comedians put out albums. In fact, his “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” album became the first comedy album to go to #1 and it actually won the Grammy for Album of the Year. He also won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1961 – the same award that’s been won by the Beatles, Mariah Carey and Carrie Underwood. He won an Emmy in 2013 for a guest spot on “The Big Bang Theory”. He’s been married to the same woman since 1963 and was one of the first owners of a home computer. Canadian content note: his grandmother is from St. Catherines.
QUINCY JONES, 82, producer/band leader. “Q” has done everything. Much like Clint Eastwood – with whom he went to Seattle University – he has had a exceptional career in so many different areas that any one of them make him a legend. Dig: record producer, conductor, arranger, composer, musician, TV producer, film producer, magazine founder, entertainment company executive and humanitarian. Jones has won an astounding 27 Grammy Awards which ties him for second most. Jones was the first African American to do many things in the music industry and no African American has been nominated for more Academy Awards. His music career has seen him bring his particular brand of cool to the music of Paris and Brazil and he was the only cat cool enough to arrange and conduct two of the albums Sinatra made with Basie. Jones produced the biggest selling pop album of all time, “Thriller”. I’ll always be indebted to Jones for the theme from “Sanford and Son” – if that was all he ever did, he’d still be my favourite. The man is so cool that – get this – his middle name is “Delight”. My man.
HANK AARON, 81, baseball player. One of the greatest and most beloved ball players ever is still with us. “Hammerin'” Hank was an MLB All-Star a ridiculous 25 times. His record mark of 2,297 RBI’s is considered one of the few ‘insurmountable’ records in pro sports. His heroic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark was made moreso considering the hate mail and death threats he received as he approached the 714 mark. When he retired after a sublime career, he held most of the key power hitting records in the game. He perhaps – along with Ruth – was the original “power hitter”, setting the standard for generations to come. The best thing about Henry Aaron? Sheer strength and an eye for the ball. Never even a hint of any substance use that may have enhanced his performance. It was all Hank.
Honouable mentions: Roger Moore (87), Sean Connery (84), Angela Lansbury (89), Maureen O’Hara (94), Debbie Reynolds (83), Robert Wagner (85) and Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, 88, who were born with a week of each other in 1927. And Nancy Barbato – the first Mrs. Frank Sinatra and the mother of his children – is still alive at 97. She wins.