As the world spins into a new year, it does so without the help of many of the leaders, entertainers, athletes and thinkers who got humanity this far. These are some of the newsmakers who were lost in 2021, but will not soon be forgotten.
Betty White, whose multigenerational TV career proved nice girls don’t finish last and sometimes don’t seem to finish at all, died Friday at 99.
The beloved TV icon was 18 days short of her 100th birthday.
White won six Emmys in a career that stretched over nine decades. She was best known as the man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” from 1973 to 1977, and the slightly spacey Rose Nylund on “The Golden Girls,” from 1985 to 1992.
But it was her remarkably diverse body of work that gradually established her as the Americas Sweetheart of television. Through sitcoms, TV movies, parade hosting, talk show appearances and commercials, she developed a friendly girl-next-door image so ultra-wholesome that White herself poked fun at it.
A fighter until the end, former Nevada senator Harry Reid died at 82 on Dec. 28. The former middleweight boxer was a soft-spoken moderate who opposed abortion rights, championed Obamacare, was hard to read on gun control and played hardball with the casino business in his gambling-oriented state.
His prowess as a lawmaker came into focus during the Obama administration, when he set his sights on Wall Street after the 2008 economic collapse. After Democrats lost the Senate in 2014, Reid’s influence waned, and he decided not to seek reelection in 2016.
John Madden was football. He won a Super Bowl coaching the Oakland Raiders, and then — BOOM! — he became the voice of the NFL for generations, working as a top analyst for CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC. He also changed the way the game is played — literally — when a video game bearing his name hit shelves in 1988.
Several name changes later, “Madden NFL” is the gold standard in sports games — thanks to realism its namesake demanded.
The 85-year-old pigskin personality, famously known for traveling the country by bus and train, and never airplane, died unexpectedly Tuesday.
Nobel Peace Prize-winning Desmond Tutu finished his work on Earth the day after Christmas at the age of 90. The former archbishop of South Africa — the first Black man to hold that post — was a leader in the fight against apartheid.
The son of an educator, Archbishop Tutu himself spent three years teaching high school before taking up theology. He was ordained as a priest in 1960, later achieved a masters degree in theological studies in England, then returned to South Africa to teach that subject.
News of Tutu’s death prompted President Biden and former President Barack Obama to release statements of mourning. Obama remembered Tutu as “a mentor, a friend, and a moral compass for me and so many others.”
The final chapter of author and journalist Joan Didion’s storied life ended on Dec. 23 in her Manhattan apartment due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. “The Year of Magical Thinking” scribe, who penned both the book and the play of that title, was 87. Her screenplays included “A Star is Born” and “The Panic in Needle Park.”
She first made a name for herself while writing for, then editing, Vogue magazine. Didion was immediately skeptical about the Central Park Five case that shook New York City in 1989 and wrote about the ensuing criminal trials extensively for the New York Review in 1991.
“El Ídolo de México” was released as a 1974 album by Vicente Fernandez, though that also became the multi-Grammy winning singer’s nickname. Before his death on Dec. 12, the 81-year-old performer sold more than 50 million albums, making him one of the biggest recording stars to have been born south of the U.S. border.
He stopped doing live shows in 2016, when he said in his final concert that if he ever met Donald Trump, he would spit in the then-candidate’s face for his negative rhetoric regarding Mexican immigrants.
Few Americans gave more for their country than Bob Dole. The former Senate majority leader, who was also a war hero, member of the House of Representatives and presidential candidate, succumbed to cancer on Dec. 5.
His death came more than 76 years after a German artillery shell seriously injured, but failed to finish the stubborn Kansan during combat in Italy. Known for being direct, sometimes to a fault, Dole also maintained a dry sense of humor through his 98 years.
One of Dole’s more memorable zingers came after his 1980 bid for the Republican party nomination fell woefully short. Dole wisecracked that he slept like a baby after getting blown out in the New Hampshire primary. “Every two hours I woke up and cried,” he joked.
Dole finally got his party’s nomination in 1996, but was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton in the general election. He found work as a pitchman in his post-politics life, promoting donuts, debit cards, soft-drinks and Viagra. Dole told the Associated Press that there was one surefire deal-breaker when he was approached with an ad campaign.
“If they’re not any fun, I don’t want to do them,” he said.
Despite being ahead of his time, fashion designer Virgil Abloh died far too soon following a two-year battle with a rare form of cancer. The artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear was 41.
The Chicago-based fashionista channeled pop artists like Andy Warhol in crafting clothing that imitated art. “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,” he reportedly said in describing his enthusiastic approach to style.
Broadway titan Stephen Sondheim, who died Nov. 26 at 91, leaves behind classics including “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Gypsy” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
The many honors bestowed upon the songwriter from the Upper West Side of New York include a 2008 lifetime achievement Tony Award, the 1985 Pulitzer Prize and a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On the Sunday after his death, Broadway stars including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Raúl Esparza, Laura Benanti and Josh Groban gathered in Times Square to sing Sondheim’s tune “Sunday,” from the show “Sunday in the Park with George.” That songs lyrics include the line, “As we pass through arrangements of shadows, towards the verticals of trees, forever.”
Former secretary of state and four-star general Colin Powell wasn’t just a proud American — he was also a proud New Yorker. Before losing his battle with COVID in October, the 84-year-old former soldier fought bravely in Vietnam, and later led the controversial Iraq war for the George W. Bush administration.
“I don’t spend a lot of time looking in rear view mirrors, because you can’t change anything,” he later said of that chapter in his life.
Powell, like others in the administration, had been wrongly convinced that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. Just a decade earlier, while serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had been lauded for his bluntness in the first Gulf War.
“We’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it,” he famously explained of his 1991 plan to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, which they’d invaded.
Powell’s journey to Washington, D.C., began with his birth in Harlem and upbringing in the south Bronx. Upon learning of Powell’s death, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said, “Our borough has lost a giant today.”
Melvin Van Peebles
Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles’ trailblazing life ended a year short of 90 in September in his Manhattan home. A pioneer of the “blaxploitation” genre, the Chicago native struck a nerve with Black and white audiences with 1971′s “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” which he wrote, directed, and acted in as well.
He also wrote the 1995 screenplay for “Panther,” starring his son Melvin Van Peebles, and edited the French version of Mad magazine in 1965.
From 1994 to 1997, funnyman Norm Macdonald handled “Weekend Update” duties solo for “Saturday Night Live,” where his biting and dry wit inspired current host Colin Jost to aspire to that job. In September, Macdonald died from cancer at 61.
Upon hearing news of the comic’s death, Senator Bob Dole, who outlived Macdonald by just a few months, tweeted he’d miss the joker whose responsibilities on “Saturday Night Live” included impersonating Dole.
Michael K. Williams
Michael K. Williams was born and died in Brooklyn, but the 54 years between those events produced unforgettable onscreen work including his stellar depiction of the drug-dealer robbing, rifle-toting Omar Little on HBO’s “The Wire.”
Obama named that character his favorite during a 2012 interview. Williams, hugely distinguishable by a facial scar he received during a Queens bar fight on his 25th birthday, also starred in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Television viewers of a certain age knew him as Lou Grant, but actor Ed Asner was bigger than the character he played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the spinoff “Lou Grant” throughout the 1970s and into the early ‘80s.
The 91-year-old who died on Aug 29 won five of his seven Emmy Awards for playing that role, but he was also known for his left-leaning political activism and stewardship as the president of the Screen Actors Guild.
In addition, he won new fans in 2009 for voicing Carl in the 2009 Pixar smash “Up.”
The man who kept time for the Rolling Stones for nearly 60 years went out with a bang in August. Charlie Watts, 80, died in August, leaving the rock and roll world in mourning.
Elton John remembered him as “the ultimate drummer” while Joan Jett called him “the most elegant and dignified drummer in rock ‘n’ roll.” Paul McCartney recalled Watts as “steady as a rock” in a video condolence.
Don Everly —half of the Everly Brothers duo — died at 84 in Nashville in August. He and his younger brother Phil were responsible for early rock and roll hits including “Cathy’s Clown,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”
Both brothers joined the United States Marine Corps reserves in 1961 at the height of their popularity. In 1962, after finishing boot camp, the duo appeared in uniform on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The pair famously fanned out in 1973 when Phil smashed his guitar, then stormed off stage during a concert. They reunited a decade later and continued to perform for a dozen more years.
In 1986, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame among an inaugural class that included Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Buddy Holly and James Brown. Phil Everly died in 2014.
Both an era and a life essentially ended on July 24 when Catskills comic Jackie Mason died at 93 in Manhattan. Mason, one of the last of the Borscht Belt comedians, came from a long line of rabbis and became one himself at the age of 25. But Mason soon found that he was happier making audiences laugh, so that’s what he did for a very long time.
In 1999, he talked to the Daily News about his Tony Award-winning one-man show “The World According to Me” on Broadway. “It’s pure entertainment,” he said. “Nothing else.”
Harlem native Marcel Theo Hall was sometimes referred to as “The Clown Prince of Hip-Hop,” but he was best known as Biz Markie. In 1989, the rapper became a household name with the hit single “Just a Friend.”
In 2002, he added acting to his resume when he appeared alongside fellow rapping-actor Will Smith in “Men in Black II.” Rumors of the 57-year-old performer’s death started on social media, more than two weeks before he actually did die on July 16.
Clarence Williams III
“The Mod Squad” star Clarence Williams III broke new ground by becoming one of the earliest Black actors to star in a prime-time program. He was introduced to acting at a Harlem YMCA and credits Bill Cosby — the first Black actor to have a lead role on a prime-time show — for kick-starting his career.
Williams’ 1968 debut on “The Mod Squad,” followed his service as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division in the 1950s. Williams, whose father was a musician, played singer Prince’s dad in the 1984 film “Purple Rain.”
Perhaps mankind’s most storied designated driver, astronaut Michael Collins navigated the Apollo 11 command module Columbia while his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the moon. “As pilot of the Apollo 11 command module – some called him ‘the loneliest man in history,”
After Collins died April 28, NASA wrote in its tribute. “While his colleagues walked on the Moon for the first time, he helped our nation achieve a defining milestone.”
Fraudster Bernie Madoff died in prison in April, two weeks shy of his 84th birthday. The Queens native famously scammed roughly $18 billion from investors — and charities — through a Ponzi scheme that lasted well over a decade. According to his lawyer, Madoff “lived with guilt and remorse for his crimes.” One of his sons committed suicide and the other died from cancer while Madoff was serving a 150-year sentence.
Among Madoff’s better-known victims were actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, and John Malkovich. The total dollar amount of their losses is unclear. Madoff also ripped off Larry King, who died a few months before the disgraced investor.
Then-Mets owners Fred Wilpon, Jeff Wilpon and Saul Katz also took an Amazin’ bath, which may have damaged the team’s fortunes as much as the owners’.
Singer Richard Marx and actor Rosanna Arquette tweeted their sympathies to Madoff’s victims upon hearing of his death.
“A very sad episode in the history of this city, and a lot of people, unfortunately, were hurt,” Mayor de Blasio said then. “The day someone passes is not a time to dance on a grave.”
Madoff is survived by his wife, Ruth. She was left with $2.5 million.
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, died on April 20. He was two months short of his 100th birthday.
Philip, who for 65 years showed unwavering support for the queen, set a new direction for the British monarchy, advocating for the environment, science and technology.
He later developed a reputation for his sometimes crude, inappropriate — and bigoted — jokes.
Philip was an enthusiastic sportsman who served in the Royal Navy. He holds the distinction of being history’s longest-serving royal consort. Queen Elizabeth, 95, said in October that the prince’s death brought “great sadness” to the Royal Family.
The unmistakable music of rapper DMX, aka Earl Simmons, represented the way the rugged, troubled and sometimes spiritual performer lived before suffering a cardiac arrest a week before his death in April, according to his family. He was 50. Though he had a string of hits, DMX is best remembered for the 1999 party classic “Party Up (Up in Here).” His first five albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. That was a first.
Tributes from artists including Bootsy Collins, Missy Elliott, Public Enemy, Chance the Rapper, Viola Davis and Ice-T poured in on social media. Basketball great LeBron James also weighed-in.
“Rest In Paradise LEGEND!!” he tweeted.
Rolling Stone reported Tuesday that unreleased songs from a gospel album DMX recorded in Arizona more than a decade ago remain stored on hard drives. The rapper reportedly planned to tour Southern megachurches to perform new music and had hoped to open a house of worship to help people struggling with addiction.
Comedy or drama, actor George Segal did his part. He even got nominated for a 1966 Academy Award for his performance alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?” Segal died at 87, still married to his third wife and working on the ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs.”
He was also an accomplished banjo player, who appeared on “The Tonight Show” when it was hosted by Johnny Carson.
Right-wing provocateur Rush Limbaugh lost his long battle with lung cancer in February, living several months longer than he’d anticipated after announcing his condition at the start of January 2020.
The 70-year-old broadcaster commanded an enormous radio audience and is remembered as a trailblazer of the modern day ultra-conservative era, where facts and conspiracy theories are often interchangeable. Former President Donald Trump, who awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, compared the gifted orator’s radio shows to a “religious experience for a lot of people.”
Not everyone was a fan.
“He entertained listeners by mercilessly mocking and maligning anyone who didn’t resemble his typical listener — straight, white, conservative, and male,” Media Matters for America President and CEO Angelo Carusone said in a statement. “And that cruelty eventually became a central tenet of modern conservatism.”
In his final broadcast of 2020, Limbaugh said his protracted demise gave him time to savor all that he meant to those who enjoyed his program.
“How many people who pass away never hear the eulogies, never hear the thank-yous?” he wondered.
The very full life of pornographer, publisher, businessman and First Amendment advocate Larry Flynt ended on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles when the 78-year-old’s heart gave out.
Flynt, who married five times, is best known for founding the Hustler magazine franchise. One of his many legal battles found its way to the Supreme Court, where it caused the nation to debate the meaning of obscenity.
Flynt had used a wheelchair since 1978, when he was shot by a white supremacist who said he was angry about a photo of an interracial couple in one of his magazines.
There weren’t many voices like Mary Wilson’s, and the few that may come the closest belonged to her Supremes bandmates, including Diana Ross. The Motown superstar died in her sleep on Feb. 8, but left the world with timeless tunes including “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Wilson was 76.
Though born in Mississippi and forged in Detroit, she earned a degree from NYU well after her days as a pop star had ended.
Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer also had a pair of Tony Awards and a couple Emmy Awards listed in his obituary after he died on Feb. 5 at the age of 91. Most famously known for his role as Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” Plummer became the oldest person to win an Oscar for “Beginners” in 2010 when he was 82 and held that distinction until supplanted by Anthony Hopkins in April.
Plummer remains the oldest actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. He was 88 when his work in “All the Money in the World” gained him that distinction in 2018.
Cicely Tyson was born in the Bronx and raised in Harlem, which is also where her funeral service — attended by luminaries including Bill and Hillary Clinton — took place in February.
In her 96 years, Tyson, who died Jan. 28, did it all. She began her career as a model, but her acting work earned her an Academy Award, a Tony Award and three Emmy Awards. She refused to star in blaxploitation movies and took on roles featuring strong Black women instead.
Obama added a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Tyson’s collection in 2016. She was married to jazz giant Miles Davis throughout the 1980s and is survived by her godson, rocker Lenny Kravitz.
No one has been nominated for or won more Emmy Awards than Cloris Leachman who, at 94 years old, died in January. A former Miss America pageant contender, Leachman also had a very funny side that led to her working with the likes of Mel Brooks and Adam Sandler.
“She could make you laugh or cry at the drop of a hat,” Brooks, who directed her in “Young Frankenstein,” tweeted upon hearing she had died. Like so many in 2021, Leachman’s death was attributed in part to the COVID pandemic.
Broadcasting giant Larry King hosted over 50,000 interviews during his illustrious career. The bespectacled CNN host interviewed former President George W. Bush, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. However, one of his most memorable shows aired in 1992 and featured billionaire Ross Perot announcing on air that he was entering the presidential race.
The 87-year-old from Brooklyn, who said “I do” eight times, was hospitalized on Jan. 2 with COVID, before dying of sepsis three weeks later.
Americans have been playing baseball for a long time, but no one played the game like “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron. His 23 years in the major leagues saw him shatter Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974. That feat was made increasingly stressful by hate mail and death threats from racists who didn’t want to see Ruth’s record fall to a Black man. Barry Bonds — who played during baseball’s “steroids era” — broke Aaron’s home record in 2007.
Born in Jim Crow era Mobile, Ala., Aaron found comfort in Milwaukee playing for the Braves. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, he had reservations when the team relocated to Atlanta in 1966.
“I have lived in the South, and I don’t want to live there again,” he reportedly said.
Aaron died on Jan. 22 at the age of 86, in Atlanta, which he made his permanent home after retiring from baseball in 1976. He grew into a pillar of the community and remained an active part of the Braves organization throughout his life. In his final days, Aaron went to bat for COVID vaccines.
“I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” he said of advocating for science.
Music producer Phil Spector leaves behind a complicated legacy that includes an amazing body of work and a murder conviction. The Bronx native introduced his orchestral “Wall of Sound” style to rock and roll music, which resulted in grandiose recordings by The Crystals, The Ronettes, Ike & Tina Turner and The Beatles.
But in 2009, he was imprisoned for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson in his California mansion. Spector died behind bars at the age of 81. His ex-wife, singer Ronnie Spector, said she’d remember him as “a brilliant producer, but a lousy husband.” He died on Jan. 16.
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