Thursday, October 19, 2006

These Are People Who Died, Died

Have you noticed a lot of people dying lately? Some that you recognize, some that you hardly even heard of? Some who succeeded, others who suffered in vain? Yeah, me too.

But I want to focus today on three people you may or may not have heard of, but if we celebrate their passing, then in some small way they will not have died in vain.

Jerry Belson.
Buck O'Neil.
Freddy Fender.

Let's face it: this is really the last time these guys are gonna make news. As a rule, dead people don't make the news. That's why they call it the news. Editors don't go around assigning reporters to write a feature on a celebrity who is still dead.

Sure, it's always fun to hear about a Ted Williams, head cut off and preserved cryogenically, or the still mysterious circumstances of a Jim Hoffa going missing. But for the rest of us poor schmucks who stand little chance of getting either glamorously whacked or posthumously frozen, the best we're gonna get is one of those 5- or 6-line jobs published in the local newspaper, with a small out of date photo if you're lucky, slapped together with a corny In Memorium logo, and it's See Ya, Wouldn't Wanna Be Ya. Because at that point you'd be dead, deceased, kaput, no longer a carbon-based life form ... your tank running a big empty on the old meter-o-life.

So in case you didn't read the paper that day and didn't catch their passings, we salute Jerry and Buck and Freddy. No giants here to overshadow them, just three notable persons of note, of which I spoke to you of which.

I've always been a closet obituist. Now, that does not mean I'm an oboe player who is into pain; I really don't play any musical instruments. But I have a morbid habit of checking out the New York Times obituaries section online every morning to see if anyone fell through the cracks. And even if there were no major deaths to speak of, they have a great archive database you can search through. They're all there waiting to be remembered, just a click away -- and really, let's face it: where are they going?

An obituary is most celebrities' last chance to have the stage all to themselves. It's an urban myth that famous people die in threes, or it just seems that way sometimes. You know, two famous people will die the same day, and then you wait for the other shoe to drop. Who's it gonna be? And then when someone famous does die the next day, somehow they're forever linked. Let's say Marlin Brando and Bozo the Clown die on a Tuesday, and then on Wednesday oh let's say Idi Amin dies. You somehow try to find connections, however tenuous, between the three of them.

In our case, it's like that Twilight Zone episode where those five seemingly disparate characters are thrown together for no apparent reason: "Submitted for your approval, a television writer, a ballplayer, a balladeer, joined together in a cosmic game of chance. Leaving this mortal coil, but not before leaving their mark. There's a signpost up ahead, it's the Wardens World..."

Jerry Belson was 68 years old when he died of cancer on October 13. The name may not ring a bell, but as a writer he had more than a passing role in some of the best TV sitcoms ever to make it to the small screen, including the Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, and Danny Thomas shows, as well as Gomer Pyle, Love American Style and the Tracey Ullman show. But his crowning achievement may have been the The Odd Couple, where he not only wrote teleplays for the show but was instrumental in adapting the Neil Simon movie (originally a play) to television. Now, I have no idea what adapting something to television entails, but it sounds like a significant contribution, and something you'd be amply compensated for, maybe even important enough to have your own office with your name on the door for the effort. As funny as the 1968 movie with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau was, lots of people fall into the camp that believe the 1970s TV version of The Odd Couple starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as Felix & Oscar surpasses it. Include me in that camp. Anyone who was so integral to my favorite sitcom of all time will get his props on my blog if I have anything to do with it, and I think I can unabashedly say I do. Of course at this point nobody knows which writer wrote which jokes, but let's just agree that Jerry Belson contributed greatly to the merriment of millions of people through the years, and that is not a bad legacy to have.

Freddy Fender had a very successful solo career singing country ballads in a plaintive understated tremolo, but it was as one-fourth of Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornados that many will fondly remember him. He also passed away from the Big C, at age 69, on October 14, a day after Jerry Belson. His biggest hits both came in 1975, with Before The Next Teardrop Falls and Wasted Days & Wasted Nights. Teardrop reached #1 on the pop and country charts, while Wasted hit #1 country and #10 pop. He was busted in 1960 for marijuana possession and spent three years in a Louisiana jail, a miscarriage of justice that undoubtedly contributed to his forlorn voice and presentation. Together with living legends Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers, Fender made a series of albums starting in 1990 under the name Texas Tornados that are undeniable masterpieces. (The always reliable gives the first three records at least 4 stars each.) And their live shows, many of which were caught on Austin City Limits, were even better.

Buck O'Neil was the Negro League era ballplayer and manager who became an "overnight sensation" after the country fell in love with his passion for the game when he was interviewed for Ken Burns' terrific documentary about the history of Major League Baseball. He died on October 6 at age 94. This man with the sparkling gleam in his eyes and the kindly demeanor remained amazingly bitter-free, always classy, never blaming anyone for depriving him and other Black and Latin players of his chance to play in the big leagues against the best of the best. Unfortunately, despite a stellar career as a player and later a longtime scout for the Chicago Cubs, O'Neil had to endure one last major injustice when the selection committee callously left him off (by a single vote!) their list of 17 Negro League honorees to be inducted into the Baseball Hall Of Fame in July 2006. A total, utter disgrace. But O'Neil even took that indignity in stride, telling the crowd at the ceremony, "God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful."

If you can read that and not tear up, check your pulse real good, and then check tomorrow's obituaries for your name, because you must already be dead.

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