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PHOTO BY: AP Photo/Reed Saxon
Bill Withers, singer and composer, 81
(July 4, 1938 – March 30, 2020) Withers, whose 1972 hit “Lean on Me” was sung at the inaugurations of Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and has become a comforting anthem during the coronavirus crisis, came from the tough mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. His upbringing inspired “Lean on Me” and another popular song, “Grandma’s Hands,” about the grandmother who helped raise him after his dad died, when he was 13. Afflicted with a painful stutter, Withers perfected a smooth baritone capable of sustaining a note for 18 seconds (in “Lovely Day”). Though several of his songs — among them, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Use Me” and “Just the Two of Us” — became classics, his anger at his record company caused him to retire in 1985, wealthy from his wise investments. “Bill Withers is the closest thing black people have to a Bruce Springsteen,” Roots bandleader Questlove said.
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PHOTO BY: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Fred “Curly” Neal, basketball entertainer, 77
(May 19, 1942 — March 26, 2020) In an era when members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team were internationally known celebrities, Fred “Curly” Neal was one of its biggest stars. Neal, a member of the Globetrotters from 1963 to 1985, was famous for his trick skills with a basketball — but also for his shaved head and joyous attitude. Like other Globetrotters of the time, he transcended the game itself, appearing on television series, commercials and even a Globetrotters Saturday morning cartoon show. He is one of only five team members to have their jersey numbers retired, along with Wilt Chamberlain, Marques Haynes, Meadowlark Lemon and Goose Tatum. “We have lost one of the most genuine human beings the world has ever known,” Globetrotters General Manager Jeff Munn said in a statement released by the team. “His basketball skill was unrivaled by most, and his warm heart and huge smile brought joy to families worldwide.”
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PHOTO BY: Al Pereira/Getty Images
Terrence McNally, playwright, 81
(Nov. 3, 1938 — March 24, 2020) The first high-profile cultural figure to dief coronavirus, McNally was a lung cancer survivor who suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Born in St. Petersburg, Florida, he grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas. During his prolific career, he earned five Tony Awards, including a 2019 Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre honor. He was the pioneer who put gay characters — long condescended to and relegated to supporting roles — into the spotlight as protagonists in historic hits including the AIDS play Love! Valor! Compassion!, Master Class, Ragtime, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Full Monty and 1987’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which was revived on Broadway last year. Once the lover of Edward Albee, who refused to acknowledge him in public, he is survived by his husband, Tom Kirdahy. Lin-Manuel Miranda called McNally “a giant in our world.”
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PHOTO BY: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Celebrity Fight Night
Kenny Rogers, singer/songwriter, 81
(August 21, 1938 — March 20, 2020) Raspy-voiced and versatile in style, Rogers first won fame in the 1960s with his group The First Edition and their psychedelic-rock hit “Just Dropped in (to See What Condition My Condition Was in)” and the country tune “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” His solo career soared in 1977 with his No. 1 country smash “Lucille” (which annoyed his mother, Lucille, until he reassured her that it wasn’t about her leaving four hungry children). His 1978 song “The Gambler” hit No. 1 on both country and pop charts — at a time when that was rarely done — and spawned a series of TV movies in which he starred as an old-west-style gambler. His collaborations with Dolly Parton helped keep him vital until health issues ended his performing career in 2018. “Kenny would tell you, if he stood in front of a country crowd, he felt so pop,” said country star Garth Brooks, “and if he stood in front of a pop crowd, he felt so country.”
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PHOTO BY: Tim Brakemeier/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Max von Sydow, actor, 90
(April 10, 1929 — March 8, 2020) The lanky Swedish actor rose to fame along with his frequent director Ingmar Bergman in 1957’s The Seventh Seal, in which he iconically played a medieval knight playing chess with the Grim Reaper. He spent much of his life playing older than his age, as in his most famous role, the title character of The Exorcist (1973). He earned Oscar nominations at age 59 (Pelle the Conqueror) and 82 (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which also earned him an AARP Movies for Grownups nomination) and an Emmy nomination at 86 for playing the Three-Eyed Raven on Game of Thrones. He balanced art films (The Emigrants, Hannah and Her Sisters) with blockbusters (Bond nemesis Blofeld in Never Say Never Again, a village elder in Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens). Critic Terrence Rafferty called him “the greatest actor alive.”
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PHOTO BY: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images
Rosalind P. Walter, the first ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ 95
(June 24, 1924 — March 4, 2020) Her friends called her Roz, but the rest of America knew Rosalind Walter as “Rosie the Riveter,” an iconic symbol of women’s contributions to help the U.S. and its allies win World War II. Despite being from a well-to-do Long Island, New York, family, Walter took a job building Corsair fighter planes in a Connecticut factory to help with the war effort. A newspaper article about the then-Rosalind Palmer became a hit song in 1942, and she became an inspiration to generations. A different woman posed for Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover in 1943, and yet another for perhaps the best known Rosie the Riveter image by graphic artist J. Howard Miller, but Walter was the first Rosie. Later in life, Walter was an influential philanthropist who contributed to PBS and other charities.
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PHOTO BY: Anthony Behar/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
James Lipton, TV host, 93
(Sept. 19, 1926 — March 2, 2020) The founder of the Actors Studio Drama School and host of TV’s Inside the Actors Studio, on which he interviewed hundreds of stars, James Lipton was so popular, he was invited to play himself on The Simpsons, Glee and Saturday Night Live, whose cast member Will Ferrell parodied him often. The son of noted beat poet Lawrence Lipton, who abandoned James and his mother, he studied acting with famous teachers Stella Adler and Harold Clurman so his acting could finance law school, but he stuck with drama, playing a surgeon on the soap Guiding Light in the 1950s and 1960s. He wrote for the soaps, Broadway shows and Jimmy Carter’s inaugural gala. In 2016, he told The Hollywood Reporter, “If you had put a gun to my head and said, ‘I will pull the trigger unless you predict that in 23 years, Inside the Actors Studio will be viewed in 94 million homes in America [and] 125 countries, that it will have received 16 Emmy nominations, making it the fifth most-nominated series in the history of television, [and] that you will have received the Critics’ Choice Award for best reality series host — predict it or die,’ I would have said, ‘Pull the trigger.’ ”
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PHOTO BY: Peter Foley/Bloomberg via Getty Images
John “Jack” Welch, former CEO of General Electric, 84
(Nov. 19, 1935 — March 1, 2020) Once named “manager of the century” by Fortune magazine, Jack Welch led General Electric through its greatest growth burst, propelling the market value of GE stock to $410 billion from $14 billion during his two-decade tenure as CEO. During that time, he cut nearly 120,000 jobs, giving him the nickname “Neutron Jack,” and he received a $417 million severance package when he retired in 2001. Welch’s blunt management advice, loaded with maxims such as “Change before you have to” and “Control your destiny, or someone else will,” became management gospel in the 1980s. His autobiography, Jack: Straight from the Gut, sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. General Electric’s star has fallen considerably since Welch’s tenure: The company was dropped from the Dow Jones industrial average in 2018 after 110 years on the blue-chip index, and the stock fell nearly 60 percent after two painful dividend cuts.
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PHOTO BY: John Blackmer/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s, 89
(June 3, 1930 — Feb. 28, 2020) Joe Coulombe noticed two big things about young, educated shoppers: They had good taste but not a lot of money. He created the first Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, California, in 1967 and offered high-end food direct from the manufacturer, enabling him to sell exotic items at low prices. The store’s eccentricities included staff dressed in loud Hawaiian shirts and two-dollar bottles of Charles Shaw wine nicknamed Two-Buck Chuck. (Coulombe had read that educated people tended to drink more, too.) He sold the company to the German food giant Aldi in 1979 but stayed at the helm until 1988. When he retired, there were 19 Trader Joe’s stores. Today, the chain has more than 500 in 42 states and the District of Columbia.
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PHOTO BY: NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Katherine Johnson, mathematician, 101
(Aug. 26, 1918 — Feb. 24, 2020) Katherine Johnson, the last survivor of the NASA mathematicians depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, was a pioneering African American aerospace worker who calculated rocket trajectories and Earth orbits by hand during NASA’s early years. Until 1958, Johnson and her black female coworkers did their jobs in a racially segregated computing unit at what is now Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Their work was the focus of the Oscar-nominated 2016 film. In childhood, Johnson’s mathematical prowess allowed her to skip several grades in school, and by age 13 she was attending high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from the college and teaching at a segregated public school in Virginia, she was handpicked in 1939 as one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools, the only woman in the group. Johnson began work at Langley in 1953 and earned the trust of the first astronaut to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, who specifically asked for her to calculate the numbers again that came out of NASA’s early computers, which were prone to hiccups. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. Almost two years later Langley’s Computational Research Facility was opened and named after her.
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PHOTO BY: Wendell Teodoro/WireImage
B. Smith, restaurateur, lifestyle icon, 70
(Aug. 24, 1949 — Feb. 22, 2020) Barbara Elaine Smith became B. Smith, a foodie and lifestyle icon who was often dubbed “the black Martha Stewart.” Born in rural western Pennsylvania to a steelworker and a part-time maid, she worked as a model before building a hugely successful business portfolio that included her three B. Smith’s restaurants; her syndicated show B. Smith With Style; and bedding, bath and other product collections. In her late 50s, though, Smith began a new phase of life after developing early-onset Alzheimer’s. She became a prominent advocate for Alzheimer’s research, and was frank about the challenges she faced, as was her business partner and husband, Dan Gasby, about his own trials as a full-time caregiver — “definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he’s said. The couple detailed their experiences in their 2016 book (written with Vanity Fair editor Michael Shnayerson) Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help and Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer’s.
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PHOTO BY: VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images
Robert Conrad, actor, 84
(March 1, 1935 — Feb. 8, 2020) A hotheaded boxer and nightclub singer turned daredevil stunt man, Conrad continued to do many of his own stunts as an actor starring on TV detective show Hawaiian Eye (1959-63) and The Wild Wild West (1965-69), a combination of a Western and a James Bond-style adventure set in the 1870s, whose many gizmos and sci-fi plots paved the way for the steampunk genre. He was one of the few Hollywood screen tough guys who was sued in real life for fistfights. So daring that he almost died falling from a chandelier in a fight scene, he took more exhilarating risks as he grew older, learning to fly a plane to play WWII Marine aerial commander Pappy Boyington on Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976-78). “I was so happy to have been surfing in Hawaiian Eye and horseback riding during The Wild Wild West, flying airplanes during Baa Baa Black Sheep, and being next to these beautiful women,” he said.
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PHOTO BY: Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images
Kirk Douglas, actor, 103
(Dec. 9, 1916 — Feb. 5, 2020) A poor immigrant ragman’s son, Douglas, (born Issur Danielovitch Demsky) said, “I’ve always been a maverick.” He defied his agents by spurning an MGM prestige picture to play a ruthless boxer in 1949’s Champion; the MGM flick bombed, and Champion earned Douglas his first Oscar nomination. Reflecting on the career move, he said, “Since then I haven’t worried about what other people said.” He was also nominated for his performances as a magnetically nasty film producer in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and moody, depressed artist Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956). He launched Stanley Kubrick by starring in the 1957 antiwar masterpiece Paths of Glory and defied the Hollywood establishment to hire blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for Spartacus, in which Douglas starred as a Roman slave-revolt leader. After his 1996 stroke, he wrote a book, My Stroke of Luck, and kept working, making his last film at 92, the small-screen feature Empire State Building Murders, in 2008. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored him in 1996 as a creative and moral force in the industry. “To the world he was a legend, an actor from the golden age of movies who lived well into his golden years,” said his son Michael Douglas. “But to me and my brothers [he] was simply Dad.”
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PHOTO BY: John Lamparski/WireImage
Mary Higgins Clark, author, 92
(Dec. 24, 1927 — Jan. 31, 2020) Justly known as the Queen of Suspense, Mary Higgins Clark was the mastermind behind best-selling page turners for nearly half a century. Her readers adored her — and the feeling appeared to be mutual. “Nobody ever bonded more completely with her readers than Mary did,” her editor Michael Korda said in a statement. Clark started writing in earnest after her husband’s fatal heart attack in 1964 left her as a young widow with five children; since then more than 100 million copies of her books have sold in the U.S. alone, including the gripping Under Suspicion series she coauthored with crime writer Alafair Burke and five holiday-themed mysteries she penned with her daughter Carol Higgins Clark. She loved writing and did so until the very end: “I can’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t write,” she told AARP last year in an interview about what would be her final book, Kiss the Girls and Make Them Cry. “I hope I never find out.”
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PHOTO BY: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages
Jim Lehrer, legendary journalist and news anchor, 85
(May 19, 1934 — Jan. 23, 2020) Journalist, prolific author, broadcast fixture and a witness to history, Jim Lehrer had many roles and titles during his long career. But it was his position as a PBS news anchor and reporter for 36 years that defined much of his life, with his calm, intelligent and down-to-earth style standing in increasing contrast to some of his more personality-driven peers. Lehrer, often alongside fellow journalist Robert MacNeil, appeared on PBS' nightly NewsHour broadcast as a reporter and anchor from 1975 to 2011. But his journalism career began well before that, as he served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers in Dallas from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Lehrer joined Dallas public television station KERA in 1970, eventually moving to PBS and uniting with MacNeil for coverage of the Watergate hearings in the mid-1970s. That coverage morphed into The Robert MacNeil Report, then the MacNeil-Lehrer Report, followed by the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. MacNeil retired in 1995, and Lehrer became the lead anchor of the program, which was renamed The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Along with moderating 12 presidential debates, between 1988 and 2012, Lehrer covered political conventions, presidential inaugurations and many other high-profile events.
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PHOTO BY: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo
Buck Henry, comedy writer, actor and director, 89
(Dec. 9, 1930 — Jan. 8, 2020) Although Buck Henry was cocreator of the original Get Smart TV series (1965-70), nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay of The Graduate (1967) and a frequent early host of Saturday Night Live between 1975 and 1979, perhaps his most public legacy was as the man who miffed the almost-unflappable Walter Cronkite. Sixty years ago, before Borat and fake news, Henry helped perpetuate a more-than-three-year hoax as “president” of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, which landed him on NBC’s Today show twice and Cronkite’s CBS Evening News. As prudish G. Clifford Prout Jr., Henry pleaded with viewers to join his national crusade to clothe all animals — because “a nude horse is a rude horse.” Only when CBS staff recognized Henry during the Aug. 21, 1962, broadcast was the hoax exposed. Born Henry Zuckerman, he acquired the nickname Buck as a child. In his Hollywood career, Henry was responsible for writing the “plastics” advice given to a young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, received an Oscar nomination for codirecting Heaven Can Wait (1978) and hosted 10 episodes in Saturday Night Live’s first five seasons. Most recently, Henry had roles as Tina Fey’s father in the NBC sitcom 30 Rock — on the same network where he had started his comedy career.
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PHOTO BY: Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images
David Stern, NBA commissioner, 77
(Sept. 22, 1942 — Jan. 1, 2020) Longtime NBA commissioner David Stern is credited with taking a lackluster league and turning it into a multibillion-dollar global sports phenomenon. Because of his ability to put bodies in the seats at arenas throughout the United States and the world, Stern transformed the NBA into a mega enterprise through a series of marketing coups, including bringing in millions of dollars from the sale of clothing, videos and other branded products. Stern not only added seven new franchises to the league during his 30-year tenure, but he also created the WNBA in 1997 and once said that one of his most cherished memories was seeing the 1992 Dream Team win Olympic gold. In addition, he instituted the draft lottery, which became a huge televised media event. Stern’s tenure was not without strife and controversy, though: He oversaw two work stoppages by the National Basketball Players Association and had a reputation as a tough, relentless negotiator.