Is it true that celebrity deaths come in waves — or does it just seem that way? And is true that only the good die young — or that it only seems that way because some people, no matter how old they might have been in terms of chronological age, still had more to contribute, and we can't bear to let them go?
Four celebrities have passed away lately… four people who I, for one, wasn't ready to see depart. These four outstanding people will be missed more than most.
Lean, tall, soft-spoken, good-humored, and eloquent, Pete Seger was a Lincoln-esque man for our time. Agree or disagree with his politics, it's hard to find anyone in recent times who so beautifully personified what it means — or at least ought to mean — to be a "great American." Condemned and castigated by people who misinterpreted his ideas, he never reacted with bitterness toward his accusers or any feeling other than good will and love to all his fellow citizens. Although he'd shown an early interest in Marxism as a philosophy, he was a life-long opponent of violence and dictatorship and became sharply critical of Stalin.
As a young folk singer, Seeger had once been at the top of the national charts. Then he was blacklisted for years by McCarthyism and lost his national exposure. TV, radio, and major record company deals became out of reach for him. What did he do? He never slowed down, but instead reached out to the young people of America, singing at any college or school that would have him. His was forever a message of hope and optimism. Believe in the future, he told people, believe we can work together and make a better world. He wrote some of the major anthems of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, such as Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, and helped bring Bob Dylan to public attention. And he didn't stop there. Performing on a boat that went up and down the Hudson River, he spearheaded the first successful environmental movement, reclaiming that once lost river. Pete Seeger was almost too good for the country he loved.
Few people ever personified the term "movie star" as well as Peter O'Toole. Bursting into international stardom as a young man in Lawrence of Arabia, he was considered a matinee idol among matinee idols… a man so ethereally beautiful it was difficult to believe any member of the masculine sex could be quite that good looking. And so he was dubbed "Florence of Arabia."
And yet if you shut your eyes and listened to him talk, you would've realized that O'Toole's real beauty was in his voice. That voice was a gorgeous instrument whose excellence only increased over time, whether he used it to perform Shakespeare or a Woody Allen comedy (What's New Pussycat?). From beginning to end, he was above all an actor. If his looks or image ever mattered to him, he gave little evidence of it. With Peter O'Toole, the play was the thing. It didn't matter whether he played the lead or showed up in character parts. He would steal the play, the show, or the movie right out from under you no matter what part you gave him. One of the last things he did was to play the pope during one season of The Tudors. He was a revelation, as always.
And yes, he liked to drink, carouse, and have a good time after work was done. But why begrudge him that? We should just say "Thank you," and be grateful for the magnificent body of work he left behind.
This actor really did leave us much, much too soon. Only forty-five, he left a legacy that an actor who lived to a hundred and fifty would be proud to leave. If O'Toole was the quintessential movie star — a man who was a great actor but looked and sounded like a god — Phillip Seymour Hoffman was in some ways more than that… he was an actor's actor.
You may first have seen Hoffman in Boogie Nights, where he played a sound engineer who was nerdy, awkward, overweight, and gay. He never shied away from such roles, never demanded attractive roles, and never tried to make his characters more attractive than they were on the page. As a result, he became the most fearless actor in Hollywood, able to explore any side of the human condition, whether pretty or not. He was magnificent as Truman Capote, for which he richly deserved his Oscar, as he was playing what was essentially a version of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in The Master. But watch him, if you can, in Doubt, a film in which he plays a priest under suspicion, dueling it out with Meryl Streep's harsh, judgmental nun. To watch the two of them together is to watch film acting at its best.
His was the celebrity passing that was most tragic of all. Because Phillip Seymour Hoffman would certainly have given us another thirty or forty years of the very best acting you can see on screen.
But the most astonishing career of anyone discussed here is that of Shirley Temple. Imagine an eight-year-old girl who not only saved a movie studio single-handedly, but for several years in the 1930s was the biggest box-office star in the world. Not the biggest child star… the biggest star of any kind. It's safe to say that just as it's likely there will never be another rock band as big as the Beatles, it's highly unlikely that there will ever be another Shirley Temple. She sang and danced her way into the hearts of filmgoers in America — and the world — so well that even the most jaded cynic could not possibly resist her charms.
Perhaps it was her misfortune to be so successful at such an age. For the world so fell in love with her at eight that somehow moviegoers could never quite picture her as an adult.
As with Pete Seeger, we should all be able to honor Miss Temple, later Mrs. Black, even if you disagree with her politics. Unsuccessful at running for office, she had a notable diplomatic career under presidents Nixon, Ford, and George H.W. Bush, and her work as an ambassador was appreciated by Democrats and Republicans alike. As the State Department's Chief of Protocol, one of her duties was to arrange for Jimmy Carter's inaguration. That was back in the day when Democrats and Republicans actually worked together.
Despite one being liberal and the other conservative, Mr. Seeger and Shirley Temple Black stood for many of the same things: graciousness, optimism, good manners, and coming together for common cause whenever possible. They both represented much of what was once best about America. Maybe someday we will return to that sense of civility, hope, and good will. And then a true coming together might be more than just a dream on the Good Ship Lollipop.