There’s something about year-end wrap-ups that gets me thinking about death. Apparently I’m not alone, as lists of celebrities and other notable people who’ve died in the past calendar year abound as one year rolls into the next. For 2008, as with every year, I was caught off guard by some of the names on the list.
I’d caught the fact that Heath Ledger had died of an accidental drug overdose – pretty hard to miss that one.
George Carlin’s passing was much sadder: we’d be much better off if he was here to continue his biting and always funny critiques.
Speaking of funnymen, Harvey Korman’s death was another great loss.
Also well publicized was the passing of Paul Newman, of course. And of Jeff Healey. Put Chuck Heston in that category too.
A big fan of The Bob Newhart Show, I hadn’t realized Suzanne Pleshette had died last January, just shy of her 71st birthday. She had been married to another Newhart fixture, Tom Poston, who was on the list in 2007.
What brought it home this time around was seeing the name Ivan Dixon: Sgt. James ‘Kinch’ Kinchloe on that classic series, Hogan’s Heroes. The actor/director died of kidney failure Mar. 16 at the age of 76. Stuck in the time warp of rerun TV, he couldn’t be 76, let alone dead – but there the name was on that list. Reading that caused a little piece of childhood to suffer a cold, hard kick.
Those of us born in the TV age grew up with a wide social circle invented by Hollywood and beamed into homes round the clock. In many ways, we’re more attached to the people we see on TV than to those around us – our Friends are more real than our friends, in some instances. And when they die, either as actors or characters, the grief can be as real as if somebody close to you had died.
While movies had launched the notion of celebrity, our attachment grew in leaps and bounds with television, which brought them into the intimate confines of our homes. The phenomenon is linked to the suburban growth that followed the war.
Television families “helped ease what must have been for many Americans a painful transition from the city to the suburb. But more than simply supplying a tonic for the displaced suburbanites, television promised something better: it promised a mode of spectator pleasure premised on the sense of an illusory – rather than a real – community of friends,” according to Lynn Spigel, a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University in Illinois.
“It held out a new possibility for being alone in the home, away from the troublesome busy-body neighbours in the next house. But it also maintained ideals of community togetherness and social interconnection by placing the community at a fictional distance. Television allowed people to enter into an imaginary social life, one that was shared not in the neighbourhood networks of bridge clubs and mahjong gatherings, but on the national networks of CBS, NBC and ABC.”
Beyond just reacting to television, the growth of celebrity worship and attachment is also well studied as a sociological and psychological development. There is a certain irony in that the more crowded and populated our cities become, the more isolated we are from others. That’s especially true as families become smaller and more prone to spreading out across large distances.
For professor Michael C. Kearl of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Trinity University in Texas, “the rise of celebrity also corresponds with a public increasingly devoid of total relationships with others, individuals’ connectedness with others and the broader society dampened by the anonymity of urban life, reduced civic involvements, increasing rates of singlehood and living alone, and by the instrumental relationships demanded by the workplace and marketplace.”
Celebrities are seen as living more interesting, glamorous, or important lives. Thus the public may know more about the celebrities’ stories than they do of those of their neighbors and associates.
“But the grief over celebrities … the sense of loss is more like that of a friend because these are not so much role models as reflections of who we are or who we want to be. These are individuals whom one has paid to see or who have been frequent televised ‘guests’ in one’s home.”
We spend more time with fictional characters – and the actors portraying them – than we do with many of the real people in our lives. When old aunt Cora, who you saw occasionally at family functions over the years, passes away, you’re likely to feel little, if anything at all. It seems that’s not the case if the actor you watch daily in reruns shuffles off this mortal coil.
People who don’t shed a tear at a family funeral might bawl like babies over the death of a character on TV or in the movies.