They Made It to 2019

Happy New Year! Another new year brings another chance to revisit my running list of celebrities who are still alive but whom we might have thought were dead. As I’ve said in years passed, my goal with this commemoration is to enjoy the “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” thought without having to read the obituary of the celebrity in question.

First, we should mark the passing of a few folks who have been spotlighted in years passed. Charlotte Rae died in 2018 at the age of 95. So did Jerry Maren, former member of the “Lollipop Guild” and the last (verified) living “Munchkin” from The Wizard of Oz. He was 98 years old.

Now for the good news. A whole host of stars from the stage and big screen are still with us in 2019. The legendary Carol Channing is 97; Doris Day is 94; and Hal Holbrook is 93. Though he may not be as well-known as that bunch, the iconic (to me) Henry Silva is now 90.

They all seem to be spring chickens compared to Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, both of whom turned 102 in 2018. One of the leads in Gone With the Wind, de Havilland is the oldest living Oscar winner. Douglas, the star of Spartacus and Paths of Glory the greatest living celebrity of Hollywood’s “Golden Era.”

Two music legends deserve mention. The legendary Little Richard is 86 and Jerry Lee Lewis is 82. Both men are the last of the greats of the founding generation of rock ‘n roll. With the passing of Aretha last year, they may be the most significant living musical artists, too.

Finally, television was the creative home to a slew of nonagenarians. Producer Norman Lear (96) is still doing well. Actors Larry Storch (95) and William Daniels (91) are still alive. Comedic legends Carl Reiner (96), Dick Van Dyke (93), and Mel Brooks (92) continue to thrive. Van Dyke even had a role in the recent Mary Poppins movie. Comedian Bob Newhart is 89 right now, but he’ll turn 90 in September.

And, of course, Betty White is still with us. At 96, White isn’t the oldest on the list, but she might be the most well-known senior citizen of the bunch. She is often an internet meme for her longevity, as well as for her rumored (or feared) passing. She’s also occasionally still seen on TV, lately in simple appearances rather than in acting roles.

Here’s to good health and a happy 2019 for each and every one on this year’s list!

They Made It to 2016!

Welcome to 2016!

As has become my annual custom, it’s time for my 2016 “They Made it to ____” post. This post is meant to recognize the careers of three entertainers who are still with us but, because of advanced age or the passage of time, are kind of forgotten. Think of it as a chance to think “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” before you read their obituary.

There are a good many “former honorees” who are still with us. Happily, we can celebrate the fact that Carol Channing, Little Richard, and former Lollipop Guild member (and last surviving Munchkin) Jerry Maren are still with us. We can add them to the following Hollywood stars:

Abe Vigoda (1921-)
That’s right! Fish is still alive! Perhaps best known for his portrayal of Sal Tessio in the classic 1972 film The Godfather, Abe Vigoda was a supporting star of scores of other films as well. He got his start on stage in his late teens and made a career of it as a “working actor” before achieving some fame in his later years via the silver screen. After The Godfather, Vigoda was a part of the ensemble cast of TV’s Barney Miller, where he playing the character Det. Phil Fish. The character paid off for Vigoda, who got his own turn as the star of the comedy’s only spin-off, “Fish.” He is a most-apt honoree for this list because Vigoda has battles numerous pre-internet rumors of his death. In appearances on the old Conan O’Brien Late Night show this was even a running gag. Vigoda will turn 95 years old this February 24.

Olivia de Havilland (1932-)
One of the stars of the legendary film Gone With the Wind (1939), Olivia de Havilland was a bonafide Hollywood star. She won two Oscars for Best Actress–for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949)–and starred in such classics as Captain Blood (1935) (with Errol Flynn, whom she starred with eight times), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and the campy disaster classic Airport ’77 (1977). She was even best friends with Betty Davis! Miss de Havilland will turn 100 this July 1.

Hal Holbrook (1925-)
Hal Holbrook was in so many movies I don’t have time to count them. What’s so surprising about this is that his first credited movie role didn’t come until he was about 40 years old! I have no idea at all what he did between birth and his successful acting career, other than playing Mark Twain on stage in his (now legendary) one-man show. That Twain performance is perhaps his most enduring contribution to the arts, but I will always know him for his roles in greats like All the President’s Men (1976)–he was Deep Throat!!–and Magnum Force (1973). He also did well on TV, having a recurring role on two CBS sitcoms–“Designing Women” and “Evening Shade”–and a memorable recurring guest role on the “West Wing.” Holbrook will turn 91 on February 17.

Happy 2016!

They made it to 2011

Well here we are–the 2nd Annual “They Made It To ___” on LatinoLikeMe!

For those who don’t remember, in an effort to recognize (largely inactive) entertainers before they’ve actually died, every New Year’s Eve I write a post about three celebrities who lived to see the new year. Each featured celeb had an impact on me in some way and also happened to live long enough that people might be surprised to hear they are still around.

Last year we spotlighted Phyllis Diller, Lena Horne, and Carol Channing.  I’m happy to report that two of the three also made it to 2011.  Of course, recording and screen legend Lena Horne died in May, but what a legacy she left behind.

This year, I want to say how much I have enjoyed the acting talents of Mickey Rooney; the comedic gifts of Sid Caesar; and the legendary career of Esther Williams.

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When he began his career at age 7, the young Joe Yule played the character “Mickey” in a series of serials, eventually taking the name of the title character as his own. Before he reached 19 years of age, he had been in scores of productions, won a “juvenile” Oscar, and starred with Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town.” Already one of the top box office stars of the late Depression, this role catapulted Rooney to the respectable big time. He went on to be one of Hollywood’s most recognizable figures in its “Golden Era” and beyond, making more than 200 films (!), many of which (like “Boys Town,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and “National Velvet”) are among the best Hollywood turned out. The diminutive man is also well-known for his romantic life, having married 8 times (his first to star Ava Gardner). His romance with Judy Garland is the stuff of Hollywood legend.

I won’t pretend Rooney was better than he was. He had talent–anybody who watches “Boys Town” can see that–but it probably never really had the chance to mature in any meaningful way. He was a star at a young age and managed to remain so for the rest of his professional life, more focused on “the next picture” than on any kind of artistic development. In a lot of ways, he was a well-established figure before such concerns came of age, but in an industry which celebrates the “working actor,” Rooney worked. Some of that work made an impression on me at a young age. Raised on the classics, and a big fan of Johnny Carson, Rooney has always been a part of my entertainment life. He turns 91 this fall.

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If Milton Berle “invented” television, Sid Caesar was the first to perfect it.  His “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” are television legends, as big as it gets in the medium.  Sid, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner (who I almost chose for this year’s list) are arguably the best variety comedic cast in TV history, and they were among the first.  His writing staff…well, when you have a play written about your writing staff, you know you were big. Caesar was a TV favorite for most of American in the early 50s, and some of their sketches are the stuff people can still talk about and get a laugh, half a century later.

Sid Caesar, who is now 88, is a figure I can’t neatly summarize in a paragraph or two, and I don’t really want to try.  I do want to say, that in addition to always being one of those figures who I knew as long as I knew of such things, the young historian in me was always respectful and enamored with what he and his crew did.  Every time I got a chance to see a documentary on Caesar I’d watch it, every time I got a chance to see clips from his shows I would.  Maybe more so than most figures of his generation, I liked Sid Caesar because I actually liked his work, not just because he was a big star.

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Finally, Esther Williams–who is now 89–began her career as a professional swimmer. She would have competed in the 1940 Olympics if not for the outbreak of WWII, but instead found her way into acting in one of those legendary stories of “being discovered.” Williams acted for less than 20 years, and though she was a formidable talent behind the camera, he aquatic talents earned her her stardom. Below you will see why:

Williams participated in some of the most visually impressive cinematic creations Hollywood ever produced, and became a household name for a generations of this country. In my house, like in so many others, she became synonymous with swimming talent of any sort (“Look at you! You think you’re Esther Williams?”). I don’t know why–the visual symmetry or the fact that it was ladies in swimsuits–but for some reason I always loved her work.

Plus, she was once married to Fernando Lamas!

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And there you have it! Congrats Mickey, Sid, and Esther! You made it to 2011!!