How Many Talented and/or Famous People Have You Unfairly Outlived?

Chadwick Boseman.

The late Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, posthumously released today on Netflix.

The year 2020 is an incorporeal super-villain mastermind and everyone’s list of grievances against it is longer than a protest march and bitterer than black coffee tinged with chicory and herbicide. I’ve tried to work through several of my own fears and anxieties here throughout the course of the year, but one nagging thought has escaped articulation for months. It’s the sort of riddle that drives a thinker nuts if they dwell on it too long. Every faith and/or philosophy has a response to it, but not necessarily an answer. “All is within God’s Plan.” “Everything will make more sense in the end.” “The universe works in mysterious ways.” “Perhaps we’ll never know.” “Everything is meaningless and we’re all doomed so why worry about it.” Or put it out of mind and distill it into Kurt Vonnegut’s black-humored humanist shrug of “So it goes.”

Faith notwithstanding, it bugs me anyway. I’m 48 and counting. I am who and what I am. I have my uses, but I’m just me. Why did Chadwick Boseman only get to make it to 43?

The question kept weighing on me as I watched what’s likely his final performance, the new film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which just dropped on Netflix today. Boseman’s Levee Green is a spirited trumpeter in 1927 Chicago who’s got big plans to become the Greatest Musician of All Time, with the power to write and record his own songs. Until that magical day comes, he has to settle for whatever gigs he can score, which means playing other people’s music the way they want it played. That means taking marching orders, whether from the white men who run the recording studios, the older musicians he’s playing with, or the star he’s asked to back up. Levee is up against the Viola Davis, Colman Domingo from Fear the Walking Dead, and two heavy hitters from The Wire, Glynn Turman and Michael Potts. He thinks he’s the main character, but he’s definitely not in charge.

Ma Rainey is the ostensible “Mother of the Blues” beloved by a large, paying audience and therefore courted by the biz to do what she does. They’ll make far more off her singing than she ever will, and she knows it. It’s all in the game. There’s a line between her and the suits that demarcates which things are within her control and which are in the hands of the suits. Whatever’s on her side, then, is at her command and no one else’s. Inevitably, the two strong-willed artists spar over whose way is best. Levee thinks the suits are on his side, but he clearly hasn’t reckoned with Ma.

Based on a play by August Wilson (whose Tony-winning Fences was adapted into a differently amazing Oscar-winning film), Black Bottom chronicles the struggle of artists to stake their claims in an unfair world and decide for others around them The Way Things Should Be to accommodate their grandiosity in the center. The camaraderie between musicians enjoying what they do is a blast at first — rather enviable if you don’t know these kinds of relationships yourself — but the scope expands to tragic proportions as one character bares their soul, reveals the darkness in their past, and exposes the struck nerve at their core: that their quest for uncompromising creative control is a defensive response to living in powerlessness, both in a racist society and in a parade of cruel fates. Nobody knows the deaths they’ve seen. Nobody knows their sorrows, or so they think. Characters proceed to debate the fairness or unfairness of the universe at large and God’s role or lack thereof. It does not end with a Dixieland jam session.

One searing speech in particular brought me back to the lead question, especially as I couldn’t help fixating on how Levee is much, much thinner than T’Challa ever was. Boseman kept his colon cancer a secret all throughout his Marvel Cinematic Universe filming experience, and hardly anyone suspected a thing till the day he died, including many who saw him every day on sets. I have no idea whether the same was true during the making of this film. But I don’t think it was just a skilled costume designer that performed a vanishing act on the King of Wakanda’s musculature.

Ever since Boseman died far too young at the end of August, that same solipsistic question has haunted me: how many talented and/or famous people have I unfairly outlived? Quibble with the use of “unfairly” from a metaphysical perspective all you want. I’m well aware the question itself is also unfair and imperfect. But you know what I mean.

Over the past two weeks I’ve been brainstorming names of the well-known who contributed to art, culture, politics, or other fields in some way, only to have their run cut short under 48. My site, my obsession, my arbitrary line in the sand. Readers over 48 may have their even longer list that extends up to their own respective ages. If it be within the Lord’s will that I reach 53, anyone within earshot will absolutely hear me railing against the fact that the brilliant Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne died from COVID-19 complications at 52.

Every name on this list was remembered, either by myself or by my wife Anne. I verified every age but avoided culling names from anyone else’s listicles or scouring the Web for “photo galleries of celebrities who died young” that require a separate click to peruse every file photo. The list is regardless of cause of death — illness, accident, overdose, suicide, whatever. For many of the younger casualties who hadn’t yet developed strong moral or ethical foundations before hitting the big time, fame was a comorbidity. From that perspective their only commonality with the highly esteemed Mr. Boseman is “gone too soon”.

The list was limited to the 20th and 21st centuries only. The initial expanded list of Anyone Anytime included Alexander the Great (32), Edgar Allan Poe (40), and the Romantic Poets who were felled in their 20s like so much fragile glassware before I realized eras with poorer life expectancy were wrecking the curve. The list also does not include anyone whose most well-known attribute was their untimely, unfair, unconscionable headline death. This list is sort of shallow compared to those lists, which have been a sorrowful reading staple throughout 2020 and have been enumerated far more often by other sources with more expressive craftspeople and much larger fan bases, from ten thousand eloquent internet thinkpieces to the part in David Byrne’s American Utopia where he and his extraordinary band cover Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout” and remind viewers that yes, Spike Lee did indeed direct that.

It goes without saying by virtue of its brainstormed nature the list is incomplete. I’m aging and easily distracted and limited to the sum of my experiences and my brain can’t instantaneously access every single fact I’ve ever known, not like I could when I was 11 and had a smaller neural accumulation to index. Please feel free to leave your own “In Memoriam” list in the comments along with your favorite kindly variation on “HOW DARE YOU FORGET [insert overlooked person who I’m sure was lovely and is very much missed]?” That goes double for sports fans, who are represented here by just two names because sports have almost never been my thing.

The list starts weird before picking up steam like a downhill go-kart. You won’t recognize every name. Sooner or later it gets to someone you do care about.

That incomplete list, then, without any more qualifying or other stalling tactics, of famous actors, musicians, authors, politicians, and other personalities who died before age 48, from oldest to youngest:

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle – 46
Victor Buono – 46
John F. Kennedy – 46
David Foster Wallace – 46
Montgomery Clift – 45
John Candy – 44
Billie Holiday – 44
Steve Irwin – 44
Chadwick Boseman – 43
Natalie Wood – 43
John Cazale – 42
Gary Coleman – 42
Margaux Hemingway – 42
Bobby Kennedy – 42
Karl Mueller – 42
Gilda Radner – 42
Chester Bennington – 41
Howard Ashman – 40
John Coltrane – 40
Ray Combs – 40
John Lennon – 40
Wes Montgomery – 40
Adrienne Shelly – 40
Tom Villard – 40
Paul Walker – 40
Martin Luther King – 39
Andy Whitfield – 39
Malcolm X – 39
Corey Haim – 38
David Rappaport – 38
Johnny Thunders – 38
Mitch Hedberg – 37
Princess Diana – 36
Jon-Erik Hexum – 36
Phil Lynott – 36
Marilyn Monroe – 36
Gordon Smiley – 36
Jayne Mansfield – 34
Dana Plato – 34
Elliott Smith – 34
Layne Staley – 34
Jon Paul Steuer – 34
John Belushi – 33
Chris Farley – 33
Carole Lombard – 33
John Bonham – 32
Darby Crash – 32
Jim Ellison – 32
Bill Hicks – 32
Bruce Lee – 32
Keith Moon – 32
Brittany Murphy – 32
Glenn Quinn – 32
Carl Switzer – 32
Eazy-E – 30
Andy Gibb – 30
Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes – 30
Harris Wittels – 30
The Big Bopper – 28
Heath Ledger – 28
Brandon Lee – 28
Jonathan Brandis – 27
Bryan Clouson – 27
Jim Morrison – 27
Kurt Cobain – 27
Jimi Hendrix – 27
Janis Joplin – 27
Amy Winehouse – 27
Anton Yelchin – 27
Hillel Slovak – 26
Brad Renfro – 25
Tupac Shakur – 25
Notorious B.I.G. – 24
James Dean – 24
Andrew Wood – 24
Ian Curtis – 23
River Phoenix – 23
Selena – 23
Aaliyah – 22
Buddy Holly – 22
Freddie Prinze – 22
Matthew Garber – 21
Rebecca Schaeffer – 21
Sid Vicious – 21
Cameron Boyce – 20
Anissa Jones – 18
Ryan White – 18
Ritchie Valens – 17

…and a separate, equally incomplete list for my fellow old comic book fans out there:

Darwyn Cooke (The New Frontier) – 44
Mike Wieringo (Flash, Fantastic Four) – 44
Malcolm Jones III (Sandman) – 37
Michael Turner (Fathom) – 37
Seth Fisher (Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big in Japan) – 33
Clement Sauve (Human Defense Corps) – 33
Jeremy Dale (Skyward) – 24
Klaus Schoenefeld (Kelvin Mace) – 23

I had the idea and wanted to follow it as far as I could take it regardless of whether or not it led to any destination. As you can imagine, this brainstorming exercise did not make me feel better. It didn’t wipe away tears or lead to an epiphany of, “Ohhhh, that’s why. Now I get it.” I’m looking at each name, all those of shortened walks of life, remembering my deficiencies at each of those ages, and find myself unable to finish this sentence with coherence or Final Thoughts on What It All Means except to say that seeing all the tragedies laid out like this really, really, really sucks. Sometimes the most honest response has to be simple and blunt like that.

In some respects it’s rather a blessing that our lifespans aren’t calculated by cosmic actuaries who have formulas and mathematical tools to pin down our net worth to the universe. Honestly, on such a grading system how many of us would live past 18? But still.

Anne questioned the wisdom of pursuing this during the Christmas season and asked that I not make it morbid. I may have failed, and yet not totally, because in hindsight I’m inclined to hug my loved ones a little harder, or at least I would if not for the pandemic. Also, I’m grateful beyond words that it appears I’ll live to see another Christmas this year. It won’t be the best Christmas ever, but it’s a Christmas.

I’m still incensed that Chadwick Boseman was called away from this broken world far sooner than anyone would’ve hoped or imagined, but I’m grateful that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom gave us one more chance to see him going all-out — still at the height of his talents, refusing one last time to let anyone or anything hold him back, not even cancer.

9 responses

  1. I was v. moved by this entry! Thanks for writing it and sharing it w/the world!

    (P.S. You may not be willing to search the Web for ‘people who died before 48’ but I had no such scruples! Frida Kahlo, Jack Kerouac, William Sydney Porter — better known under his nom de plume of O. Henry —, Rodney King, Adam Yauch, Edith Piaf, Huey Newton, Vince Guaraldi, they all went between their 47th and 48th birthday. Joseph Goebbels and Jim Jones, too, although I confess to wishing they’d croaked a lot earlier!)

    Like

    • Thanks for the additions! I didn’t know many of those, am shocked to learn Guaraldi was that young, and am livid that I forgot MCA, which I totally knew.

      I also failed to mention I had a ground rule of “no famous criminals”. (Dahmer was 34! Dillinger was 31!) Frankly, I’m at peace with outliving them.

      Like

  2. You are, but of course, welcome!

    I was about to try and toss a few more names on the pile but after being reminded of the unfortunate loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman (46) I kind of gave up the task at hand.

    Like

    • LITERALLY LAUGHING OUT LOUD AT MYSELF NOW AFTER FAILING ONCE AGAIN TO PROPERLY THREAD MY REPLY TO YOURS.

      I could just die of shame! I keep doing this! How hard is it to push the correct button on a website, me? I could just die! Me (34)! AUGH.

      Like

      • No worries! If future Googlers happen by and are frightened and confused, we’ll have the MCC concierge assist them with their reading concerns

        Tangentially, I am now reminded that many of the people I’ve known throughout my 21 years online are now all in their 30s and up. Some of them are possibly even senior citizens. Consider me staggered.

        Like

    • I don’t blame you for stopping. I had to promise myself not to keep brainstorming as a daily preoccupation and spend the rest of my days adding endless replies to this same entry, even as this past Saturday I was reminded of Judy Garland (47). I definitely don’t want to keep adding to the roster as youngsters keep passing away prematurely in the future. I need to leave that hobby to other websites…or to my wife, who also has a thing about tracking dead celebs, but only year-by-year, not as a forever-running tally.

      Like

      • Ms. Garland was on my original shortlist to be added until I remembered you wanted to leave off anyone, and I quote, “whose most well-known attribute was their untimely, unfair, unconscionable headline death.” Looking back on that decision of mine now, well, it’d be fair to say her early demise is surely not her MOST well-known attribute!

        I’m now starting to second guess myself over leaving off novelist Sanmao and airplane pilot Francis Gary Powers; although the choice to ding Horatio Nelson, Simón Bolívar, Henry Fielding, Samuel Colt, Alexander Hamilton, Linus Yale (inventor of the cylinder lock), Paracelsus, and theologian Ulrich Zwingli seems to be fairly solid as none among those particular eight died within the 20th or 21st centuries.

        Like

        • Hamilton and Powers are surprises. Then again, I’d never heard of Powers until Bridge of Spies, so I understand my ignorance on that one.

          And I can think of at least one massive community that would definitely argue in favor of including Ms. Garland in anything ever, as often as possible!

          Like

It's the comments section! With our very special guest star: YOU!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: