This past week saw the passing of three of my heroes. My memories of each are very different. Each was important to me for different reasons. But they were all significant figures in my life, and especially during my youth. So I just have to share some of my own personal reflections on the trio of celebrities who passed away this week: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson.
Earlier this week came the news that Ed McMahon had died. This was not entirely unexpected, as it was widely known that Ed had been having health problems. I found the timing a bit ironic in that Ed’s passing occurred in the same month that Jay Leno passed the baton of hosting The Tonight Show to Conan O’Brien. I think Ed would have been pleased with the way Andy Richter is developing in his role as Conan’s sidekick. Unlike the rather minor role that Edd Hall played on Jay Leno’s version of The Tonight Show, Andy is assuming a stronger supporting role to Conan, with a chemistry not unlike what I remember between Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. Indeed, even Conan’s band leader, Max Weinberg, has assumed a role more like Doc Severinsen than the one which developed between Kevin Eubanks and Jay Leno. In many respects, Kevin was Jay’s Ed, always available to enhance the timing of a joke, and to poke fun of the ones that fell flat.
That’s something Ed McMahon did very well. He clearly understood his role as “second banana” to Johnny Carson, and he was very good at it. He also happened to be an excellent announcer, a profession that I once pursued. He had a great voice, and was one of the last great “live copy” readers, who regularly delivered commercials live on camera, something that is rarely done anymore. People routinely zap past commercials nowadays, but there was a time when people stayed tuned in for live spots, like the very memorable one where Ed McMahon extolled the virtues of Alpo Dog Food with a panting Johnny by his side. They just don’t make TV like that anymore. Here’s a tip to Conan’s producers: let Andy loose on some live commercial copy. I think he could channel Ed’s spirit quite well, and it would be refreshing to see the comeback of live copy on commercial television.
It would also be refreshing to see the comeback of shows like Charlie’s Angels, and of characters like Jill Monroe, brought vividly to life by Farrah Fawcett. Sure, the show was cheesy. Plots tended to be predictable, and villains were often cartoonish. It wasn’t a critically acclaimed show, nor did it try to be. To put it bluntly, it was the classic example of the “jiggle factor” on television, something that later shows like Baywatch refined to perfection. Certainly the vividness of my memories of Farrah Fawcett are rooted in her appearance, and in particular, the provocative pose captured in the iconic poster that could be found hanging in nearly every college dorm room in the country, including my own.
But while Farrah Fawcett may be remembered for her appearance, we should not forget that Charlie’s Angels was one of the first major dramas on television to feature women starring in roles that had traditionally been reserved for men. It was remarkable for its time. It expanded cultural notions of femininity at the same time it reinforced traditional norms. And I think Farrah understood this fine line that she and the other “Angels” were walking in the cultural whirlpool that was the 1970s. She embraced the contradictions inherent in a character that at one level reflected a “liberation” of women from deeply-held stereotypes and at another level reflected a raw sexuality that resonated with a culture longing for a return to tradition. In short, she was perfect for this role.
Yesterday afternoon, I thought the big news of the day was the passing of Farrah Fawcett. When I mentioned the news of Farrah to someone at work, the response was something like “first Ed McMahon, now Farrah Fawcett, we’re losing the great ones.” But then came word late in the day that Michael Jackson had died. For many people, the death of Michael Jackson was the biggest news of the week, not only eclipsing the passing of Ed and Farrah, but also putting the unrest in Iran on the back burner on CNN.
Michael Jackson was a relatively young man of 50. In contrast, Ed McMahon was 86 years old when he died on June 23. Farrah Fawcett was a much younger 62 when she died on June 25, but her deteriorating health was brought into vivid focus last month by the TV documentary Farrah’s Story. So when Michael Jackson died at a mere 50, just a few hours after Farrah passed away, the news came as an extreme shock. Within a three-day period, we had lost Johnny’s loyal sidekick, an iconic sex symbol, and now, the king of pop. The world had some clues that the days of Ed and Farrah were numbered. But who knew that the man who brought us the best-selling album of all time was soon to become history?
Michael Jackson had become a tragic figure in his later years. It’s hard to deny that his well-publicized troubles tarnished his reputation. Allegations of child molestation haunted him, even though he prevailed in court. His Neverland Ranch seemed like an almost desperate effort to enjoy a childhood he never had. Some saw his private life as rather odd, even weird. And yes, he was the butt of many jokes on late night television. Michael Jackson’s personal foibles provided a lot of fodder for Jay Leno.
But I think Michael Jackson’s contributions to our culture and popular music are far more weighty than his deteriorating image in the public eye. There will undoubtedly be those who will fixate on the negative. But I think far more of us will remember the Michael Jackson who brought us some of the most memorable music of all time. Certainly this would include the music found on Thriller, an album which has sold over 100 million copies worldwide. No other album has even come close to this figure, and given the state of the music industry, it is very doubtful that any album will ever match this distinction.
While I enjoyed Thriller, my memories of Michael go back much further. When Thriller was released in 1982, I was nearing the end of my career as a radio DJ. I was completing my Master’s degree, and I would soon begin my career as a college professor. Thriller was a great album, but my fondest memories of Michael date back to his earlier years, and in particular, his work with the Jackson 5. One of my favorite Michael Jackson tunes, in fact, is an ode to a rat. Perhaps only Michael Jackson possessed the sheer ethos that could turn the rather silly premise of Ben into a touching musical masterpiece. For me, this song was the one that showcased for me what I liked best about Michael Jackson, an uncanny combination of childlike innocence, unshakable confidence, and a truly remarkable voice.
Yes, I’ll miss the great ones that passed away this week. When so many powerful figures in our culture die in such a short time frame, I think it causes us to appreciate even more the fragility of our own lives. I know that my life has been enriched by the contributions of Ed, Farrah and Michael. Each of these celebrities has had their “ups and downs.” But ultimately, I think each, in their own ways, have left us with enduring memories that will last for generations to come.