Five Iconic Hollywood Deaths That Created Vacuums of Talent
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Five Iconic Hollywood Deaths That Created Vacuums of Talent in their Respective Fields

By Rob Payne | Seriously Random Lists | April 11, 2013 | Comments ()


This is meant as no disrespect to either the families of those affected by these losses or of the many other industry-related deaths that occur every year. Nor should this be seen as a slight to any of the names and faces who have appeared on the Oscar's annual In Memoriam segment who do not also appear here. Hopefully, in one way or another, every death is meaningful, but in Hollywood it becomes clear over time that some of these talented people truly are, and in every sense of the word, irreplaceable. Here are five such individuals, and, no, none of them are prematurely included.

Roger Ebert (1942-2013), America's Critic
Perhaps this is entirely too soon to say, but last Thursday our culture lost the people's cineaste in Roger Ebert and with him a career that is unlikely to be duplicated by any future film critic. That isn't meant to disparage anyone writing today, in print or online (and especially not here), but it's doubtful anyone of us remaining can ever have quite the reach or the impact that Ebert had. For an admirably long period, from the 1970s through the 2000s, at least, Rogert Ebert, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Gene Siskel, served as the most prominent voices in film criticism. Without them, but especially Ebert due to his longevity, it's entirely probable that many of us would be doing something very different with our time. In the end, it's unlikely any of us will ever get to say we helped create a whole new line of work for a very specific group of people.

Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993), America's Sweetheart
Oh, sure, the star-making factory-like parts of Hollywood churn out newer and younger actresses on a yearly basis; always pushing their older peers nearing 30 out of any non-basic cable roles. For every Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman, there are dozens of ingénues like Jessica Biel, Rachel Leigh Cook, or Winona Ryder who were destined for greatness but were forgotten almost as quickly as their rise to celebrity. And yet, college students are still buying posters and prints for Breakfast at Tiffany's or Roman Holiday or Sabrina to hang on their apartment or dorm room walls. Audrey Hepburn is absolutely a relic of the past, and yet her appeal as is still undeniably strong amongst both sexes. It's arguable America hasn't replaced Marilyn Monroe as it's national sex symbol, either, but people she's more art than arousal now. On the other hand, we're still falling in love with Holly Golightly.

Jim Henson (1936-1990), America's Fairy Godfather
Jason Segel, co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and director James Bobin did a fine job with The Muppets in 2011, and Jim Henson probably would have liked it more than some of the mid-to-late 90s Muppet offerings. But Henson was more than just the mind behind Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Big Bird -- as if that's anything to scoff at -- he also helped create some of our favorite childhood fantasies. "Fraggle Rock," "Storyteller," and The Dark Crystal still resonate today as loudly as they once did and it's not because nobody has yet done puppetry better. Henson's ideas were bigger than one man or one generation, and while there is decent children's programming on TV now, nothing quite lives up to his example of sincere wonder and little-to-no condescension. But then, those are very big, floppy, furry shoes to fill.

Phil Hartman (1948-1998), America's Funnybone
Of course, I'm not making the argument that there aren't anymore funny men and women. As sad as the murder/suicide of Phil Hartman and his wife is, laughter didn't, ultimately, die that day. But as hilarious as Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Melissa McCarthy, and the rest of the new golden age of comedians are, not one of them has quite the range and comedic dexterity of Hartman. From "Saturday Night Live" to "The Simpsons" to "Newsradio" and all the bit parts, villains, and fathers he played in movies, Phil Hartman could basically do anything and make even the worst material in a script the best part of the final product. Steve Martin would come close, but he's from a previous generation and basically retired from comedy to (brilliantly) play his banjo. We still laugh, but maybe not quite as hard as we used to.

Stan Winston (1946-2008), America's Dream Maker
We give so much praise to filmmakers like Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, and Ridley Scott immense credit for being the architects of our deepest fantasies. And it's true that big projects need big picture visionaries to understand the whole structure and drive its schedule, but without artistic geniuses and craftsmen like Stan Winston, so many of their visions could never be fulfilled. Except, there really never was (or is) anyone else quite like Winston, the preeminent special effects wizard from the 70s until his death in 2008. Genre film fans owe the aliens from Aliens, the terminators from The Terminator, the Predators from Predator, and the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park to Winston and his studio -- live-action creatures and make-up effects that hold up equal to, if not surpass, even the best CGI of today. It would be easy to say, well, without him, somebody else would have been hired to work on these films and so Hollywood wouldn't really be out anything. But all you have to do is look at the mostly unoriginal and uninspired creations in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror since his death to see that no one had quite the subtle permanence of his unique fingerprint.

Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. Saying goodbye to Ebert and his grandfather in the span of two weeks really shines a light on the indiscriminate nature of the universe.

Biz Break: 8 Bits and Bobs That Joseph Gordon Levitt Is Probably Furiously Masturbating To Today | Where Else Would You Go For History Lessons, Lightsabers, and 2Pac?

Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • SpongebobSquarepeg

    This list seems slightly arbitrary, and a bit sexist.

    Also, Winona Ryder is hardly in the realms of obscurity now.

  • Some Guy

    IMO, not only did Hartman's death leave a void in the comedy world, but his passing essentially killed the Simpsons as we knew it.

    Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure were easily the two best side characters on the show, not to mention the plethora of other voice work he provided. His acting provided a legitimacy that has never since been matched. I'd argue that he had the most recognizable and talented voice, aside from Hank Azaria, perhaps.

  • babykangarootribbiani

    nobody did it like phil hartman, for sure. i remember he was in an episode of 3rd rock from the sun where his character kidnapped harry, and it was a two parter, but he died before they shot the second one, so that was the last thing he did :'(

  • mb

    Ebert's passing marked the first time I openly wept for a celebrity's death. I watched Siskel & Ebert religiously as a kid with my mom. Then Siskel died, and then my mom died, and for a period of time I started haunting my local theater watching nearly ever new release, feeling entirely alone in the world except for those moments when I'd read Ebert's reviews. I had tremendous respect for the man, and I just loved how much he LOVED movies, and could show as much enthusiasm for a well-polished popcorn flick than an Oscar-pedigree indie.

    RIP, Roger.

  • Outside of our mothers, this was true of me, too, and why I had to write something concrete, even if unoriginal, about him. Thank you for sharing.

  • Jesus, even a still of that animatronic looks better than most CGI.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    Aw, man! You put Jim Henson up there, and now I can hardly type through all these teaetrdsblblblblbl-hu-huh-huh...

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I admire Audrey Hepburn, she was an elegant, beautiful, kind and generous person but I really hated Breakfast at Tiffany's and Holly Golightly. I don't have this reaction often but if the movie had been a book, I would have thrown it across the room in anger and disgust. I really don't understand why the movie is so beloved.

  • ViciousTrollop

    Lucky for you, it is! Breakfast at Tiffany's was adapted from Truman Capote's novella of the same name. You can go buy it and throw it across the room.
    I agree with you somewhat in regards to the film. Holly Golightly hasn't ever been a character I envied or wanted to emulate. She's quite a sad character actually. The novella really made me pity her.
    There are plenty of other, better Audrey Hepburn films out there. Funny Face, How to Steal a Million Dollars, Charade. I'd recommend those before I'd recommend BAT.

  • I'll always have a soft spot for her in Sabrina.

  • ViciousTrollop

    Sabrina is a great one too! I don't know why Tiffany's is her most famous film. She was in so many great ones.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Perhaps I worded that wrong but in any case, I have no interest in reading the novella either... Capote tends to be a bit too twee for my taste. I should probably add that I've never enjoyed the manic pixie dream girl archetype and I think that's why the movie annoyed me so much.

    Another iconic figure that's much loved here at Pajiba that I didn't enjoy was Peter O'Toole's representation of Lawrence of Arabia. The man was practically unconscious from terminal ennui through most of the film. Was Lawrence really that exhausted by it all?

  • For me, it's because I never expected that kind of part in that kind of movie starring Audrey Hepburn. It's completely watered down from the Truman Capote book, but that makes it an even more interesting artifact to some degree.

    Plus, I dunno, it's a god damn charming movie?

  • Zirza

    Also, Madeline Kahn. Because I miss her. Because she cracks me up. Because we need more women like her. Because she was charming.

    And maybe just because.

  • kirbyjay

    and John Candy. Both of them.

  • Also a great selection. America's Funny Girl?

  • Mrs. Julien

    Such is my love...

  • I was only 5 when he died and saw most of his work posthumously but I still get so bummed when I think that he's gone. I became really aware of it when Muppet Christmas Carol came out and my mom took us to see it and was sad and telling us about how his son took over. That's still one of my favorite of the muppet movies but I CANNOT listen to any version of The Rainbow Connection without crying.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I just have to mention, again, that when I found out Sarah MacLachlan had recorded a version of Rainbow Connection I cried just on principle before I'd even heard it. In my defense, I was a new mother at the time and exhausted/hormonal.

  • Haha...I find this totally acceptable. I cry at covers of it but I'm always the weepiest when Kermey sings it. The Muppets have a way of making me cry on the regular, though. Especially in muppet Xmas carol when they show little tiny frog Tim and his little crutch :(

  • Lillimae

    Geez, thanks a lot for making me CRY LIKE A LITTLE BABY...

  • Mrs. Julien

    The video didn't do it? I nigh on killed me. That "Believe in You" song makes me weep at the best of times.

  • raeraefred

    the memorial service version makes me tear up, but "the muppets tribute to jim henson" version makes me bawl every time. (i tried posting a link to it, but it seems like disqus is eating my comment when i do that.)

  • I don't think Audrey Hepburn was ever a sex symbol, per se. Her appeal is about so much more than. She's classy, classic, chic and the epitome of good taste. There are very few people like her in the world.

  • Lovely Bones

    Actually, it was a book first. Or novella, at least.

  • ExUSA

    I know it's not intentional, but your original list only had 1 woman, and frankly one who had less of an impact on Hollywood than her peers, such as Monroe, Davis, Crawford, and K. Hepburn.

    I'd add Mary Pickford (the original movie star, sorry Florence Lawrence) and Douglas Shearer for sound.

    Also Pauline Kael for movie critics, who was doing the exact same thing Ebert did, only before him.

  • Well, then Ebert replaced Kael, right? And how many current college dorm rooms do you think have Mary Pickford posters?

  • ExUSA

    If this list is based on college girls' dorm walls, then no one but Hepburn belongs on it. The larger issue is that all the men are included on this list for their career accomplishments, Hepburn was included because of her place in the cultural zeitgeist, a passive rather than active role.

    Literally no one in the history of Hollywood has occupied the same position as Mary Pickford. She controlled that town. She had complete control over her projects (writer, director, story, costars, you name it), and captured the public's attention like no one else. That's the point of this list isn't it? Someone who died, and wasn't able to be replaced. No one has ever replaced Mary Pickford, which is even more impressive 80+ years on.

  • To be fair, I would have included her Unicef work, but many, many other actors and actresses have continued her charity work; even if not on the same level of commitment as she did. But I never said it was just college girls. I still have a framed Tiffany's poster, and it's still one of the most popular posters in print. Her career and her talent, which made her such a lingering presence in the zeitgeist, is anything but passive.

    No disrespect is meant to Mary Pickford, who accomplished a lot, but most people alive have never seen one of her movies. That can't be said for Audrey Hepburn, and outside of Monroe and the other Hepburn, that could also be said about the others you listed. As for those two, they don't and didn't occupy the same type of role; though, agreed, they might be equally irreplaceable.

  • pfeiffer87

    Phil Hartman - Aagh! We watch Jingle all the Way every Christmas, he's the best thing in it.

  • gutpunchprod

    No critic deserves to be on the same list as artists. Critics have their place, but it's on a lesser level than the others here.

  • I disagree because Ebert was more than just movie reviews. His writings are quite substantial and he was able to play to the elite and average joes.

  • Jerce

    This is a fantastic list. As I scrolled down every photo was like a punch in the heart.

  • jennp421

    I'm not completely sold on Audrey Hepburn - I understand she is iconic within her time and place but I don't think her death created a vacuum. All the posters you mention are of her in her 20s or 30s, not in her sixties. That vacuum was created by her aging. Honesty, I didn't even realize she didn't die a tragic, early death before hitting 40 until I just saw the dates on this post.

  • Three_nineteen

    Hepburn basicially retired from acting to devote her life to charities such as UNICEF. It wasn't as if she got older so no one wanted to hire her anymore. Here is a picture of her from her last film, Always, in 1989. She was 60 years old. Still an amazing actress as well as still beautiful.

  • A. Smith

    My first memories of Hepburn were more from UNICEF than her movies when I was young.

  • It wasn't just her aging but the fact that she retired and wanted nothing to do with the business. She was still influential in her old age though. Just look at her work with Unicef.

  • Fair point. She's still irreplaceable.

  • jennp421

    I'll agree with that.

  • BWeaves

    I'd add Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen to the list. Their stop motion animation was pretty amazing for their time.

    O'Brien's "Lost World" from 1925 is still being ripped off in every dinosaur movie since then, and in "Up." And movies still rip off the original "King Kong."

  • I would argue that Winston filled the void they left behind.

  • poopnado

    Ebert had such a long, impressive career. He was an asshole for a little while in there, but at the end of his life I think he really gained perspective and I gained a ton of renewed respect for him. A friend and I were talking about him the other day, and we were both so impressed that he managed to stay relevant, despite changes in technology. He jumped on Twitter and kept up his website, all while writing books and maintaining his CU film fest. (GO ILLINI)

    He is still the only film critic I know by name. That's right, I don't know any of the Pajiba film critics by name.

  • It is very impressive that he was able to jump online and shift to blogs and twitter without a hitch. I think he only got better once his internet presence was more pronounced.

  • A. Smith

    ...and while he progressed on many things the one thing he never cared for were video games.

  • Jeff in Middletucky

    Ken Adam: Great Britain's, America's, hell, the world's production designer extraordinaire.

  • hindulovegod

    I expected Stanley Kubrick on this list.

  • eag46

    I still mourn Jim Henson.

  • Mrs. Julien

    It still hurts when the wrong voice comes out of Kermit. Steve Whitmire does a great job, but he's just not Kermit. They were impossible flippers to fill.

  • Pants-are-a-must

    Bob Anderson, America's Swordmaster, who died last year at 89. He was the man behind the beauty of Darth Vader and Errol Flynn's fights, Aragorn's badassery, and Inigo and Westley's fencing dialogue.

  • Oy. That's a good call. I've even watched his documentary, so I have no excuse. But it wasn't intended to be exhaustive.

  • KatSings

    I agree, and was hoping to see him on this list.

  • PDamian

    With much respect and admiration to Stan Winston, the aliens in the Alien films were based on H.R. Giger's designs and were not entirely Winston's creation.

  • JC

    He's talking about Aliens, the sequel. In that film H.R. Giger wasn't involved. Stan Winston and James Cameron designed the alien queen for that film.

  • Benderman

    He didn't invent dinosaurs either, but he brought them to life.

  • Crackblind

    To this day, one of the saddest things I have ever seen is Big Bird singing "Being Green"

  • TheEmpress

    I can't believe you lumped Winona Ryder in with Jessica Biel and Rachel Leigh Cook. For shame!

  • She's a great actress, but was summarily tossed aside.after her romcom with Richard Gere failed. Audrey was never forgotten, much less tossed aside

  • Maya

    I was going to say the same thing. Winona forever!

  • lillie

    Agreed. This is a beautiful list but there is no way Winona Ryder should be lumped with Biel and Rachel Leigh Cook?? What has she been in besides She's All That and some movie about a girl band dressed as cats that Rosario Dawson seriously regrets making?

  • Uh, only one of the most memorable anti-drug commercials. "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?"

    **j/k and ducks to take cover**

  • zyzzyva

    If you dare besmirch Josie and the Pussycats then you obviously never saw it. It is awesomely self-aware while still remaining silly with a lot of heart. Come for Alan Cummings & Parker Posey, stay for DuJour's hit single "Backdoor Lover." Also, arguably Tara Reid's only good role.

  • Green Lantern

    Agreed to absolutely ALL of the above. "Josie/Pussycats" was a wink-and-nod HOOT. I actually recommend it.

  • lillie

    I've seen it, although admittedly it was a long time ago. I would argue though that Tara Reid's only good role was in The Big Lebowski.

  • Malware

    I went to the comments to say the same thing! Stop disrespecting Ryder!

  • Crackblind

    I was about to say the same thing. She definitely is of the Lawrence/Portman calibre and had she not imploded with the shoplifting, would have made a better transition to older roles.

  • DeltaJuliet

    What's funny is people would barely bat an eye at the "shoplifitng scandal" if it happened today, between all the celebrity hit and runs, rehab stints, and assaults.

  • Robert

    Not only that, she's working her way back in again thanks to the smart decision to take on a small but super flashy role in Black Swan. The confusion with Ryder is that she has spent her entire career pursuing really offbeat roles and that meant she wasn't in the public eye as much when she stopped doing Oscar bait.

  • zeke_the_pig

    For chrissake, again with this damn dusty room!

  • Ted Zancha

    I think the writers on this site sit around with smiles on their faces and laugh maniacally as they come up with ways to make us weep. I'm sure they get a perverse pleasure out of turning us into blubbering fools at work.

  • Grieving is a helluva process.

  • Jen

    My mum worked with Jim Henson in the early 80s - she oversaw educational content in kid's TV. She says he was the kindest, gentlest man she ever met, and that his public memorial service, where all the Muppeteers sang a song, made everybody - even grown men- cry.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Perhaps a sixth slot for "America's Neighbor" Fred Rogers (1928-2003)?

    (Even though "Hollywood" isn't really a proper descriptor.)

  • TheReinaG

    Could not agree more. Absolutely no one has filled the void Mr. Rogers left.

  • llp

    Mr. Rogers was everybody's neighbour, not just Americans.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Well sure he was (I'm not even American, for the record), it just fits the theme Rob's going with up there.

    For that matter, "America's Funnyman" was Canadian, and "America's Sweetheart" was Dutch. But really, all of these folks are well loved by many countries.

  • llp

    You are right - I did not notice the theme in the post, really. Shame, thy name is llp.

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