Actress Patty Duke died today; actor James Noble, yesterday, at ninety-four. Courtesy of trending Facebook obits only hours ago, I learned of their respective passings—such is life in 2016. It was indisputably a simpler time when must-see TV for me was Benson (1979-1986), a network sitcom that starred the melodiously named Robert Guillaume as the equally melodiously named Benson DuBois and the aforementioned Noble, who played the dimwitted but unfailingly affable Governor Eugene Xavier Gatling in the series. Happily still among the living, Guillaume is eighty-eight.
What I would really like to know is how so many of the men and women who graced the small screen of my youth grew so old—so really, really old? Joe Garagiola, who died at ninety this past week, was ubiquitous during my younger days—an always-agreeable presence teamed with the likes of the late Curt Gowdy and now eighty-year-old, long-retired Tony Kubek—on NBC’s weekly and postseason Major League Baseball games. But that was hardly the Garagiola be-all and end-all. I recall tuning into an eclectic smorgasbord hosted by the man—everything from a game show called Sale of the Century to the Today show to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
Earl Hamner, Jr. also passed away this week. He was ninety-two. Apparently, you’re nobody if you don’t live to ninety nowadays. I religiously watched his baby, The Waltons, downstairs with my grandmother and aunt in what was, seemingly, the last chapter in the extended family era. For some reason, Hamner’s voice-over narrations at the beginning and ending of each episode never failed to amuse my younger brother and me. In fact, more than forty years later, I can still recall some of the lines that we would parrot in an embellished Hamner-tone, such as: “Those were not the last mistakes Jim-Bob and I were to make, but we were truly ahead of the game. Our parents gave us decent rules to live by…yada...yada...yada.” Our teenage whimsy would sometimes have us refer to Jim-Bob as “Jim Boob.” Being from the Bronx, Hamner’s Virginia accent and singular intonations sounded very, very foreign to us.
Actor Joe Santos died this month, too. He was only eighty-four. The man played Dennis Becker on The Rockford Files, one of my all-time favorite TV shows. Who’s left from the cast? The seventy-six-year-old Stuart Margolin, Angel, that’s who. It’s been a rough month indeed—Frank Sinatra, Jr., Gary Shandling, and Mother Angelica have all breathed their last. Mother Angelica, founder of the EWTN cable channel, falls into the category of: “I thought she already met her maker.” As I encounter a never-ending story of death notices, this phenomenon is happening more and more to me. I guess when I read about some serious illness or major health setback, like a stroke, my brain reasons the afflicted individual is for all intents and purposes dead.
All I can say is that when I was watching Joe Garagiola in his camel trench coat in front of Macy’s more than forty years ago—his breath visible in the Thanksgiving morning chill—I was not remotely into what was trending vis-à-vis folks going on their vacations with God. (An elderly neighbor of mine coined that catchy phrase. She said at the time she was "not yet ready to go on her“vacation with God.” She has since has gone on that permanent vacation.) I kind of prefer the days when death took a holiday—from my perspective at least.