Notable deaths in 2020: Stage, screen, page

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 24th of December, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. With just over a week left in the year 2020, we continue our look back at notable people who died this year. 

In this segment we focus on those who made their name in film or TV, on the stage or on the page.

EICHER: You may already know about some of the people in those categories who died this year. People like Kirk Douglas, Regis Philbin, Alex Trebek, and Chadwick Boseman.

WORLD senior correspondent Katie Gaultney picks up our coverage of other notable names.

KATIE GAULTNEY, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: It wasn’t a “dark and stormy night” in Naples, Florida, when the book closed on novelist Mary Higgins Clark’s life on January 31 this year. Still, the Queen of Suspense made significant contributions to the mystery novel genre over the course of her life. She described her writing style in a 2013 interview: 

HIGGINS CLARK: I always loved the Hitchcock way of telling a story. Footsteps on the stairs, you’re alone in the house, you’ve locked the bedroom door, you know that there is a serial killer in the neighborhood, the police have warned everyone. The handle of the door turns, and even though it’s locked, it starts to open. You reach for your cell phone, and it slides out of your hand. I want that kind of writing, as opposed to, “He shot her in one eye to see the expression in the other.” 

Higgins Clark wrote over 50 bestselling novels that shunned profanity, sex, and graphic violence. A faithful Catholic herself, she often featured Catholic women as protagonists. 

Higgins Clark was born on Christmas Eve, 1927. She would have turned 93 tomorrow. 

Moving now from suspense to comedy. 

RAYBURN: He’s one of the most versatile men in show business, Mr. Orson Bean! (applause) Hey, Orson! 

That’s Gene Rayburn announcing Orson Bean on a 1964 episode of The Match Game. Bean was a comedian, actor, talk show host, and frequent game show panelist. He appeared over 200 times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. After years of hard-living, he came to faith in Christ. He talked about his journey in 2009. 

BEAN: My life has been good. I tried everything I could to be happy. So I tried drugs, and I tried booze, and I tried sex, and I tried being well known on the street, and it all worked for a while, and when it didn’t, well that’s when Jesus snuck into me. I think we all have an emptiness that can only be filled by Jesus.

Bean died this February after being hit by a car in Los Angeles while crossing the street. He was 91.

Moving along… or should I say, “Moving On Up?” 

MUSIC: [“Moving on Up,” theme song from “The Jeffersons”]

The voice you hear is Ja’Net Dubois, who co-wrote and performed the theme song for The Jeffersons. Her career in show business spanned more than 50 years. But she’s best known for her portrayal of Willona Woods, the neighborhood gossip on the 1970s CBS sitcom Good Times

GOOD TIMES: Hey, everybody!/ Hi, Willona… 

She died in February at the age of 74 at her home in Glendale, California. 

LIPTON: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God when you arrive at the pearly gates?

That’s James Lipton, longtime host of Inside the Actors Studio. Lipton was a writer, actor, and founding dean of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York City. He became famous for his well-researched interviews with A-list actors about their craft. 

The CNN show Starting Point asked Lipton his famous closing question in 2012, about what he wanted God to say to him at his death. And sadly his answer was, well, theologically lacking: 

LIPTON: You see, Jim, you were wrong (laughter), I exist. But you may come in anyway.

After a battle with cancer, Lipton died at his Manhattan home this March at the age of 93.

MUSIC: [Inside the Actors Studio Theme]

Turning the page to the passing of beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola. He was known for modern classics like Strega Nona, Knight and the Dragon, and his illustrated memoirs. His childlike folktales endeared him to readers, but he was a savvy marketer, too. 

DE PAOLA: The teachers that present books to children are usually grown-ups. So we have to squeeze by the grown-ups to get our product to young people. So you kind of make the book fun for the grown-ups as well. Or try to. Or make it beautiful.

His books offered generations of readers charm and wisdom. He wrote in a 2015 children’s book called Look and Be Grateful, “Today is today. And it is a gift.” After a 55-year career in children’s literature, DePaola died from injuries sustained in a fall at his barn studio in New Hampshire. He was 85.

MUSIC: [Green Acres Theme]

That familiar tune, of course, marks the opening of each episode of the classic TV show Green Acres. The show starred Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert as wealthy New Yorkers who trade penthouse views for farm living. You may remember the handyman, Eb, who seemed to have fallen off the proverbial turnip truck.

GREEN ACRES: Okay, now, what else, Eb?/ Oh, Mrs. Douglas needs a loaf of white bread./ Sliced or unsliced?/ Are those the only two kinds you have?/ Yeah…/ It’s a big decision! If it ain’t right I’ll have to bing it brack! 

While his goofball antics garnered plenty of laughs on screen in the late 1960s and early 1970s, off screen, Eb actor Tom Lester was serious about his faith. He recorded his spiritual testimony for a church in 2009. 

LESTER: As a 10-year-old boy, I began to understand that I was a sinner, and that my sin had separated me from God and the only way I could be made right with the Lord was to receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, to forgive and forget my sins, and to fill me with the Holy Spirit.

Lester’s faith became sight in April after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 81. 

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, Siegfried and Roy!

In May, the world said “goodbye” to the second half of that illusionist act. Roy Horn died in May from complications of COVID-19. The Las Vegas entertainer had survived an almost-fatal tiger mauling on his birthday in 2003 that left him partially paralyzed. But Horn told Entertainment Tonight in 2014 the incident gave him perspective. 

HORN: I’m thankful to God for every breath I can take. 

Transitioning now from the bright lights of Las Vegas to the fictional town of Mayfield.   

MUSIC: [Leave it to Beaver theme]

Ken Osmond, the actor who played two-faced Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver, died in May. He was 76.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER: Wally asked that Haskell boy over. They’re up in their room, I hope they don’t pick on the Beaver./ Eddie Haskell? He seems like a nice kid… 

What was supposed to be a guest appearance turned into six seasons on the 1950s sitcom. But Osmond couldn’t shake Hollywood’s perception of him as the obsequious Eddie Haskell. He eventually joined the LAPD as a motorcycle cop and was shot while trying to apprehend a car thief. He left the force in 1988, occasionally returning to the small screen as a grown-up Eddie Haskell in Leave it to Beaver sequels. 

FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING: I thought up an ending to my book: “And he lived happily ever after, to the end of his days./ And I’m sure you will, my dear friend./ Goodbye, Gandalf./ Goodbye, dear Bilbo. 

That scene from The Fellowship of the Ring features recently departed Shakespearean actor Ian Holm in the role of Bilbo Baggins. In addition to his appearances in film adaptations from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit franchises, Holm is remembered for other blockbusters. Like his Oscar-nominated role of Harold Abraham’s trainer in Chariots of Fire. This scene depicts the meeting where Abraham asks Holm’s Sam Mussabini to take him on as a client. 

HOLM: We have an old saying in my game, son: You can’t put in what God’s left out. Now you leave it to me. I’ll watch you, I’ll observe, and if I think I can help—if I can see the big prize hanging there—believe me, I won’t waste any time. 

Holm died in London in June at the age of 88. 

From one Oscar nominee to another: actress Olivia de Havilland

STEWART: Now if I could have the envelope… Olivia de Havilland. (applause)

That’s Jimmy Stewart announcing de Havilland’s first Academy Award win for best actress in 1950, for her performance in The Heiress. She gained public acclaim playing Maid Marian to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. And her star continued to rise with her first of five Oscar-nominated roles: Gone With the Wind’s Melanie Hamilton, who just couldn’t help but see the good in people.

GONE WITH THE WIND: Melanie! Here’s Scarlett./ Scarlett! I’m so glad to see you again./ Melanie Hamilton, what a surprise to run into you here. I hope you’re going to stay with us a few days at least./ I hope I shall stay long enough for us to become real friends, Scarlett. I do so want us to be.  

Offscreen, de Havilland was a bit less demure than her “Mellie” character. In 1943, she sued Warner Brothers over the seven-year contract system, claiming it made actors little more than property of their studios. She won a landmark decision that changed the way Hollywood hired its stars. That achievement, along with her prolific acting career, led President George W. Bush to present her with a National Medal of Arts and Humanities at a White House ceremony in 2008. 

CEREMONY: Her independence, integrity, and grace won creative freedom for herself and her fellow film actors. (applause)

MUSIC: [“The Death of Melanie,” Gone With the Wind score]

She died peacefully at her home in Paris in July. She was 104 years old.

We began this roundup with the grande dame of mysteries, and we’ll end it with a master of the spy novel. David Cornwell—better known by his pen name, John le Carré—died this month. He is remembered for novels like The Constant Gardener and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Both were adapted to film. Here’s a clip from the latter, when the head of British service assesses Richard Burton’s Alec Leamus to see if he’s ready to reenter the field. 

CUSACK: We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? We can’t do that forever. One can’t stay out of doors all the time. One needs to come in. In from the cold. 

Cornwell’s spycraft knowledge was rooted in his own experience as a member of MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and 60s. He spoke with CBS last year about how his time in the “secret world,” as he called it, inspired him to write.

CORNWELL: Joseph Conrad wrote about the sea because he was born to the sea. I was recruited very early into the secret world. I would copy Conrad in that respect. The secret world was my natural element. I was in it for those years, and I understand its workings as he understands the sea.

His intelligence career came to an end in 1964 when a British double agent betrayed the identities of British operatives to Russia. In a case of art imitating life, that mole became fodder for the plot of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: I’m talking to you about the traitor that cut the throat of our man in Istanbul… I’m accusing you of consorting with an enemy agent behind my back…/ Well, I haven’t been seeing him. So get your facts straight, and get off my back! 

His body of work includes 25 novels, 10 films, and six TV adaptations. Cornwell died December 12 in Cornwall, England, after a brief battle with pneumonia. He was 89.


Reporting for WORLD, I’m Katie Gaultney.

(AP Photo/Louie Traub, File) In this Thursday, June 12, 2008, file photo, Roy Horn, of the illusionist team of Siegfried & Roy, kisses a 6-week-old, white-striped tiger cub at his Las Vegas home. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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