There’s a TV special coming up that profiles celebrities who died “too soon,” but I’ve found in my long career of reporting Entertainment news that the passing of a star always seems to come as a shock…even when they live to a ripe old age like Zsa Zsa Gabor, who passed away last year just shy of her 100th birthday. In fact, years before when she was in failing health, our News Bureau prepared an Obituary package (standard practice with notable figures) but so many years went by before it was needed that it was too out-of-date and needed to be redone from scratch!
People seem to think more celebrities are dying nowadays, but I suspect in today’s Around The Clock access to information, as well as a greater number of celebrities in our Pop Culture lexicon, we are simply more aware of their presence…and passings.
The first celebrity death I covered “on scene” was Heath Ledger, 2008. I was in balmy Bermuda running a marathon, taking the first holiday I’d had since joining the SUNRISE morning show, when the news broke. I alerted my producers and my vacation was immediately over and I was on a flight to snowy NYC where I spent a week outside of his SoHo apartment building, reporting on the sad developments.
When silver screen star Deborah Kerr died, I made the case for including it in my news report, even though many/most people didn’t recognize her name. “Just give me 30 seconds,” I pleaded with producers, “…and cue up a clip of her famous kissing scene with Burt Lancaster in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.” On air, I explained her important cinematic influence because of that scene: its brazen sexuality was shocking for the time (1953) and changed the way love scenes were (and are) depicted. My audience understood and appreciated that fact and I was really pleased to have had the green light. I’m not always so lucky!
Ironically, I was on live reporting the terrible news of Farrah Fawcett’s death when the first reports surfaced that Michael Jackson had died. I didn’t get out of my chair for the next 4 hours as I kept viewers apprised of every late breaking development as well as offering ongoing analysis. When stories like that break, it’s important to KEEP TALKING! As Fate would have it, the death of “The King of Pop” kept me busy and mostly on location for the next year: reporting from Neverland Ranch, his Bel Air mansion, Staples Center where his funeral was held and Forest Lawn Cemetery where he was laid to rest. It may have been the biggest story of my career, to date.
March, 2011. I was in Australia staying with my friend Melissa Doyle and had a bout of insomnia so I jumped online in the middle of the night only to be alerted to the passing of Dame Elizabeth Taylor. I quickly contacted our Overnight Producers so we could plan full coverage for the morning show. Needless to say, I never got back to sleep that night.
Timing is everything. February 2012, I was flying to Los Angeles to cover the Grammys and Oscars and when I landed and turned on my phone, news had broken that Whitney Houston has passed away at the Beverly Hilton Hotel…a short distance from the airport. I went directly there to meet my cameraman.
A slow news day got tragically busy right as we were wrapping up the show on August 11, 2014, with word that the great Robin Williams had passed away. I had interviewed him many times and even made a movie with him, SEIZE THE DAY (1986), so it felt like a personal loss…as I know it did for his many fans.
Of course, 2016 brought the double-whammy of losing both Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds. On assignment for a magazine piece, I spent a memorable weekend with Debbie in the mid 1990s at her Vegas Casino. The word “legend” is thrown around a lot in our industry, but it certainly applied in her case. What a generous, talented, brilliant lady she was! Getting to remember her publicly was very fulfilling for me and enlightened me as to why sharing stories about lost loved ones is so therapeutic for everyone.
Having some kind of connection to a public figure who passes away not only enables me to offer perspective, but instills in me a keen responsibility to honor their contributions to the Show Business community. After all my years in Entertainment and thousands of celebrity interviews, I’ve joked that I’m your “One Degree of Separation from all things Showbiz.” But…no joke…it’s a responsibility I take very seriously. People remember big moments; I can vividly recall where I was when I found out Elvis Presley had died…when John Lennon had been murdered…when Lady Diana was killed… If someone is going to get news like that from ME, I want to be sure it’s done not only with accuracy, but with dignity.