Journalists subscribe to the myth that famous people die in groups of three, within no more than a few days. I suppose that must be true: The world’s so full of celebrities, quasi-celebrities and faux-celebrities now that a week doesn’t go by without a handful going down for the count.
But today, death took three giants: actor Christopher Lee, jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman and professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes.
Lee dominated British fantasy and horror films for decades, and Sir Christopher was still acting when he passed away at 93. (He has at least two films in the can, waiting to come out.) Connoisseurs of the great Hammer Horror movies prefer to remember those rather than the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun,” yet Lee became one of the great Bond villains as the urbane assassin Scaramanga.
He also had a resonant bass-baritone singing voice and a terrific sense of humor about himself. Though he tended to be typecast, he played characters deep and shallow, heroic and villainous, through his nearly 70-year career. I recommend the 2009 “Triage,” where he played a psychiatrist helping a wartime photographer cope with terrible memories.
Dusty Rhodes, his bulky body battered after many years in the ring, made it only to age 69. He first captured fans’ attention in 1974, when he abandoned the “heel” persona he’d been using, took the nickname “American Dream” and repositioned himself as a working-class hero. He became a mainstay of Charlotte-based Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980s, teaming with Magnum T.A. and maintaining famous feuds with the Koloffs, Abdullah the Butcher, Blackjack Mulligan and others.
Virgil Riley Runnels Jr. (whose real name I never knew until I looked it up just now) wrestled regularly until he was about 60. He didn’t have the glamorous effulgence of Ric Flair, the quick tongue of Rowdy Roddy Piper or the chiseled physique of the generation that spawned John Cena and The Rock. You could never be sure of the dynamic between himself and his sexpot “manager,” Baby Doll. Yet he had a relaxed, Everyman kind of appeal that said “If this sleepy-looking guy can make it in his chosen field, anybody can.”
“Free jazz” pioneer Ornette Coleman never achieved (or sought) the others’ mainstream success in their fields. He’s best known as a pioneering jazz saxophonist, though he played violin and trumpet and composed. His album “Sound Grammar” won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007; unlike Wynton Marsalis and Mel Powell, the only other jazz composers to win, Coleman had no classical training, though classical musicians such as Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson admired him.
Some people considered him a publicity-seeker, because he played with a plastic saxophone early on and later recorded an album with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Denardo Coleman, his 10-year-old son. (To be fair, Denardo had studied for years and became his father’s primary drummer in the 1970s.) Yet the elder Coleman, who died at 85, didn’t care. He went on to experiment with electric instruments and collaborate with the likes of Jerry Garcia and Pat Metheny.
I’m trying to think of a way in which all three paths might have crossed in the 1960s. Maybe the young Rhodes could have played the baby-faced hero of a Hammer Horror film, the guy who loses his girl (and perhaps his life) to the suave Dracula played by Lee. Death scenes could have been punctuated by Coleman’s edgy blasts on the sax....
Nah, I guess not. But every reader owes a tip of the hat to these three, who made a lasting effect on their fields. If they meet in heaven, the conversation’s gonna be interesting.