Driving home Thursday, June 25 I got a phone call from Heidi Pattie.
HEIDI: Michael Jackson is dead.
JIM: What the hell? Are you sure?
HEIDI: Apparently he had a heart attack or something.
JIM: Okay. Let me go. I’ll call you later.
“I’ll call you later,” doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be talking and driving or I am in the middle something. “I’ll call you later” really means, I have to call other people.
This is an odd thing my friends and I do. Almost like some macabre pointless game that when a celebrity dies you want to be the first person to tell everybody. I don’t know why. We just do this. Maybe in hopes that when people say, “Where were you when [enter event here] happened,” you’ll respond with, “In my car driving home from work… Jim told me.” Hell, I did it five hours earlier when I clicked on my internet browser and saw Farrah Fawcett died sometime after The Today Show and before I left for lunch.
I immediately text messaged a half-dozen people.
Usually when it comes to this I am Johnny On The Spot. Paul Newman. Bea Arthur. Every now and again someone beats me to it like when Ray called me to tell me Marlon Brando was dead. When Gregory Peck died I got up from my desk, walked across the hall to Kelly Gaudet’s department, prefaced with, “I’m not fucking with you… Gregory Peck is dead.” He was one of her idols and better she hear it from me than Mary Hart.
We don’t do it for everybody and never discussed who warrants the chain text message that goes out. Somehow we just know. Usually it’s icons or legends. Talented people who die in weird, unusual ways. You don’t exactly see a Tim Russert or a Bernie Mac coming (for that matter, neither did they). David Carradine is just frickin’ weird. The nerd-radar pings hard when someone like Majel Barrett (wife of Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry, and voice of the ship’s computer) dies. She’s the kind of person who you can say that name right now and 97% of the people in a room will have no idea who you’re talking about and that last three will get severely bummed.
I remember going to work years ago and someone told me a Saturday Night Live cast member had died but couldn’t remember their name. This is like saying Carmen Electra is here somewhere giving out lap dances but I can’t remember where. Later my brother called and told me it was Chris Farley and I asked what did he die of and Bobby, without missing a beat, said, “Pick something. The guy was an addict, an alcoholic and weighed four hundred pounds.”
My friends and I usually have the same reaction which is along the lines of that just sucks. I have never seen any of them get bummed for more than five minutes which is usually disbelief when the death isn’t expected or in some strange bizarre fashion. Every time a celebrity, or for that matter, anyone dies, I am always puzzled/surprised/and a little disgusted at the emotional outburst that follows for someone they’ve never met. Some people warrant this display but not nearly as many that actually get it.
Ed McMahon? Seriously? The guy was a punch line. These are the same people that send him money when he thought his house might get foreclosed on. If you spend thirty years on a couch with Johnny Carson and at eighty-six you’re still making payments on shit… you’re an asshole.
It makes me wonder does anyone in California have jobs or does someone pay them to patrol the Walk Of Fame outside of Mann’s Chinese Theatre in some crazed version of musical chairs waiting for the ambulance chasers at TMZ.com to announce a death so they can throw the flowers and pictures they’ve been toting with them into an impromptu shrine for someone we haven’t thought about in twenty years. Maybe I’m just a cold-hearted bastard but I can’t imagine what it would take to make me call in sick, leave my home and stand along the side of the road with a bunch of strangers holding candles in vigil.
Heath Ledger dies and as bizarre as it may be, does it really warrant the outpouring it gets? Yeah, he’s got a kid and that’s sad for her but you know, there are probably a half-dozen people that have died in the last week within five miles of where you’re sitting right now and they have parents, children and siblings. Not to shit in anyone’s cereal but Heath Ledger isn’t Marlon Brando, a guy who had a forty year career and reinvented acting. In his twenty-two credits, only five are really worth mentioning (The Patriot, Brokeback Mountain, Monster’s Ball, The Dark Knight and I’m a sucker for Julia Stiles in Ten Things I Hate About You… don’t you judge me). In fact, ten years ago, none of us even knew who he was and ten years from now will only remember The Joker.
In the Michael Jackson retrospective I actually watched a woman in the mass of people during the 1993 verdict, on hearing he’s been declared Not Guilty, reach into a box, retrieve a dove and set it free.
Really? Who the fuck are you people?
If Matt Damon died and Natalie told me, incoherent over her hysterical sobbing, that she couldn’t go to work and immediately needed to know where she could find doves to release at his funeral there is a good chance when she got home there would be an empty indention on the couch and a cold Xbox controller where I should be sitting.
There used to be a thing people would do called a Dead Pool. Clint Eastwood even made a shitty Dirty Harry movie about it. You basically pick people you think are going to die and you bet on it. It’s pretty sick and I don’t think I have ever played the game as much as consulted for people I was in the vicinity of.
You always pick the talented rock stars and eccentric actors. John Lennon got shot walking home while Yoko Ono was standing right next to him. Right the fuck next to him! Meanwhile, Tommy Lee couldn’t get himself killed if he snorted all of Linday Lohan’s cocaine while getting banged by Magic Johnson choking him with an asphyxiation leash made by Michael Hutchence in the middle of a Klan meeting.
I would think being a celebrity is emotionally fairly empty. People want to mementos to prove they met you. They watch TV to see who you’re dating. They buy magazines to see pictures of your babies. You die and they grieve for you. And you don’t know their names and have probably never spent more than two minutes with any of them.
Briton Jade Goody died a few months ago of cancer. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “She was a courageous woman both in life and death and the whole country has admired her determination to provide a bright future for her children.” Her funeral was attended by thousands, broadcast on television and attended by celebrities.
Oh, and I forgot, Jade Goody was reality television star and veteran of the British versions of Big Brother, Celebrity Big Brother and numerous appearances where she was essentially paid to be herself. And often that person was drunk and racist. She spent the last seven years in the public eye and people kept watching her go from one show to another to her own series. In the end she got cancer, filmed and aired it under the guise it was for her two small children to know her. I’ve seen My Life (1993) with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman and you can leave your loved ones mementos that aren’t part of the Nielsen Ratings System.
And how morbid and self-important is that?
HUSBAND: What do you want to do tonight?
WIFE: We can watch Britain’s Got Talent on BBC2 or we can watch that reality show woman slowly die in front of our eyes. Yeah, let’s watch the dying woman.
When she died she was celebrated like someone who accomplished something special. Instead of dying the game show contestant she was.
I don’t mourn for people I don’t know. I shake my head and say it’s a shame and move on. I have to get to work. I like Michael Jackson probably more than the next guy but I left 1990 almost twenty years ago and quite frankly, Michael Jackson has been dead to me for years.