Artists We Lost in 2016

celebrity deaths

This year the news of many celebrity deaths, from Harper Lee to Prince, shook the art world. Here are 34 creatives we’ll miss like crazy.

The year 2016 was a lot of things.

It was the year we gained and lost friends on Facebook in a heated election season.

The year Batman and Superman finally made it to the big screen as a dynamic duo (of sorts).

And, sadly, it was the year we lost some of our most influential thinkers, musicians, artists, sports figures, filmmakers, writers and other heroes in our pop cultural pantheon.

The world is ultimately emptier without them, but they left us a rich legacy that will fuel the creativity, courage, artistry and innovation of future (and present) generations of imitators and admirers.

Carrie Fisher (October 21, 1956 – December 27, 2016)

Lucasfilm / Sunset Boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images

Born to singers/actors Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher captured the hearts of multiple generations in her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise, spanning from 1977 (when she was only 19) in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope through the upcoming December 2017 release of Star Wars: Episode VIII, which is currently in postproduction. Her candor about her personal challenges, including bipolar disorder and substance addiction, gave voice to millions of people living in the shadows with their own struggles, a fitting legacy for the princess who brought us all hope.

Ricky Harris (1962 – December 26, 2016)

Photo by Jerod Harris via Getty Images

Actor, writer and comedian Ricky Harris was known for his racy comedy and his appearances in Heat, Poetic Justice and Everybody Hates Chris. He also worked on Snoop Dogg’s rap albums. Ice Cube paid tribute with these words: “The world is a little less funny today. RIP, homie.”

George Michael (June 25, 1936 – December 25, 2016)

Photo by Michael Putland via Getty Images

George Michael’s pop group Wham! soared to number one with its first album in 1983, and as a solo artist Michael remained one of Britain’s brightest stars throughout his career. Known for megahits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Careless Whisper,” he continued to release music through 2014, when his seventh solo album, Symphonica, topped the UK charts. His star will remain bright.

Zsa Zsa Gabor (February 6, 1917 – December 18, 2016)

Photo by Ron Galella via WireImage

Crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, Zsa Zsa Gabor emigrated to the United States in 1941 and became the epitome of celeb glam. Having begun her acting career in an operetta in Vienna, she would appear in more than 60 TV movies and feature films, including the 1952 Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge.

Alan Thicke (March 1, 1947 – December 13, 2016)

celebrity deathsPhoto by Michael Buckner / Getty Images for TV Guide Channel Studios

Known and loved for his iconic Family Ties role as work-at-home dad/psychiatrist Jason Seaver, Alan Thicke was also a writer, composer and author. His youngest son, Carter Thicke, honored him with a touching statement, calling him “my best friend and my idol.” Musician Robin Thicke also paid tribute: “My father…was the best man I ever knew.”

Keo Woolford (1967 – November 28, 2016)

celebrity deaths

Keo Woolford was a multidisciplinary artist perhaps best known for his role as Detective James Chang in Hawaii Five-O. Born and raised in Hawaii, Woolford was working on the sequel to The Haumāna, a critically acclaimed film he wrote, directed and produced. Daniel Dae Kim paid tribute to him with these words: “As talented as you were, I will remember you most for your kindness. Thank you for sharing your light with us, .”

Ron Glass (July 10, 1945 – November 25, 2016)

celebrity deathsRon Glass as Shepherd Derrial Book in Firefly / Twentieth Century Fox

If you’re into watching retro TV shows on YouTube, or over-the-air digital channels, you might have run across a man named Ron Glass in a cop show called Barney Miller from the 1970s and early ’80s. Of course, most will remember Ron Glass most affectionately as the enigmatic Shepherd Book on the short-lived TV series Firefly (and the movie Serenity). Nobody’s going to memorialize Glass quite the way Joss Whedon (creator of Firefly) can: “He got there with grace, humor & enormous heart. He was, among so many other things, my Shepherd. Raise, appropriately, a glass. Rest, Ron.”

Sharon Jones (May 4, 1956 – November 18, 2016)

celebrity deaths-Sharon Jones Photo by Jordi Vidal / Redferns via Getty Images

Amy Winehouse might have made the retro soul movement mainstream, but singer Sharon Jones was already there, trailblazing. The retro soul movement was in many ways her movement, and yet few had heard of her. It’s unquestionable that her music will reach more people than ever before and her fan base will grow. As far as I’m concerned, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ “I’m not Gonna Cry” is the soul anthem of the aughts.

Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016)

celebrity deaths-Leonard CohenPhoto by Michael Putland via Getty Images

His music had its own pathos, a richly built cathedral of sound emanating from a voice that sounded ripped from the underground — we’re talking the molten core of the earth. The Canadian singer-songwriter redefined the genre in many ways on his own terms. Cohen was a true poet/artist in that he not only wrote haunting lyrics but also published novels (The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers) and a poetry collection (Flowers for Hitler). Whatever your religious affiliation, or lack thereof, you can’t help but to be moved by “Hallelujah.”

Steve Dillon (March 22, 1962 – October 22, 2016)

celebrity deaths-Steve DillonPhoto by Albert L. Ortega via Getty Images

Vertigo’s comic book line has been called the HBO of comics. And it’s easy to see why. With titles like The Sandman and Preacher (written by Garth Ennis), Steve Dillon was an artist of impeccable style and layout. AMC’s critically acclaimed adaptation is worth viewing, but get your hands on some of the original art. He could make violence beautiful.

Bill Nunn (October 20, 1953 – September 24, 2016)

celebrity deaths-Bill NunnSirens / USA Network / Chuck Hodes / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Two words: Radio Raheem. This character, in arguably Spike Lee’s best film, Do the Right Thing, has etched out his own place in the pop cultural landscape. You know who he is even with the sound down. Bill Nunn brought an unusual quality to the character. Yeah, he was the guy with the boombox, but as in most of Lee’s films, there were layers beneath that. Plus let’s not forget his understated (and underused) Robbie Robertson in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films. Great stuff. 

Alexis Arquette (July 28, 1969 – September 11, 2016)

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You might be familiar with Patricia, David and Richmond Arquette, who have had notable careers in Hollywood over the years, but if you never knew Alexis Arquette, you missed out on someone truly amazing. Perhaps most famously, from a pop cultural perspective, you would have known Alexis as George, the Boy George wannabe in The Wedding Singer, but she was in a bunch of other big movies, from Pulp Fiction to Bride of Chucky. Born as Robert Arquette, she was a gifted performer comfortable with art, cabaret and activism. The world is smaller without her.

Gene Wilder (June 11, 1933 – August 29, 2016)

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Likable. Funny. Recognizable. The curly hair and winning smile made Gene Wilder one of the most bankable comedic actors in the ’70s and ’80s. Most will fondly remember his buddy movies with Richard Pryor (Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil), but perhaps most winning was his turn as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Kenny Baker (R2-D2) (August 24, 1934 – August 13, 2016) 

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What would Star Wars be without R2-D2? Emptier and probably animatronic. The new Star Wars films have an R2-D2, but they won’t have Kenny Baker. When you watch the original trilogy, there’s something to be said for Baker’s gleeful, often mischievous performances as C-3PO’s counterpart. 

Jack Davis (December 2, 1924 – July 27, 2016)

celebrity deaths-Jack DavisJack Davis and self-portrait

The MAD magazine brand is recognizable and that’s because of Jack Davis. His cartoons helped raise the game on caricatures and how they could be used for just the right kind of biting satire. He was truly an American original. 

Garry Marshall (November 13, 1934 – July 19, 2016)

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He created some of the most memorable shows on American television. We’re talking Happy Days and its spinoffs, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley and, for the die-hards, Joanie Loves Chachi. We owe the words “Fonzie” and “jumping the shark” and the star of Robin Williams all to Garry Marshall. He also gave us Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, which he directed.

Noel Neill (November 25, 1920 – July 3, 2016)

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Before Amy Adams and Margot Kidder, Noel Neill was showing young girls of the 1950s how women can be just as good as men. She was the big screen’s first Lois Lane in the movie serial Superman (1948) and in the ’50s played Lois Lane perfectly against George Reeves. 

Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)

celebrity deaths-Elie Wiesel Via Getty Images

Bob Dylan has joined the Nobel Laureate club, but novelist Elie Wiesel got there first. Wiesel, whose body of work delved into the horrors of the Holocaust, penned the haunting memoir Night in 1956. Few have faced such adversity and turned it into art quite the way that Wiesel achieved. Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and the press release stated: ‘Wiesel is a messenger to mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.’”

Bernie Worrell (April 19, 1944 – June 24, 2016)

celebrity deaths-Bernie Worrell Via Getty Images

I’m pretty sure there’s a Funkedelic song for everyone. If you’ve heard any P-Funk, then you’ve jammed to the synths of Bernie Worrell, Funkedelic’s genius keyboardist (and that’s not hyperbole, he was a classical music prodigy). If you haven’t dug deep into this man’s discography, you really should. It’s foundational stuff. 

Anton Yelchin (March 11, 1989 – June 19, 2016) 

celebrity deaths-Anton YelchinVia Getty Images 

It could have gone terribly wrong. It could have felt false, contrived and artificial. Yet when J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot/reset hit theaters in 2009, no one was sure how the young crew would work out. But almost immediately most of us were charmed by Anton Yelchin’s Chekov performance. That he’s gone at the age of 27 is a tremendous blow not only to the Star Trek franchise but to all of us. Clearly Yelchin would have done some intriguing work.

Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)

celebrity deaths-Muhammad AliPhoto by Stanley Weston via Getty Images

He had confidence, bravura, a winning smile. “The greatest of all time,” Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) blazed a trail and inspired many, not just in boxing but in all fields of art: music, painting, writing, movies, etc.

Darwyn Cooke (November 16, 1962 – May 14, 2016)

celebrity deaths- Darwyn CookBERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images

A comic book artist/writer with an affinity for the retro, Cooke did some impressive work with DC Comics, most notably his work on Justice League: The New Frontier, which is required reading. He also did some great work on Spirit and other titles.

Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016)

celebrity deaths-PrinceVia Getty Images

For many, this was perhaps the biggest or at least the most shocking and visceral celebrity death of 2016. Prince Rogers Nelson, AKA Prince, AKA “The Artist Formerly Known as…,” “The Kid,” “Camille” — the list goes ever on. A colleague recently told me that the loss of Prince was more devastating than the loss of Michael Jackson. Not that we don’t miss Michael as a pop cultural hive mind, but as my colleague said, “Michael was for the kids; Prince was for the rest of us.” Because he made so much great music for decades, everyone probably has their favorite Prince era (my personal favorite is, to quote Eminem, when he “turned himself into a symbol”), but undoubtedly it’s the work he carved out in the ’80s that he’ll be best remembered for. Purple Rain (the album) is still a masterpiece, and no one grinds an axe the way Prince did. No one. Like Hendrix, he was in a class of one with a slew of imitators.

Patty Duke (December 14, 1946 – March 29, 2016)

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The Patty Duke Show, which ran from 1963 to 1966, might not be as familiar to some today, but Patty Duke was a gifted Oscar-winning actress (most famously for The Miracle Worker, at age 16, where she portrayed Helen Keller), whose work inspired many women after her. She scored a pop hit in 1965, “Don’t Just Stand There,” and two years later starred in the classic film Valley of Dolls. Moreover, Duke continued to be a powerful voice as a mental health activist.

Garry Shandling (November 29, 1949 – March 24, 2016)

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One of the great comedians, but this generation might know him best in the Marvel movies, Garry Shandling was the consummate performer. He had a wry sense of humor that turned dark at times but was always funny. Want to see Garry Shandling at his absolute best? The Larry Sanders Show is available to stream on HBO GO and HBO Now. Check it out.

Sir George Martin (January 3, 1926 – March 8, 2016)

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The man behind the boards…the man behind the Beatles. “Strawberry Fields” wouldn’t linger in the same way, nor would “Eleanor Rigby,” without the classical sensibilities of George Martin, who helped to push the Paul, John, George and Ringo into further experimentation, turning the studio into a wide canvas.

Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016)

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At the announcement of Go Set a Watchman in 2015, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, author Harper Lee was thrown back into the national spotlight. This was a major publishing event, and although the sequel received mixed reviews, Lee was able to share her second novel with the world. No second acts? Lee proved them wrong.

Denise Matthews (Vanity) (January 4, 1959 – February 15, 2016)

celebrity deaths- Denise MatthewsVia Getty Images

Before Throwback Thursdays was a thing, Vanity 6 and Denise Matthews (AKA Vanity) gave us “Nasty Girl,” a 1980s favorite from the movie Purple Rain. Matthews, of course, was Prince’s love interest in the movie. Although she was known for her electric sexuality, Matthews dialed it back considerably, becoming an evangelist to Prince’s Jehovah’s Witness. No matter. “Nasty Girl” is the kind of hook you can’t get out of your head.

Maurice White (Earth, Wind & Fire) (December 19, 1941 – February 3, 2016)

celebrity deaths- Maurice WhiteVia Getty Images

That voice could always make you smile. Whether it is “September,” “Shining Star” or the infectious “Let’s Groove,” Maurice White was front and center. He made you want to dance, whether on the dance floor, in your seat or in your car. It’s a voice consigned to the annals of our collective American music memory.

Joe Alaskey (April 17, 1952 – February 3, 2016)

celebrity deaths- Joe AlaskeyVia Getty Images

With a voice just as notable, Joe Alaskey has been in our ears for generations. If you’ve ever watched Looney Tunes cartoons, then you’re familiar with Joe Alaskey’s Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck vocal performances. That existential question lingers forever: “What’s up, doc?”

Dan Haggerty (Grizzly Adams) (November 19, 1942 – January 15, 2016)

celebrity deaths- Dan HaggertyVia Getty Images

There’s likely a generational divide on this one. Although you may not have watched the show in its original run or caught any reruns, doubtless, you’ve encountered someone in need of a shave called Grizzly Adams. If so, you have Dan Haggerty to thank — and his bear friend.

Alan Rickman (February 21, 1946 – January 14, 2016)

celebrity deaths- Alan RickmanPhoto by Cambridge Jones via Getty Images 

His droll way of line delivery. The way he uttered “Mr. Potter” with such disgust. The angel in Kevin Smith’s Dogma to the big bad in Die Hard, Alan Rickman played it cool.

David Bowie (January 8, 1947 – January 10, 2016)

celebrity deaths David BowieRALPH GATTI/AFP via Getty Images

A man of many faces. An artist of many talents. The Ziggy Stardust phase. “Let’s Dance.” The movie “Labyrinth.” It’s easy to look back at David Bowie’s oeuvre with awe (and a little introspection), but while you’re looking backward, be sure to check out his last album, Black Star. Everything you need to know about David Bowie as an artist is on that album. It’s an amazing work of artistry.

Natalie Cole (February 6, 1950 – December 31, 2015)

celebrity deaths Natalie ColePhoto by Jim Steinfeldt / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

For obvious reasons, it can be hard to be the daughter of a celebrity. Even more so if your father’s name is Nat King Cole. However, before she left this world last New Year’s Eve, Natalie Cole carved out her own niche and had some megahits of her own — “This Will Be,” “Inseparable” and “Our Love.” We’ll miss her like crazy. end

This list is not comprehensive. Please help us honor these and other beloved artists we lost in 2016 with a tribute in the comments.

















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