James Leroy Wilson's blog

Monday, February 27, 2006

85 is the new 75

I told my nine year-old niece that Barney died. She said, "who?" Her older brother explained, "Barney Fife. Don Knotts, the actor who played Barney Fife, died." (Their family owns DVD's of The Andy Griffith Show.) She said, "Oh, that's too bad. When you said that Barney died I was hoping you meant the purple dinosaur."

To be honest, for a long time my first thought association of Don Knotts was as Mr. Furley in Three's Company, and secondarily for some Disney comedies, but not as the five-time Emmy winning performer on the Andy Griffith Show. Reruns of Andy were not aired frequently where I lived as a kid, were not on at convenient times, and in any case I was not impressed with it. I have greater appreciation of it now, but more as an artifcact and not something I plan on getting into.

Knotts died in one of those "celebrities dying in threes" events, that happen maybe once a year and so make us think they always happen. I never saw Dennis Weaver as Chester in the early years of Gunsmoke - for some reason all the reruns of the show that I saw growing up featured Festus as Matt Dillon's sidekick, but never Chester. I always associated Dennis Weaver with McCloud, though I didn't see many episodes of it. But he had a recognizable face, and was the star of Duel, the strange (but very good) tv movie famous for being directed by a very young Stephen Spielberg. Strange in that the evil that Weaver must confront is never explained. I've seen it 2 or 3 times, and the name "Dennis Weaver" to me evokes his splendid performance in that movie.

The third death is Darrin McGavin's, famous as Kolchak in The Night Stalker. I never saw the show when it first aired, as that was probably past my bedtime. But it re-aired on CBS later in the 70's or early 80's as inexpensive cannon fodder in a ratings "war," or more accurately, surrender, to NBC's Johnny Carson. (CBS, at the time, completely dominated prime time, so was perhaps profitable enough to sacrifce late night.) I lived in Saskatoon at the time, and due to time zone anomalies in Saskatchewan, in the summer American "late night" programming came on at 9:30 - and I was allowed to stay up until 10:30 in the summer! The Night Stalker, was, however, the first show I watched that my father thought might be too scary for me. But I ate it up, meaning I was not frightened by it nor got nightmares from it.

(Now that I think about it, I think the only other concern anyone had about what I watched when I was a kid was my teenage sister who thought that Darth Vader and the Storm Troopers would be too scary for someone about to enter the first grade. Her misunderstanding was due to gender; she may have been scared if she saw a movie like Star Wars when she was six, but I being a boy, absolutely loved it.)

A few years later, as we all know, McGavin was perfect in the role of the father in A Christmas Story. Perfect in a way that the chronologically out-of-place 1900 music of ragtime was perfect in The Sting, which was set in the 1930's. It was clear that McGavin was too old to play the father of two little boys or the husband of their pretty mother. But still, he was perfect. While everything else in the movie also worked, the movie wouldn't be shown continuously at Christmastime on cable if McGavin didn't give the comedic performance of a lifetime.

If I recall the news correctly, Knotts and Weaver were both 81, and McGavin was 83. I remember when I was little, any celebrity in their early 80's was practically a miracle of nature. George Burns was the personification of someone older than dirt, and he'd make jokes of that kind. And in a way it was all true: by the age of 80 he was the oldest working entertainer in show business. My widowed grandmother's second husband died when he was 77 or 78; my other grandfather was clearly becoming senile by the age of 75. When Bing Crosby died in his late 70's, I thought he was really old.

Today, even taking Ronald Reagan's Presidency out of the equation, because I'm not sure it helps the argument, we have college football coaches in their late 70's facing each other in the Orange Bowl. People are working longer and producing better, and they are wise to do so. I still think of my oldest living uncle, who's 78, as a middle-aged man. I think the same of my father who will turn 70 in a few months and is still working.

Although I do have two uncles who died at 67 and an aunt who died maybe a year or two older, all of them had longstanding health issues of one kind or another, so in general I've grown accustomed to the idea that if an American makes it to 60, and especially 65, he's or she's going to make it into the mid-to-late 80's at least. And I hope for longer than that.

So when these three fine actors and fine men succumb in their early 80's all at once, it serves as a reminder. On the one hand, I'm thinking that they died too young; on the other, they shattered my early expectations of longetivity. I now think of 85 what I once did of 75; only then are you really old. But they already did surpass what the statitistics would expect and what their bodies would allow. I'm just hoping that my own parents and my remaining aunts and uncles will be around well into their 100's with sound bodies and minds. Perhaps that's why hearing of these deaths is disappointing.

1 comment:

  1. My mom and dad are in their mid and late 70's respectively, and they still climb on the roof, prune trees, dig ditches, tear out and pour concrete, lay brick, garden, paint and care for grandchildren. Women are having children well into their 40's.

    Thanks for mentioning Duel, I may add it to my profile favorites! Your niece is smart.