by Brett Leveridge
As 2021 comes to a close, we pause to remember many of the inspiring individuals who left us this past year. There are those whose music brightened our lives, such as country star Tom T. Hall, founding member of the Supremes Mary Wilson and salsa legend Johnny Pacheco; those who used their talents and courage to open doors that were previously closed, including Colin Powell, Hank Aaron and Desmond Tutu, and many, such as Hal Holbrook, Cicely Tyson and Ed Asner, who entertained and enlivened us.
The son of a teacher and a domestic worker, Desmond Tutu rose to become an archbishop of the Anglican Church and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1984 for his nonviolent opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps just as important, Tutu stood strong for forgiveness and peaceful reconcilation when apartheid finally ended, and majority rule had been achieved, in the country he loved.
Actress, author and animal activist Betty White, just days short of her 100th birthday. In a career that spanned more than eight decades, she was nominated for 21 Primetime Emmys, winning five, and three Daytime Emmys (she won twice). She was the first woman to be awarded the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host for her show, Just Men!
A passionate advocate and activist for the welfare of animals, White worked with such organizations as the Los Angeles Zoo Commission, the Morris Animal Foundation, the African Wildlife Foundation, and Actors & Others for Animals.
Jane Powell was a talented actress who excelled in so many films, but is especially well-remembered for her performances in such classic musicals as Royal Wedding (1951) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Born Suzanne Lorraine Burce in Portland, Oregon, she took as her screen name the name of the character she played in her film debut, Song of the Open Road (1944). Powell also worked frequently on stage and on television, including a recurring role on the popular sitcom Growing Pains.
Author Larry McMurtry, a 2014 recipient of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, wrote more than 30 novels, most about life in the western United States, and other volumes of history, essays and memoirs. Many of his novels were made into successful movies and television shows, including 1984's Lonesome Dove, an Emmy-winning mini-series, and Terms of Endearment (1984), which won five Academy awards, including Best Picture, and was nominated for six others.
Actress, author and businesswoman Arlene Dahl was born in Minnesota to Norwegian immigrant parents. She went on to enjoy success in films, television and on Broadway; in business marketing cosmetics, perfume and other products; and as the author of many books and a syndicated column. A friend of Guideposts founders Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his wife, Ruth Stafford Peale, Dahl served as mistress of ceremonies for Mrs. Peale's 96th birthday celebration.
Theatrical composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was a true Broadway legend. He helped create a long list of memorable shows, including West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, among others. A multiple Tony Award winner and Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Sondheim had a Broadway theatre renamed in his honor in 2010.
Hall of Fame baseball legend and civil rights icon Hank Aaron broke the record many thought couldn't be broken: Babe Ruth's 714 career home runs. Aaron exhibited strength, courage and dignity in pursuit of that record, enduring racist hate mail, taunts and even death threats. In 1954, when Aaron became the first Black player to take the field for the Milwaukee Braves, he was the last player to make the move from the The Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues. He went on to play in the Majors for 23 seasons and was named to a record 25 All-Star games. He totaled 755 homers for his storied MLB career.
Actor Hal Holbrook enjoyed a 60-plus-year career in movies and television, but it is perhaps for his one-man stage production, Mark Twain Tonight! that he will be best remembered. He performed as Twain for 70 years, from 1947, when he was a senior in college, through 2017. A Best Supporting Oscar nominee for his work in 2007's Into the Wild, Holbrook was nominated 12 times for a Primetime Emmy Award—he won five—and in 1966, he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for Mark Twain Tonight!
Mary Wilson was the co-founder of the immensely popular 1960s singing group The Supremes. The group saw 12 of their singles reach #1 on the pop charts. In 1959, Wilson, along with Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown, formed a quartet under the name The Primettes. When they signed with Motown Records, Wilson, Ross and Ballard became a trio and changed the group's name. When they began working with producers and songwriters Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, the hits started to come. The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Wilson went on to publish three memoirs.
Max Cleland was former United States Senator, author and decorated veteran who lost both of his legs and an arm in the Vietnam war. Cleland, who was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for valorous actions in combat, served as head of the Veterans Administration during the Carter Administration, as secretary of state in Georgia from 1982 to 1996, and as secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission during the Obama administration.
Ed Asner was an immensively talented actor who was especially memorable in the role of Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a followup series, Lou Grant. Asner, who served two years in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s, was nominated for an amazing 17 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning seven times), four Daytime Emmys, and 11 Golden Globe Awards (he took home five).
The remarkable Dorothy Steel proved to us all that it’s never too late to pursue one’s dreams. A former senior revenue officer for the IRS, Steel didn’t begin acting until she was 82 years old, when she “stepped out in faith” to win the role of the merchant tribe elder in the blockbuster hit Black Panther (2018), among other roles.
Joanne Rogers was a classical pianist and wife and partner to Fred Rogers, the late host of the beloved children's television program, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. The Rogers were together for more than 50 years and after his death in 2003, she served as the chair of the board of Fred Rogers Productions, continuing their shared mission of educating, supporting and improving the lives of children everywhere.
In his groundbreaking public service career, retired four-star general Colin Powell became the country's first African American in each of three key positions: national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. He was twice awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the second time with Distinction.
Author Beverly Cleary was the creator of Ramona Quimby and other popular characters in her very popular children's and young adult books. According to her publisher, Cleary, who was a librarian, sold more than 85 million books, and she received a remarkable number of awards, including the 1981 National Book Award, the 1984 Newbery Medal and the National Medal of Arts, among others. There is also a public school named for her in Portland, Oregon, where most of her books were set.
Johnny Pacheco was a pioneer in the musical genre of salsa. Born in the Domincan Republic and raised in NYC, the nine-time Grammy nominee was, as a performer and the founder and musical director of Fania Records, an important figure in NYC's salsa scene in the 1960s and '70s. Pacheco earned 10 gold records and was the recipient in 1996 of the Dominican Republic's Presidential Medal of Honor and in 2005 of the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998, he was inducted into the Latin Music Hall of Fame.
Beloved broadcaster and weatherman Willard Scott spent 65 years at NBC and forecast the weather on the TODAY show for more than three decades. He was also the first to portray Ronald McDonald on television. Scott will perhaps be best remembered for his practice of offering on-air birthday greetings to viewers who were turning 100 years of age.
Cicely Tyson. Tyson was the first African American to win a lead Emmy Award for her remarkable performance in the 1974 telefilm, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The role required Tyson to portray Pittman from age 23 to 110. Tyson, who portrayed a number of historic figures, among them Coretta Scott King, educator Marva Collins, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks' mother, was nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for Sounder (1973), and in 2018 she was awarded an honorary Oscar.
Oscar and Emmy nominee Ned Beatty was one of the most acclaimed character actors of the past half-century. The Kentucky native, who began his career in the theatre, starred on Broadway twice, winning a Drama Desk award for his portrayal of Big Daddy in a 2003 production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In a career that spanned more than 55 years, he amassed more than 160 film and TV credits.
Brooklyn-born Larry King was the son of Eastern European immigrants. The venerable broadcaster and author began his 60-plus-year career in local radio in Florida. He rose to national renown with his popular program, "Larry King Live," using a conversational approach to interview people from every walk of life. King was awarded two Peabody Awards, an Emmy Award, and 10 Cable ACE Awards.
Country music legend Tom T. Hall was a Kentucky-born singer-songwriter and author of short stories. He wrote 12 songs that hit No. 1 on the charts and another 26 that reached the Top 10, among them Harper Valley PTA, a crossover pop hit and I Love, which reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2008, Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and in 2019 into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which he considered the greatest honor of his career.
Micki Grant was a artist of many talents and multiple accomplishments who broke new ground when the two-year Broadway run of her musical Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope made her the first woman to have written the book, music and lyrics for a Broadway musical (she also starred in the show, which garnered four Tony nominations). Grant was also a Clio award recipient for commercial jingles she composed and was one of the first Black actors to be signed as a contract player on a soap opera (more than 460 episodes of Another World).
Oklahoma-born and Houston-area-raised B. J. Thomas began by singing in a church choir and had his first hit at 24 with a cover of Hank Williams' I'm So Lonely I Could Cry. Other hits followed: Hooked on a Feeling, Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head, I Just Can't Help Believing, Rock and Roll Lullaby, (Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song. In 1976, Thomas made the shift to contemporary Christian music with the album Home Where I Belong; it went platinum.
Michael K. Williams was the Brooklyn-born-and-raised son of a Bahamian mother and a South Carolinian father. A troubled youth, he found direction while studying at NYC's National Black Theatre. As an actor, he received five Primetime Emmy Award nominations, four Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (with one win), and five NAACP Image Award nominations for his work in the series The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Lovecraft Country and the films Bessie, The Night of, and 12 Years a Slave, among others.
Jane Withers was one of the most popular child stars of the 1930s and early '40s. In 1937 and '38, her films ranked in the top 10 at that box office. Her career began at 3 when she hosted her own radio show in Atlanta, Georgia. From 1963-1974, she portrayed Josephine the Plumber in a popular series of television commercials, and in the 1990s and early 2000s, she performed voice work in animated films.
Though actor and author Gavin MacLeod appeared in the occasional film over the years and also worked in the theatre—he appeared in a pair of Broadway shows: A Hatful of Rain (1955) and The Captains and the Kings (1962)—most of his success came via the medium of television. He will be best remembered as the wisecracking Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Captain Merrill Stubing on The Love Boat, and beginning in the mid-1980s, MacLeod and his second wife co-hosted Back on Course, a show on TBN that encouraged and advised couples with marital problems. The show ran for 17 years.
Johnny Ventura was a Dominican singer and orchestra leader who specialized in the musical forms of merengue and salsa. He was also a politician, serving as Deputy to the Dominican National Congress from 1982-86, Vice Mayor of Santo Domingo from 1994-98 and Mayor of Santo Domingo from 1998-2002. In 1999, he was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame; in 2003, he won that organization's Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2006, he was presented the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In a storied career that spanned more than 70 years, Christopher Plummer won an Oscar, two Tonys and two Emmys. He was also an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, portraying Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III and Mark Antony, among other roles. Plummer will perhaps be best remembered for his portrayal of Austrian naval officer Georg von Trapp in the beloved 1965 musical The Sound Of Music.
Don Everly teamed with his brother, Phil, to form the popular harmony duo The Everly Brothers. They began their career singing with their parents as the Everly Family, but by their teens, the boys formed their own act. The pair's sound combined country, rock and roll and pop. Their first hit was Bye Bye Love, followed by such classics as Wake Up Little Susie, All I Have to Do Is Dream and Cathy's Clown, among others. In the 70s, Don and his brother began to work as solo artists, though they would reunite periodically. The brothers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
Tony nominee Clarence Williams was the son of musician Clarence "Clay" Williams Jr. and the grandson of legendary jazz/blues composer and pianist Clarence Williams. After two years as a paratrooper in C Company, 506th Infantry, of the 101st Airborne Division, Williams began to pursue acting, making his Broadway debut in 1960 in The Long Dream, based on a Richard Wright novel. Williams is perhaps best remembered as one-third of the titular trio of undercover cops on the 1960s TV drama The Mod Squad, but his was a prolific career that saw him amass more than 100 combined credits on stage, screen and television.
Norman Lloyd's remarkable career spanned more than 90 years, as he enjoyed success on the legitimate stage, radio, television and motion pictures as an actor, a director and a producer. In motion pictures, he worked with such giants of the cinema as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir and Martin Scorsese, to name just a few, and in television he was involved with such successful series as Alfred Hithcock Presents and St. Elsewhere.
Eric Carle was a very popular and influential children's book illustrator and author. His first book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, a collaboration with Bill Martin Jr., was a best-seller. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which he wrote and illustrated in 1969, has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold more than 50 million copies. In all, Carle illustrated more than 70 books, the majority of which he also wrote, and he sold more than 145 million books worldwide. In 2003, he was awarded what is now called the Children's Literature Legacy Award by the American Library Association.
A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a coach, NFL legend John Madden compiled a career winning percentage of .759, the best in league history for those who coached 100 games or more. He led the then-Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl XI win over the Minnesota Vikings to close out the 1976 season. A year later, he left coaching to become one of the most admired and accomplished television analysts in the history of the NFL, a position he held for three decades. He'll also be remembered for the venerable and very popular video game that bears his name, EA Sports' "Madden NFL.”
Michael Nesmith will, of course, always be best remembered as a member of the immensely popular pop band the Monkees, but he was quite accomplished on his own as well. He wrote songs for other artists (Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys had a big hit with his song Different Drum), led an influential country-rock group called the First National Band (their biggest hit was Joanne). He also founded Pacific Arts, a multimedia production company.
Click on a picture to enjoy more inspiring photos and stories.