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Celebrity Deaths of the Year

Current Events, Year-End | By The Top 13 on December 21, 2009

As 2009 comes to a close, The Top 13 remembers some of the biggest figures in American history and culture who died this year. The ranking of this list - which includes musicians and actors, political figures and television hosts, among others - is based on the deceased's contribution to society and the public's response to his or her death.

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Michael Jackson


Michael Jackson

August 29, 1958 – June 25, 2009

Jackson spent about 45 years as one of the most commercially successful, critically acclaimed and influential pop singers of all time. Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for both his contributions to The Jackson 5 and his solo work, the King of Pop won 13 Grammy Awards, had 17 number one singles, and the best-selling album of all time (Thriller). The public was also captivated by Jackson's constantly changing appearance and allegations of child molestation. Though Jackson died of cardiac arrest, his death was ruled a homicide because of the narcotics found in his system. His memorial service was broadcast around the world.

Ted Kennedy


Ted Kennedy

February 22, 1932 – August 25, 2009

The so-called Lion of the Senate served for 46 years, making him the fourth longest-serving senator in U.S. history. The younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy likely would have become President had it not been for the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, in which Kennedy left the scene of an accident that resulted in the death of a female passenger. Still, Kennedy was the face of American progressivism for decades and more than 300 bills that he wrote were enacted into law. Upon his death from cancer, Vice President Biden stated that "today we lost a truly remarkable man" and that Kennedy "changed the circumstances of tens of millions of Americans."

Walter Cronkite


Walter Cronkite

November 4, 1916 – July 17, 2009

As anchorman for the CBS Evening News from 1962 though 1981, Cronkite came to be known as "the most trusted man in America." Cronkite was recruited to join CBS News by Edward R. Murrow in 1950 and began his ascent at the network as a reporter covering everything from the Nuremberg trials to the Vietnam War to, most famously, the Kennedy assassination and the U.S. space program. The winner of several Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, the year he retired, Cronkite received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter. Uncle Walter died of complications from dementia and, as he ended each nightly newscast, "that's the way it is."

Ed McMahon


Ed McMahon

March 6, 1923 – June 23, 2009

A network television institution, McMahon was best known for his 30-year stint as Johnny Carson's sidekick and announcer on The Tonight Show. In addition to that role, McMahon, a fighter pilot who served in Korea, hosted a number of other influential programs, including Star Search and TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes. He had most recently been in the news for financial problems that nearly led to the foreclosure of his Beverly Hills home. When McMahon died after several years of health problems, Conan O'Brien said: "It is impossible, I think, for anyone to imagine The Tonight Show . . . without Ed McMahon. Ed's laugh was really the soundtrack to that show."

John Updike


John Updike

March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009

Updike, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, poet, and critic, is best known for his Rabbit series, which included four novels and a novella. Updike published more than twenty novels, and more than a dozen short story collections, as well as many works of poetry, literary criticism, art criticism, and children's books. Beginning in the 1950s, many of Updike's works were published in The New Yorker. Upon his death, Middlesex author Jeffrey Eugenides wrote in The New Yorker: "Updike's death has revealed how many people, how many different kinds of people, felt a strong connection to his work. He was our great American writer. There won't be another like him."

Patrick Swayze


Patrick Swayze

August 18, 1952 – September 14, 2009

Named People's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1991, Swayze was a classically trained dancer who got his start in Grease on Broadway. After a few small television and film roles, Swayze broke out with a major role in The Outsiders and a follow-up in Red Dawn with many of the same actors. But what turned Swayze into a household name was his role as dance instructor Johnny Castle in the 1987 blockbuster Dirty Dancing. Swayze's other most notable roles were in Ghost, Roadhouse, Point Break, and Donnie Darko. He continued to work all the way up until his death from pancreatic cancer, starring as an FBI agent in A&E's The Beast.

John Hughes


John Hughes

February 18, 1950 – August 6, 2009

Hughes wrote and directed some of the most influential and successful films of the 1980s, a series of teen-oriented stories that launched the careers of many members of "The Brat Pack." These films included four of the most memorable films of that decade: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. As a writer, Hughes was also responsible for more acerbic comedies like Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Vacation, and European Vacation. Though he disappeared from public view in the early 1990s, Hughes still wrote under his pseudonym Edmond Dantès as recently as last year.

Farrah Fawcett


Farrah Fawcett

February 2, 1947 – June 25, 2009

Fawcett, who skyrocketed to fame as private investigator Jill Munroe in Charlie's Angels in 1976, was an international sex symbol for nearly a decade spanning the 70s and 80s. Although she received good reviews for her performances in a series of (mostly television) movies, she drew more attention when, in 1995, she finally agreed to pose nude in Playboy - at 48 years old. Her issue became the best selling issue of the decade. Upon Fawcett's death from cancer, Hugh Hefner remembered: "Farrah was one of the iconic beauties of our time. Her girl-next-door charm combined with stunning looks made her a star on film, TV and the printed page."

Bea Arthur


Bea Arthur

May 13, 1922 – April 25, 2009

Known mostly for her sitcom work in the 1970s and 1980s, Arthur was also a comedian and singer who won a Tony Award for her Broadway work before she ever appeared on television. But it was her Emmy-winning turn as the outspoken liberal Maude on All in the Family and then the often political Maude that made Arthur a household name. She also won an Emmy for the role that she is best remembered for – as Dorothy on seminal sitcom The Golden Girls. Arthur eventually returned to Broadway in 2002. Three days after her death, Broadway theaters honored her by dimming their marquees for one minute at show time.

Steve McNair


Steve McNair

February 14, 1973 – July 4, 2009

After starring collegiately at little known Alcorn State in Mississippi, McNair was drafted third overall by the Houston Oilers in 1995 and became their starting quarterback in 1997 (after the Oilers had moved to Tennessee and become the Titans). McNair proved wrong all the Division I college coaches who wanted him to play defense, starting for the remainder of his 13-year NFL career. During that time, McNair led five teams to the playoffs and started in the Super Bowl for the Titans in 2000. A three-time Pro Bowler, McNair was the NFL’s co-MVP in 2003. McNair's death was one of the most unexpected on The Top 13, as he was murdered by his mistress, who then killed herself.

Brittany Murphy


Brittany Murphy

November 10, 1977 – December 20, 2009

Murphy's death yesterday – like McNair's earlier this year – was completely unexpected. Just 32 years old, Murphy had three films in post-production, including Sylvester Stallone's upcoming action orgy, The Expendables, as well as her long-standing gig voicing the role of Luanne Platter on the animated sitcom King of the Hill. Murphy - best known for her career-making role in Clueless and her parts in Girl, Interrupted and 8 Mile - was in the news last month amid reports that she had been fired from a film she had started shooting in Puerto Rico. Initial reports indicated that she died from cardiac arrest, but a police investigation was opened to determine her cause of death.

Robert McNamara


Robert McNamara

June 9, 1916 – July 6, 2009

Best known for his tenure as Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961 to 1968, McNamara will forever be linked to the war in Vietnam. McNamara, who in 1960 became the first president of Ford Motor Co. from outside the Ford family, was credited with leading Ford’s expansion during his lengthy career with the automaker. But it was his role as architect of the American strategy in Vietnam that made McNamara a household name. McNamara, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom after leaving government service, was back in the news earlier this decade after the release of the Academy Award winning documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.

Les Paul


Les Paul

June 9, 1915 – August 12, 2009

While few people probably ever have heard of Lester Polsfuss, anyone who has ever picked up a guitar knows Polsfuss by his stage name, Les Paul. Credited with numerous innovations that "made the sound of rock and roll possible," Paul was a virtuoso jazz guitarist who in the early 1940s created "the log," which was the first solid-body electric guitar. Paul, who continued to play his Monday night residency at the Iridium in New York City until June, is one of just a few artists with a permanent, stand-alone exhibit in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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Comments Leave a comment

stillathreat ★★

Michael over Ted Kennedy? In terms of impact? I don't see it.

5:58 AM   Dec 21, 2009


Michael's impact reaches far beyond the USA. He absolutely deserves #1.

6:35 AM   Dec 21, 2009


Agreed with David.

9:55 AM   Dec 21, 2009

KungFuJay ★★

Billy Mays, not here!

9:14 AM   Dec 21, 2009


Yeah, I would have taken Billy Mays over Murphey.

9:56 AM   Dec 21, 2009


Billy Mays was actually on this list until Murphy's death.

10:08 AM   Dec 21, 2009


RIP McNair :(
well, RIP everyone on this list, but Steve was closest to the heart for me.

10:30 AM   Dec 21, 2009

ajay ★★

Geez, nine of these were in June-August.

10:36 AM   Dec 21, 2009


A cruel summer, indeed.

2:50 PM   Dec 21, 2009


I'll go the other way with it and say Kennedy's rated way too high. He's the Dennis Erickson of the Kennedy family.

1:34 PM   Dec 21, 2009


Just realized... David Carradine is not here! I would suggest him instead of Billy Mays over Brittany Murphy.

5:05 PM   Dec 22, 2009


Most depressing list ever....and Kim Peek just died today too :(

Though I would put DJ AM on there just out of novelty for the fact he had just launched a show about getting people back on track.

10:15 PM   Dec 22, 2009


And Vic Chesnutt yesterday! A bad year...

11:34 AM   Dec 26, 2009


Not to mention William Safire, Frank McCourt, Dom Deluise, Jack Kemp, Natasha Richardson, Ricardo Montalban, and Patrick McGoohan. RIP.

1:08 PM   Jan 13, 2010

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