Bad News Comes in Threes Fours

What a weekend: I lost not one or two, thought it was three, but, sadly, it turned out to be four beloved favorite artists in what feels like one especially cruel fell swoop.

First, there’s the amazing Don Knotts, who died of lung cancer last Friday at the age of 81. As The Andy Griffith Show‘s Deputy Barney Fife and as a host of film characters including the man-turned-fish Mr. Limpet, the award-winning actor made it clear that so-called nebbishes were people of worth. That was an important message for this lifelong dork and no doubt for many others. And he was flat-out funny in a way that few TV comics even approach today.

It was so touching to see Andy Griffith on Today this morning. Knotts was Griffith’s best friend for about 50 years, and his grief was painfully visible. My prayers go out to him and to all mourning the loss of this amazingly talented funnyperson.

I’m also mourning the character actor Darren McGavin, who was 83 when he reportedly died from natural causes last Saturday. Mass audiences recall his 1983 performance as the grumpy dad in the film A Christmas Story, but to me, he will always be Carl Kolchak, the failed crime reporter who hunted vampires in the TV-movie and series The Night Stalker. Man, I loved that show and its mix of suspense and comedy; it’s hard to believe it left the air more than 30 years ago.

McGavin went on to enjoy a long career doing TV guest spots and film roles, and even worked alongside Don Knotts in 1976’s No Deposit, No Return and 1978’s Hot Lead and Cold Feet. He was a strong proponent of quality television with fleshed-out characters, and in speaking out on that issue, he made a great contribution to television’s artistic community. He is missed.

As is Octavia E. Butler, the award-winning science-fiction novelist best known for her landmark book Kindred. Butler died early Sunday of an apparent stroke at age 58. This genius writer made the sci-fi genre more diverse through her very existence – she was the first major sci-fi author who was both a woman and African-American – and through her novels’ characters. Even more importantly, Butler, like others in the genre such as Heinlein, Clarke and Vonnegut, made readers think about life’s larger issues. Be sure to check out her other books, among them Parable of the Sower, Parable of Talents) and Fledgling. She was a unique presence in her field, an important voice in the world and, at least for me, a great inspiration. The Earth is a sadder planet without Octavia Butler on it; thank goodness her words and ideas survive.

Finally, and this is a late addition, there is the actor and activist Dennis Weaver, whom I loved in both the television series Gunsmoke and McCloud. The 81-year-old died Friday from cancer at his home in Colorado.

Weaver had a long, successful career in TV that started with the 1952 show Horizons West and ended with last year’s series Wildfire. But he will be best remembered, I think, for playing Gunsmoke‘s lovable Chester and for his 1970s portrayal of US Marshal Sam McCloud (who was – no offense, Chuck Norris – way cooler than Walker, Texas Ranger, if you ask me).

He ought to be remembered by those who love the planet too: In recent years, Weaver devoted himself to social-justice and environmental concerns, founding the nonprofit Institute of Ecolonomics and working to end pollution. If you get the chance, do seek out the Hydrogen Hero’s 1993 documentary Drive to Survive, which champions the use of alternative-fuel vehicles.

Not only did Dennis Weaver entertain us for more than half a century, he worked to make a better, cleaner, safer world. Goddess bless him.

Condolences to all the loved ones and admirers of Octavia Butler, Don Knotts, Darren McGavin and Dennis Weaver. They made a real difference in the lives of millions of people. For that, we owe them thanks, and I wish them all godspeed.

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