A roundup of notable obituaries from the week ending Sept. 7
Burt Reynolds, 82, had a way of being underestimated, even when he was being immortalized in song. In Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch,” Reynolds is inscribed in the automotive pantheon almost as an afterthought, following James Dean and the bootlegger Junior Johnson. “Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans Am,” Springsteen allows, might show up at that song’s titular automotive Valhalla.
It’s fitting and consoling to imagine that he’s there now. Reynolds, who died suddenly Thursday, in Florida, may not have lived up to his full potential as an actor — he often said so himself — but he was one of the great drivers in American popular culture. This isn’t a minor accomplishment.
A self-mocking charmer with laugh-crinkled dark eyes, a rakish mustache and a hairy chest that he often bared on-screen, Reynolds was ranked among the top 10 movie draws worldwide, and from 1978 through 1982 he ruled the box office as few, if any, stars had done before.
In 1972, the Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown asked Reynolds to become the magazine’s first male nude centerfold. “Why?” he asked her. “Because,” she said, “you’re the only one who could do it with a twinkle in your eye.” And he did.
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Richard DeVos, 92, the billionaire co-founder of direct-selling giant Amway, owner of the Orlando Magic and father-in-law of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, died Thursday at his home in Ada, Michigan. The cause was complications from an infection.
Christopher Kennedy Lawford, 63, the actor born into political and Hollywood nobility who turned his recovery from drug addiction into a career as a public-health advocate and best-selling author, died of a heart attack Tuesday in Vancouver, B.C. Lawford, whose mother was Patricia Kennedy, a sister of John F. Kennedy, and whose father was Peter Lawford, the British-born actor, had parts in television programs including “Frasier” and “The O.C.,” as well as in films including “Terminator 3.” He described his struggle with addiction in the books “Symptoms of Withdrawal,” “Moments of Clarity” and “Recover to Live.”
Barbara Bailey, 74, whose bookshop Bailey/Coy Books was a hub of literary and community activity on Capitol Hill for more than two decades, died Sept. 1. The cause was a stroke.
An avid reader, Bailey came to bookselling after a varied career that included the Peace Corps and a stint as a juvenile parole officer. While living in Sun Valley, Idaho, she took a job at a small bookstore, loved it and bought the place. Upon returning to her hometown of Seattle, she became one of the first leaseholders in the then brand-new Rainier Square downtown, where she opened B. Bailey Books in 1977. With Michael Coy, she opened a bigger shop on Broadway in 1982. It would soon be named Bailey/Coy Books. Bailey retired from the book business and sold the shop in 2003.
Beyond books, she dedicated her energy to numerous causes such as equal rights and marriage equality, always in touch with local communities.
Randy Weston, 92, an esteemed pianist whose music and scholarship advanced the argument — now broadly accepted — that jazz is, at its core, an African music, died Sept. 1 at his home in New York.
Early on, he exhibited a distinctive voice as a composer, his sharply cut harmonies and intense, gnarled rhythms conveying a manifestly Afrocentric sensibility, going further than the bebop of the time. Weston firmly believed that “whether you say jazz or blues or bossa nova or samba, salsa — all these names are all Africa’s contributions to the Western hemisphere. If you take out the African elements of our music, you would have nothing.”
Carole Shelley, 79, who played one of the bubbly Pigeon sisters in the stage, screen and television versions of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” and won a Tony Award in 1979 for portraying a woman who develops an emotional connection to the disfigured title character in “The Elephant Man,” died Aug. 31 at her home in Manhattan. The cause was cancer.
Shelley, who was born in London and began her theater career there, strove to convey complexity, even in characters who might appear shallow, like Gwendolyn Pigeon. “The Elephant Man,” which opened on Broadway in 1979, gave Shelley her dramatic breakthrough, as Madge Kendal. Shelley’s performance won her the Tony for best leading actress in a play. Recently, she made her mark with a less sympathetic character in the musical “Wicked,” playing Madame Morrible who pushes Elphaba to turn into the Wicked Witch of the West.
Peter Frame, 61, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer who became a mentor to young dancers, died Aug. 30, after leaping from his apartment window on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, police said. He left a note and police ruled it as a suicide. His death came a day after Paul Taylor — a renowned modern-dance choreographer — died of renal failure.
A highlight of his career came in 1986 when Frame — then a soloist with the New York City Ballet — was selected to restage a rare piece of George Balanchine choreography. It was originally performed by Paul Taylor in “Episodes,” a 1959 collaboration between Balanchine and Martha Graham set to the music of Anton Webern. Twenty-five years later, Taylor revived the solo and taught it to Frame.
Frame relished his chance to work with Taylor, whom he described as relaxed and attentive to him. “It was like planting a seed and nurturing it,” he said in the 1986 interview. “He made me feel comfortable with myself, which is so important here.”
James A. Mirrlees, 82, who taught himself calculus as a teenager, became a college professor when he was 32 and received a Nobel award for solving one of government’s greatest economic challenges — how to get taxpayers to pony up their fair share — died Aug. 29 at his home in Cambridge, England. The cause was a brain tumor.
Mirrlees, who taught at both the University of Cambridge and Oxford University, shared the 1996 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with William Vickrey, of Columbia University, for their research into decision-making, which they had conducted independent of each other.