Movies & TV / Columns

Was 2016 the Worst Year for Celebrity Deaths?

December 31, 2016 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Carrie Fisher

“The internet has made celebrity kind of meaningless” -Bret Easton Ellis

We’ll get back to this quote in a moment. For now, let’s take a look at some of the notable celebrity deaths of 2016.

Alan Rickman
René Angélil
David Bowie
Pat Harrington Jr.
Paul Kantner
Dan Haggerty
Glenn Frey
Abe Vigoda
Joe Alaskey
Maurice White
Dave Mirra
Edgar Mitchell
George Gaynes
Angela “Big Ang” Raiola
Sonny James
Harper Lee
Umberto Eco
Tony Burton
George Kennedy
Lee Reherman
Joey Feek
Nancy Reagan
George Martin
Pat Conroy
Phife Dawg
Frank Sinatra Jr
Keith Emerson
Garry Shandling
Joe Garagiola
Rob Ford
Patty Duke
Mother Mary Angelica
Erik Bauersfeld
Jim Harrison
David Gest
Les Waas
Doris Roberts
Merle Haggard
Michelle McNamara
Papa Wemba
Billy Paul
Afeni Shakur Davis
Jane Little
Emilio Navaira
Morley Safer
Alan Young
Guy Clark
Nick Menza
Theresa Saldana
Kimbo Slice
Muhammad Ali
Christina Grimmie
Gordie Howe
Anton Yelchin
Ron Lester
Bernie Worrell
Ralph Stanley
Scotty Moore
Buddy Ryan
Bill Cunningham
Elie Wiesel
Pat Summitt
Abbas Kiarostami
Noel Neill
Michael Cimino
Rev. Tim LaHaye
Garry Marshall
David Huddleston
Miss Cleo
Kenny Baker
Barry Jenner
Fyvush Finkel
Pete Fountain
John McLaughlin
Toots Thielemans
Matt Roberts
Lou Pearlman
Juan Gabriel
Sonia Rykiel
Steven Hill
Jon Polito
Jerry Heller
Gene Wilder
Greta Zimmer Friedman
Lady Chablis
W.P. Kinsella
Edward Albee
Alexis Arqueete
Bill Nunn
Curtis Hanson
Shawty Lo
José Fernández
Tommy Ford
Arnold Palmer
Steve Dillon
Leonard Cohen
Leon Russell
Robert Vaughn
Gwen Ifill
Holly Dunn
Sharon Jones
Florence Henderson
Fidel Castro
Ron Glass
Janet Reno
Grant Tinker
Greg Lake
John Glenn
Joseph Mascolo
E.R. Braithwaite
Alan Thicke
Craig Sager
China Machado
Zsa Zsa Gabor
George Michael
Ricky Harris
Richard Adams
Barbara Tarbuck
Carrie Fisher
Debbie Reynolds

Quite a cast of names. While you may not recognize them all, each achieved a level of celebrity-hood in fields of acting, music, politics, or music. 2016 certainly felt like a bad year for celebrity deaths. With the definition of “celebrity” being so broad, it seems we don’t go too long before we see another beloved famous person’s death being reported.

While I tried to list as many of the notable deaths as possible, I’m sure I missed a handful. On the opposite side, many of you would probably leave off some people on the list, as your definition of celebrity differs from mine. Media outlets are the same and operate under different guidelines. The Los Angeles Times reported 91 “leaders, stars and other notable figures who died in 2016,” while CBS News listed more than 150.

But was 2016 really the worst year on record? Looking at this chart, it doesn’t look like it. But numbers can be deceiving.

 photo Death-Chart_zpsusb9gbkx.jpg

The reporting of celebrity deaths has become big business for the media. It gets viewers and hits. The bigger the celebrity, the bigger the attention news outlets receive. Take a look at social media when someone famous dies. This past week my timeline was filled with articles on George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds.

We also have to take into account the prominent deaths 2016 had. Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Garry Shandling, George Michael, Carrie Fisher…a large number of beloved and influential people were lost.

When it comes to the level of fame itself, the BBC reported on the topic back in April after the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman, obituary editor Nick Serpell pointed out that today’s audiences are more aware of a larger number of celebrities. “There are also more famous people than there used to be,” he says. “In my father or grandfather’s generation, the only famous people really were from cinema — there was no television. Then, if anybody wasn’t on TV, they weren’t famous.”

Which is true. Since the 1970s, the celebrity news machine has broken away from being controlled by the studio system and become a money maker for celebrity tabloids. People Magazine was launched in 1974 and we’ve never looked back.

“As the celebrity industry got more and more decentralized and there were more and more outlets for celebrity information, there were more avenues for people to be visible and be talked about,” said Joshua Gamson, a sociologist of celebrity culture at the University of San Francisco. “If there’s a sense of more famous people dying, that’s partly because there’s a phenomenon of more celebrity supply from a certain period of time that is now reaching middle age and late middle age.”

At the end of the day, statistics and quotes from experts are just numbers and words. We mourn celebrity deaths because of what they mean to us; for the memories they’ve given us through their talent. They are a piece of our childhood and adulthood; they’ve made us laugh and cry. They influenced us and entertained us. Everyone dies and while it might seem trivial to some to mourn a celebrity, it’s quite natural.

A big thank you to those who passed in 2016; for their work, their light,and talent. Have a safe and Happy New Year!