By Stacy Jenel Smith
We seemed to lose more than the annual standard share of celebrities in the year 2003. Maybe it was because some of the passings came so unexpectedly.The death of beloved funnyman, gifted actor and baby boomer favorite John Ritter, 54, who collapsed on the set of his "Eight Simple Rules..." sitcom -- and died soon after of a previously-undiagnosed arterial problem -- came as a shock.
So did that of Robert Palmer, 54, the "Addicted to Love" rocker, who died from a heart attack in September.
And the fact that Gregory Hines managed to keep his cancer battle a secret from even some of his closest associates made his passing, at 57, last August, all the more stunning. The multitalented singer-dancer-actor had been working and giving interviews a mere matter of months earlier.
Or maybe it was simply that the year that was, 2003, marked the passing of all too many show business greats:
The legendary Bob Hope, ski slope-nosed icon of 20th-century entertainment -- from radio and movies to television to his many morale boosting Christmas time USO tours, giving troops something to laugh and smile about in war zone after war zone -- died in July, a little less than two months after his 100th birthday. What a legacy.
Hollywood lost movie god and goddess Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn, at ages 87 and 96, respectively. The square-jawed Peck's many towering performances included portrayals of many characters with strong moral and ethical codes -- notably his upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch in 1962's "To Kill a Mockingbird," which won him an Oscar. Finch was named the No. 1 hero in movie history this year, according to a survey by the American Film Institute.
Hepburn, the inimitable Yankee powerhouse who won more Academy Awards for lead roles (four) than anyone else, passed away in June. Ranked the top female star in the AFI's 50 Greatest Movie Legends survey, the long time love of the late great Spencer Tracy was a star to the core.
American music lost its Man in Black, Johnny Cash, 71, to complications from diabetes in September -- but some attributed his passing to a broken heart as well, for his death came just four months after that of his beloved wife June Carter Cash, who died after heart surgery at 73. Cash's heart-touching songs of coal miners, convicts and cowboys are immortal, and with Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon poised to make a Johnny and June film biography, his legend will only grow.
The year 2003 had its share of violent deaths, too, unfortunately. B film actress Lana Clarkson of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" was shot to death at the home of record producer Phil Spector, who has been charged with her murder. Fans of "Jag's" Trevor Goddard were stunned to learn that the very likeable Aussie actor had taken his own life in June with a drug overdose. Jonathan Brandis, the gifted 27-year-old actor who played the super brainy kid on the super submarine in Steven Spielberg's "SeaQuest DSV" -- and more recently had roles in pictures including "Hart's War" -- hanged himself in November. And French actress Marie Trintignant, daughter of Jean-Louis Trintignant, died after five days in a coma, of blows to the head, reportedly inflicted by her rock star boyfriend, Bertrand Cantat.
In 2003 we said farewell to Art Carney, who gave us the unforgettable Norton on "The Honeymooners" -- in a brilliant lifetime that also included being among the troops in the invasion of Normandy in WWII and winning an Oscar for "Harry & Tonto."
Nell Carter, who sang like nobody else on Broadway and television -- in addition to making her mark as an actress and comedienne -- died of complications from diabetes at 54 in January.
Michael Jeter, who won a Tony for "Grand Hotel," an Emmy for "Evening Shade" and the hearts of kids across the land as Mr. Noodle on "Sesame Street" died in March at age 50, just after completing his role in Tom Hanks' upcoming "Polar Express." Jeter announced he was HIV positive back in 1997.
America lost a great hoofer, a charming actor and a delightful gentleman with the passing of Buddy Ebsen, 95, in July. From flicks like "Captain January" through his days as Jed Clampett on "The Beverly Hillbillies" and beyond, Ebsen won the hearts of fans and industry members alike.
And in September, another of Hollywood's golden era singer-dancer actors -- Donald O'Connor -- died of heart failure at 78. His classic "Make 'Em Laugh" number in "Singin' in the Rain" still makes us laugh.
Witty, curmudgeonly and always incisive anchorman, reporter and commentator David Brinkley died at 82 after nearly a half-century as a dominant force in American broadcasting.
Barry White, whose sexy songs set the stage for untold numbers of trysts across the land -- as well as on "Ally McBeal" and other shows -- died at age 58 on the 4th of July of kidney failure.
We also said goodbye to: Bee Gee Maurice Gibb, who died at 53, in January, after abdominal surgery; the well-liked TV and film actor Richard Crenna, who succombed to pancreatic cancer at 76; Fred Rogers, the sweet natured children's television icon best known as Mr. Rogers, who died of stomach cancer at 74; George Miller, the comic who appeared on David Letterman's show a record 56 times, who died at 61 of leukemia.
This year also marked the passings of: comic Buddy Hackett, 78; actor Hume Cronyn, 91; legendary salsa singer Celia Cruz, 78; record producer Sam Phillips, 80; movie tough guy Charles Bronson, 81; singer Warren Zevon, 56; "WKRP in Cincinnati's" Gordon Jump, 71; "The District's" Lynne Thigpen, 54; George Plimpton, 76; "Price is Right" announcer Rod Roddy, 66; Bobby Hatfield of The Righteous Brothers, 63; the great filmmaker Elia Kazan ("On the Waterfront"), 94; "Blow Up" and "Barbarella" actor David Hemmings, 62; jazz/soul artist and Civil Rights activist Nina Simone, 70.
And John Ritter's mother, actress Dorothy Fay Ritter, who had appeared in a number of B-movie Westerns of the 50s, died less than two months after him, in November.