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Top Ten List of Celebrities I've Met Who Are Dead (Pt. 2)

This is a continuation of "Top Ten List of Celebrities I've Met Who Are Currently Dead."

(SNN) As I was finishing up my list of ten dead celebrities I’ve met and admire, I realized I should have made it 15 or more. It’s not just that too many greats are dropping like flies, it’s that I’ve been at this gig for a long time.

RUNNER UP. Col. Harlan Sanders. Yup, that smiling face on the bucket of chicken once belonged to a real person. (The smiling face on the current KFC TV ads belongs to comic actor Darrel Hammond).  The real Colonel Sanders had already sold his company by the time I met him.  

I was an aviation writer for the Professional Pilot magazine and went down to Kentucky to do a story about the pilots who flew Kentucky Fried Chicken’s corporate aircraft. As a bonus, I got to interview Sanders, who was still spokesman.  A publicist warned me, “Don’t ask him about the gravy. He doesn’t like how we’ve changed it.” Smartass that I am, my first question was: “What’s the deal with the new gravy?” His answer: “It ain’t fit for a dog.” We got along great for the rest of the interview and when I mentioned my upcoming nuptials, he asked to be invited. He didn’t show up, but he sent a nice gift—not a gravy boat.

5. (Three way Tie) John Belushi/John Candy/Chris Farley. Big men with huge talent taken much too young.  I met John Belushi for the “Animal House” junket in New York City. Most junket interviews are done in hotel rooms. This, for some reason, was in a hotel ballroom. I watched the interviewer ahead of me ask Belushi ,“So it must be fun acting wacky on the big screen, huh?” Belushi didn’t take well to the interviewer or his question. 

Belushi was still steaming when my turn came, so I  said, “Doesn’t that guy know you act for a living?” He vented for about five minutes about how difficult it was earning respect. To my eye he was sober, professional, and proud of his talent. Unfortunately, that changed and he died of a drug overdose at age 33.

John Candy did not like to be interviewed at all. Like so many comic greats, he was painfully shy when not performing. By the time it was my turn to interview him for one movie, he was burned out. I said, “You look like you’d rather be somewhere, anywhere else.” I thought he’d laugh it off. Instead he quickly agreed, explained it was nothing personal, it was something he could not help. Nice guy. Great talent. Bad interview. He died of a heart attack at age 43, ironically while filming his 43rd movie.

Chris Farley: I interviewed the SNL star in a van down by the river. I wish. But Farley could not have been be more cooperative, doing characters he’d played on SNL for me, including his most famous—the motivational instructor who lived in that “van down by the river.” Biggest surprise? When he was in high school, Farley wanted to be a professional football player. Like Belushi, he too died of a drug overdose at age 33.

4. Paul Newman: The first time I met Newman, he saved my life. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I was in an underground garage in a Washington, DC, hotel, when I saw him waiting near the ticket booth. Went over, introduced myself as a local TV critic, told him how much I liked his latest movie, Absence of Malice, and asked what brought him to town. “Oh just a little political work,” he responded.  I told him I was about to interview Howard Rollins for Ragtime. Had Newman seen it yet? He had. “You give him a big wet one on the lips for me,” Newman said. “Tell him I said he was fantastic.” He then suggested I get out of the roadway as a car was approaching. Okay, it was going maybe five MPH, but I’m listing it as “saving my life.” 

I didn’t smooch Rollins—I‘m pretty sure Newman meant that metaphorically--but passed along the accolade which, to say the least, Rollins appreciated.   

3. Jimmy Stewart: I was covering the Hall of Great Western Performers opening in Oklahoma City. Big turnout of cinema gunslingers.  I was near the entrance to the ballroom for the event when I heard Stewart ask a waiter for directions to the men’s room.  The waiter gave him a mumbled reply, leaving the actor with a blank look and a full bladder. 

"I've been there, Mr. Stewart, let me show you where it is,” I said, coming to the rescue. We'd walked about halfway there when I said to him, "You know, I'll probably tell my grandchildren about the day I led Jimmy Stewart to the men's room." He gave me a strange look.

2.  George Burns: He was ninety-three. He had a new book out and was promoting it. Kindly, sweet, attentive.  Off-camera sat his long-time manager and ghostwriter, Irving Fein, an old Hollywood hand who had also managed the late Jack Benny. I knew George Burns hadn’t personally written his book, but I found out during my interview he might not have read it either.  I asked him about his two end-of-day Martinis, written about in the book.

 “Two?  I only had one,” Burns said, then called off camera. “Irving, how many Martinis did you say I drank every day?” Fein answered. “Two, George.” Burns took it in, bought time with a puff on his omnipresent cigar, and answered “Good. From now on I’m drinking two.”  

1. Steve Allen: I idolized Steve Allen.  He was the first host of The Tonight Show; musician, discoverer of new talent, writer of 54 published books, and Emmy & Peabody writer-producer of the Meeting of Minds TV series.

He invented many of the bits later enhanced by David Letterman—who often had him as a guest and credited him on air.  Allen was one of the funniest men ever born, hyper-quick with ad-libs. During one interview I asked him what did he think was his greatest talent, positive it would lead to a conversation about ad-libbing.

“Composing,” Steve answered. Say what? 

 “I don’t consider the ability to do a quick verbal comeback a talent. It’s a weird neural connection in my brain. When someone says 'A', most people would respond with 'B.’ Instead, my brain goes to 'X' or ‘M’ or ‘Z.’ I don’t know why. I can’t rehearse it. I can't work to make it better. Composing music, on the other hand, is a talent I was born with and have developed over the years.” 

I respectfully disagree. There are many composers, but there was only one Steve Allen. 

PHOTOS: Copyright@John "Cork" Corcoran Jr. All Rights Reserved.

DISCLAIMER: The above article is provided for entertainment purposes only. The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the authors of The Sage Entertainment and forum participants on this web site do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the The Sage News Network or the official policies of the The Sage News.
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