Robin Williams. Heath Ledger. Shirley Temple. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Andy Griffith. Most recently David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Glenn Frey. Most of us have probably never met them or even seen them in any way other than thousands of pixels on a screen, but when celebrities die, it hurts. Some fallen stars leave us depressed and empty for days or even months and spark tributes across social media.
Because we know how the loss hurts, it scares us to think that one day we’ll see another certain celebrity’s name trending on Twitter and know before we click on it what we’ll find: Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken, Michael Caine, Kathy Bates, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger, George Clooney, Carol Burnett, Tom Hanks.
Why do we care that a stranger has died? It’s a question I’ve noticed other bloggers and journalists have pondered lately. Two psychologists in the 1950s offered up the explanation known as parasocial interaction, meaning individual audience members feel as if that person on the screen or that voice coming through the radio or that athlete on the field is speaking directly to or performing expressly for them, therefore resulting in a perceived connection. I have a theory that we care because they aren’t just strangers. They’re Mrs. Doubtfire. They’re Severus Snape. They’re Sheriff Andy Taylor. They sang songs that gave us reassurance when we needed it, or wallowed in a heartbreak that perfectly explained our own at that moment. They made a situation right that we could never fix. They were beacons of love and friendship when we felt ostracized, despised or alone.
They’re artists. They showed us parts of themselves – vulnerability, fear, selfishness, desire – by showing us those parts of others, which in turn made us see those parts in ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether or not their obituary heralds them as “two-time Oscar nominee” or “Grammy award-winning artist;” our admiration, we feel, is more genuine than a statue on the mantel.
I’m sure I haven’t mentioned some of your favorite actors, actresses or musicians who have passed on, but in a way, that’s the beauty of it. Each star I named has meant something to me, is associated with a memory or a feeling. Maybe the first song on the radio right after you got your license was Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Or maybe you and your husband were in a slump in your relationship, until you decided on a whim to go see “Titanic,” and have loved Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio ever since. Perhaps you can’t unsee the grin stretched wide on your toddler’s face when she first watched Judy Garland step into a world of color in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Robin Williams has hit me the hardest of them all. Robin Williams is the reason I love movies. Before I saw “Aladdin,” I watched (on VHS) the teasers Disney put in the previews of their other movies, showing Williams gesticulating wildly and rattling off his endless Rolodex of voices into a studio microphone for the upcoming movie. It was the first time I’d seen an actor lending his voice to a character. I’d never thought about where those voices came from. And this guy, this guy had it. He had a magic touch, I could tell. He knew how to entertain. And as a kid, I didn’t feel like he did those crazy things to patronize me. He understood my kid brain, and he knew what I would like. Genie was my favorite character even before I watched the movie. From then on, film credits fascinated me. I wanted to know everyone in the movie. It was even better when I saw the actors on TV, because then I could identify their faces and watch their other movies. I hungered to see more from these people who could entertain, and I still do. And it was all because of Robin Williams.
The deaths of Bowie; Rickman; Brian Bedford, the voice of the title character in Disney’s “Robin Hood;” Dan Haggerty of “Grizzly Adams” (each of those four from cancer); and Glenn Frey of the Eagles all within the past two weeks have put me in a pensive mood. These entertainers have been snuffed from our screens and stages, regardless of how often they stepped into the limelight throughout their lives. But their deaths have also made me appreciative and eager to snatch up any chance to watch or listen to new material from my favorite stars.
I’m not going to say that a celebrity’s death is like losing a family member, because that’s a little cliche, and you know how I feel about cliches if you’ve read some of my other blog posts. The death of a celebrity like Williams or Rickman is like losing opportunity. The opportunity to see them give the most emotional performance we’ve ever seen. The opportunity to laugh with them when they tell a funny story on The Tonight Show. The opportunity to introduce others to their work and anticipate more material. The opportunity to get their autograph. The opportunity to grow older with them.
The opportunity to say thank you.