When Our Heroes Die: Grieving On-Screen Strangers

 

It has been a terrible year.

I have a background in theatre and I tended to compete with the actors I saw on stage or screen, wondering how or if the “job” could be better. Three of my theatre/acting/film heroes have died this year. These 3 kings, I like to say, (Robin, Philip, and Harold) have crushed me in every competition I have tried to will myself into creating when I watch their work. There is no way I could have voiced a better Genie, portrayed a more flawless Capote, or even come close to writing a script like Stripes. I just learned to not compete after a certain amount of time, and thus began to idolize these prolific Hollywood juggernauts.

imagesThe day I found out that Harold Ramis died my best friend called me in a frantic mess. A normally cheerful, jovial guy, he spoke to me in a somber and depressed tone, and told me what we needed to do: “We’re eating pizza, drinking beer, and watching Ghostbusters tonight. You have no other options.” He was grieving, and he was reaching out. He knew of my love for Harold’s movies, and though I did not grow up watching them like he did, he knew that being surrounded by people who respected his work would offer solace.

When I heard about Robin Williams’  death, I was shocked – utterly and completely caught off guard. A man who has made me laugh countless times in his stand-up, his movie roles, and an unprecedented amount of talk-show appearances, was just suddenly wiped away. I mean, the Genie, THE GENIE FROM ALADDIN3834561_std was gone. I had hoped to someday meet the man who had me rolling on the ground in circles with laughter from the time I was 5, but I had to say goodbye. In the past few weeks, I have watched every standup, every interview, and most of all every tribute I could find on YouTube. I find my self coping with the grief of someone I’ve never met, and even shed a few tears as I watched him throw his head back and howl with laughter at something David Letterman said.

seymour-hoffman

 

 

I saved Philip for last, because this is the one that hurt. I started to idolize him when I was about 15, just as my love for theatre and film were entering their adolescence. I was not shocked by his death (I knew of his bouts with substance abuse), but I also was not ready for his death. I was not ready for my plans to see future movies starring him to be taken away. I wasn’t ready for the endless talent that he portrayed on screen, and his effortless portrayals of such prolific characters, to be lost in a chasm of depression and pain. On my way home from work, I did not cry, I wept. I wept for my hero, I wept for his family, I wept for the joy I experienced when watching his movies. I heavily grieved for a complete stranger for a good 72 hours.

Say what you will about celebrity exposure, but I feel some of it has pushed us in the right direction. They create experiences for us on screen that in some way, we feel we’ve experienced with them. Despite the fact that many of us never meet our on-screen friends, there is a relationship that exists between the actor and his audience and we shouldn’t undervalue that.

If you feel the need to grieve a stranger-hero of yours, whether they were on-screen, an author, an athlete, or musician – grieve them. Leave flowers at their star on Hollywood Boulevard, watch your favorite clips, or read your favorite quotes. Take time – they effected your life and they deserve the goodbyes we give them.

 

Rest in peace, Egon.Egon

 Genie, you’re free.Genie

Philip, thank you for your inspiration.PSH

Michael

About Michael

I started working for O’Connor Mortuary in December of 2012. At first I was working as a part-time service assistant just as a second job, but soon I found that I had fallen in love with process of a memorial service and the staff I work with. I was recently hired to a full-time position, and I'm now a Service Director. On my time off I enjoy playing softball, disc golf, and spending time with friends.
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  • Fitz

    Hey Michael,

    It is tough when someone we idolize dies. It doesn’t matter if you know them personally or not. With the different outlets of exposure (TV, Internet, etc) and with the ability to have access to them over and over at any time, those we idolize for their talents become part of our lives. When they are taken away, it’s like we’ve lost a friend. Grieving their loss is normal and expected.
    Thanks for the blog.

    Fitz

    • Michael Thomas

      Thanks Fitz. Hey! You were first comment!

      I tend to idolize a lot of people by either their talent, humor, or good works. We have plenty of it here at the mortuary, and I’m glad to say I look up to a lot of people here, like yourself. Keep up the good work!

  • Michael I love this blog. Bryce and I were watching Sherlock (the new BBC one) and there was a suicide scene that happened the moment Bryce got the text saying that Robin Williams had died. I couldn’t believe it – I felt like I was in shock and then I just fell into tears. We immediately found interviews, started listing our favorite movies of his and grew even sadder as we realized the impact, joy and wonder he had brought to our lives since we were little and, like you, watching Aladdin and laughing so hard. We later watched the Birdcage – one of his less conventional roles and one of my favorites.

    When the “World of Color” show is going at Disneyland the best part is always the Genie’s song, people dance like crazy and all of the parents there are my age showing their kids the hilarity of the Genie.

    Thank you so much for sharing this Michael, I needed a place to just share my grief story and I have to thank you for sharing yours and giving me the opportunity.

    Molly

    • Michael Thomas

      Thank you Molly for sharing. You and I are close in age, and I’m sure experienced the same angst just sitting and waiting to watch Alladin rub the lamp. Because thats when the fun started! I’m going to miss that man and my favorite characters deeply.

  • Anne

    Michael,
    One of your talents is the beautiful way you express yourself.

    Of the 3, the only one I really followed myself was Robin Williams.

    Talent used to make us feel, see and touch what the actor is portraying is a gift we all admire. To walk out of a theatre and for a few minutes, wonder where you are and how you got there is the ultimate tribute to those on the screen. Then to find yourself quoting the famous lines: “You could never be chocolate!…But I want to be chocolate!!, “Come Home, Shane!”, “Good night, John-Boy, Good night, Mary Beth, Good night, Mama” etc, etc, etc brings home how much they affect our lives.
    Yes, we do grieve our stars. Each in our own way. My grandson totally spiraled over Philip.
    May you continue to touch lives for good, whether or not you ever reach your goal of being as good as your screen idols.
    Love,
    Annie

    • Michael Thomas

      Thank you Annie. “Oh Captain, My Captain.” from Dead Poets Society sticks in my head like glue. That and “You ain’t never had a friend like me!”

      I also have the Happy Days theme run through my head every once in a while. Weird, right?

  • Becky Finch Lomaka

    Hi Michael,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog! Even if we have never personally met our entertainment and sports icons, they are still very much a part of our lives and the grief we feel when they die is very real. Thank you for acknowledging this grief and giving us a place to share our memories.

    John and I loved all three of these actors too. We have spent many evenings re-watching some of their classic movies and quoting some of their best one-liners. We even remember when Robin Williams first appeared on Happy Days!

    Thanks for sharing your insights and your own grief over the loss of these three great men.

    Becky

    • Michael Thomas

      I saw that video of him! it was awesome!
      Look up his first appearance on the Jonny Carson show. It is seriously one of the greatest things you can watch that perfectly honors him.

  • Stacy

    Great blog Michael 🙂 I can definitely relate to experiencing grieving the loss of musicians for the most part. Music has played a significant role in my life practically since I can remember! Layne Staley (Alice In Chains) and Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) are among some of the more tragic deaths in the history of music (there’s plenty others that could be named) but these two gifted talents came to mind because they are some of my favorite bands and I grew up listening to their music. Wonderfully written blog once again… and yeah I too was taken back by Robin’s death. Genie is free, so true!

    • Michael Thomas

      I hurt for the loss of Jeff Buckley. I feel that a whole new era and genre of music was lost when he passed. He wrote some truly amazing songs and also performed a remake of one of the most beautiful gospel songs ever written, and NAILED IT. I imagine my life is going to change when Eddie Vedder meets his end.

  • Mitch

    Great blog, Michael.
    It is amazing to grieve for someone we don’t know. I think we identify with some of the characters they play and make “personal” connections with them. Their deaths have left a void in the world and an emotional loss not being able to experience their work.
    Thanks Michael

    • Michael Thomas

      I feel like I have to grieve. I mean it should be easy to move on from, but every once in a while I still hurt when I see a picture or see a movie in the HBO guide. It really is an amazing phenomenon.

  • Chuck Ricciardi

    Michael,

    Thank you for opening up and sharing with us. When we are vulnerable with each other the walls come down and mutual trust and respect replace it. We certainly can feel connected with actors and sports figures and other people we have never met. Now with the internet and smart phones none of them are far away and are as close as a couple strokes of a key or screen. When we grieve it is because of a lost relationship, so when we have relationships with actors though out our life it is normal for us to grieve when they die. We feel a connection and that connection is now broken. I was seven when my Dad’s favorite baseball player Roberto Clemente died in that awful plane crash in 1972. I remember his anguish even as a little boy, my Dad had never met him but felt a connection. We just lost another comedic and television icon in Joan Rivers. Hopefully these losses will remind us to appreciate what we have when we have it and to not take anything for granted.

    Chuck

    • Michael Thomas

      I feel like something from my history of acting and performing has gone missing. Its incredible how impacted you might be by someone and not noticing it until they are gone. Even someone who was a complete stranger.

  • Carrie Bayer

    Michael, it’s very interesting that this blog right when another star died. I think it’s very fitting for the occasion. I was affected by Robin Williams’ death- it was so unexpected. We tend to think of stars as immortal or invincible. But, they are just like us. They, too will die one day. Thank you for this wonderful blog. Carrie

    • Michael Thomas

      How I wish they could be invincible. The next big hit that my heart will take is when Gene Wilder passes. That guy better be getting organ replacements!

  • Erin Fodor

    Michael,

    Great Blog choice. I can hear the genie talking in my head now. “Three wishes, to be exact. And ixnay on the wishing for more wishes. That’s all.” So hard to believe he’s gone! How wonderful it is that we can still have experiences with them through the movies they have left us with. They’re gone but not forgotten.

    • Michael Thomas

      My favorite line is “Tell her, the, TRUUUUUTTTTHHHH!”

      I also had his song running through my head for about a week after he passed. I still can’t help but smile when I think of it!

  • Joe Lavoie

    Michael , thanks so much for sharing all three of the men will be remembered by their many talents and will be missed as we all will be one day. We connect to stars like we know them just as we look at them as being part of our family as we have been entertained by their many talents for years so the connection is strong so when they do die it has at times a very lasting effect. Thanks again for the blog Michael .

    Joe Lavoie

    • Michael Thomas

      Robin Williams has been part of our family for a really long time now, and everyone in our family took a big hit when he passed. Alladin and Mrs. Doubtfire are going to continue to be some of our favorites for a really long time.

  • Neil

    Michael – It always seems like our heroes go before us. I think that is how life is designed, to me, it is like someone is trying to tell us something. I love the passion you have for your acting heroes. Movies and acting are the best way to learn, escape, laugh, cry and have your emotions displayed in a group of total strangers in the dark. Life is short and we all have gifts to give, for some of us we give and then we have to go, that is the bitter sweetness of having heroes. I am glad that you have taken time to share your grief and thoughts in this blog, I love knowing where you are coming from. Great job Michael, keep the passion in your heart fueled.

    • Michael Thomas

      I learned so much from each of these men. How to perform/act/write… Its such a shame that they themselves cannot be here forever, but I am indebted to their work as I watch it over and over again. Thanks neil for your wisdom

  • Kari Lyn Leslie

    Michael,

    I absolutely LOVE this blog. Great job! We have discussed this on many occasions and I know how deeply you feel the loss of each of these extremely talented men. I have always been proud of your choice of heroes. Thank you for sharing from your heart, and I hope that over the years you keep in mind you are in the position to be a hero. You are the oldest grandchild in our family, and you are actively leaving your legacy on your brothers, sisters, and cousins. Keep up the good work!!

    to the moon and back,
    mom

    • Michael Thomas

      I know for a fact you felt the impact of Robin’s passing. I love how we got to share those moments of brilliance he would display in film and stand-up. Its hard to lose such a funny, yet surprisingly human, part of hollywood.

      P.s. I’ll get the genie when its time 🙂

  • Kari Lyn Leslie

    p.s.
    That Genie ornament that you and I have hung on our Christmas tree for the last 20 years has become even more precious. You let me know when, and it grace your Christmas tree for the rest of your life!!

  • Lori

    Michael,

    I love this post! Celebrities have held a special place in my heart over the years because they remind me of time I spent with family or friends enjoying movies or televisions shows. Growing up, we all had staples, those shows we watched every day. I can remember wanting to stay home from school “sick” so I could watch I Love Lucy with my Grandma. When Lucille Ball died, I cried, I mean cried. That is the only celebrity I can recall really crying and grieving for. Of course there was shock for the death of Princess Diana and other unexpected deaths, but Lucy is the one that hit me the hardest.
    Thanks for writing this and sharing your experiences!
    Lori

    • Michael Thomas

      Thank you Lori. Lucy played a big role in my family when i was growing up, and still does today with all the re-runs. Thats another person I would have loved to have met.

  • Rosemary

    Thank you, Michael! This post really hit home and touched me. It always amazes me how celebrities become such a big part of our lives, although we have never met. Robin William’s death was particularly shocking and tragic for me. I just never saw it coming and felt blindsided by his passing. He left a void that will not be easily filled and grieving just seems like the right thing to do.

  • Amy

    Michael,
    I love your passion and ability to share form your heart and soul. There are people who touch us in ways they will never know and we can’t understand. But it happens and we are better for it. Thanks for reminding me that even if you don’t know then personally you still need to grieve for yourself.
    Amy

  • Christopher Iverson

    Michael,

    Thank you for the personal story. The last time I mourned a celebrity was when Chick Hearn died. I lived with him my whole life as a life-long Lakers fan. Connections, however far removed from our real lives, are connections…and we feel them.