Remembering some of America’s Sensational Personalities

The famous, the near-famous, the once-famous seem to pass on in threes and fours, and so we will note the passing of a group of disparate folks who enriched our lives, made their names, made us stand up and take notice.

We give you a Dodge City marshal, an edgy jazz musician, a secretary of state, and Doctor Death himself. We give you James Arness, Gil-Scott Herron, Lawrence Eagleburger and Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

JAMES ARNESS Back in the days of my growing-up youth in a small town in Ohio, my step-father, who was a Serbian immigrant, didn’t spend much time watching television. Except for on two occasions: we would watch the Cleveland Indians battle the New York Yankees together, and every Saturday night, we watched “Gunsmoke,” in which James Arness, the hefty, 6 foot, 7 inch actor would open the show by gunning down the same hapless gunslinger in the streets of Dodge City.
Dad liked westerns, and so did I and “Gunsmoke,” once a hugely popular radio show, was one of the longest-running series on television ever—it stayed a fixture on CBS for 20 years along with Marshall Dillon, Milburn Stone as the Doc, Amanda Blake, as Kitty who ran the saloon, and Dennis Weaver as a limping deputy. It was the first so-called “adult” western—meaning that people actually got killed and stayed down instead of being knocked out by Roy Rogers or the Lone Ranger in a fist-fight. It was full of character and characters, and Arness cast the biggest shadow of all.

I would guess they will be tempted to put Marshall Dillon on the tombstone; it’s what made him famous although he did play the Thing in “The Thing,” an outer space monster movie of the 1950’s. His brother was Peter Graves of “Mission Impossible” who died last year. Arness was 88.

Even in the world of jazz which attracts outsiders, gifted and wounded geniuses, and outspoken personalities, Gil-Scott Heron was something else. Only 62 when he died, he was as much a prophet as a musician who came out of the angry-young-black-man milieu of the 1960’s, a full-of-fury percussionist who pre-staged rap and spoke word music.
He was also deeply political, deeply troubled, a composer who wrote songs like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” and, more recently, “Who Will Survive in America?” He was also a poet, the author of a mystery novel called “The Vulture” and a man who battled various addictions most of his life.

Not everyone spends a lifetime in his chosen field and career path, especially at the level of national service, especially in the State Department. But Lawrence Eagleburger did, serving 40 years as a foreign policy adviser and official, working with a variety of presidents, and acting often as a foreign affairs troubleshooter.
He was not of the elegant school of diplomacy—he was rumored to have a bark and bite approach, never seemed to find a suit that fit him perfectly. But he was also the classic professional whom his superiors trusted with delicate tasks. He was a top aide to Henry Kissinger and became Secretary of State under President George Bush (the first) after the departure of James Baker.
Eagleburger was a frequent adviser on Balkan issues, which became a hotbed after the implosion of Yugoslavia into warring states.

The man who became famous for advocating (and performing) doctor-assisted suicides of terminal patients died himself recently, unassisted, if not untended. People were frequently put off by Kevorkian who many felt sensationalized the end-of-life and death-with-dignity controversies that followed him and that he sometimes publicized and gave a public face: himself.
But his methods, including a self-constructed suicide machine which he used with patients and which was crude and sometimes not entirely effective, did eventually lead to the death-with-dignity legislation. He was polarizing, controversial and perhaps self-serving dubbed “Doctor Death,” but he did go to prison for eight years doing what was then illegal but is no longer.

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