At the end of every year, Hollywood buzzes with predictions for who will win Oscars or which picture made the most money. But Hollywood also takes a more somber tone and looks back at the lives and careers of the stars we lost. Though we lost many more than can this list conveys, here are seven of the most notable celebrity deaths of 2011.
1. Elizabeth Taylor – 1932-2011
She was the most enduring of Hollywood’s classic stars. With the possible exception of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor defined the grace and glamour of Old Hollywood. Taylor began as a child performer who blossomed in 1944’s National Velvet and started to come of age in 1950’s Father of the Bride. After reaching full bloom opposite Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant, she earned Academy Award nominations for Raintree Country, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer, before winning on her fourth try for Butterfield 8. Of course, Taylor was as famous for her many marriages as well as her movies, but none was more noted than her turbulent relationship with Richard Burton. The pair starred together in a number of films, most notoriously in the financially disastrous Cleopatra. Taylor won her second Oscar opposite Burton in the vitriolic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Following 1967’s Taming of the Shrew Taylor’s career slowly wound down, and eventually gave way to humanitarian causes and persistent rumors of illness. She died in March after a long battle with heart disease and left behind a legacy that few, if any could match.
2. Susannah York – 1939-2011
A prominent English actress of stage and screen, Susannah York started her career in British with her debut in Tunes of Glory opposite Alec Guinness and John Mills, before going to Hollywood to star alongside Montgomery Clift in 1962’s Freud: The Secret Passion. Her leading performance in the highly acclaimed adaptation Henry Fielding’s literary classic Tom Jones helped make her a star, while late in the decade she earned critical praise for her performances in The Killing of Sister George and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? The latter earned her an Oscar nomination, which she famously declared was an offense because she wasn’t asked to receive the honor. She went on to play the titular Jane Eyre and earned further acclaim for her performance as a woman struggling with mental illness in Robert Altman’s Images. Her most popular role was playing the Man of Steel’s Krypton mother in Superman: The Movie and Superman II. York finished out her career on television and the stage in the 1990s and the new millennium, and delivered her final performances in 2010. Susannah York died in January after losing her battle with advanced bone marrow cancer. She was 72 years old.
3. Cliff Robertson – 1923-2011
A former merchant marine who saw action in the Pacific theater during World War II, Cliff Robertson turned to acting following a brief career as a journalist. He began performing on Broadway before landing film roles in Picnic, The Naked and the Dead, and Gidget, where he played the Big Kahuna opposite Sandra Dee. Robertson was personally handpicked by President John F. Kennedy for the lead in P.T. 109, which depicted Kennedy’s naval command during World War II. But it was his heartbreaking performance as a mentally challenged man who briefly experiences life with increased intelligence in 1968’s Charly that earned him an Academy Award and made him a star. The role defined Robertson for the rest of his career. Following prominent supporting roles in Sydney Pollack’s masterful Three Days of the Condor and Brian De Palma’s ode de Hitchcock Obsession, Robertson was blacklisted after he exposed an embezzlement scheme conducted by Columbia Pictures head, David Begelman. The actor struggled to find quality roles, but enjoyed a brief resurgence playing Uncle Ben Parker in Spider-Man. Robertson died of natural causes in September just one day after his 88th birthday.
4. Jane Russell – 1921-2011
Better known for her statuesque figure than her talents as a dramatic actress, Jane Russell defined what it meant to be a sex symbol in the 1940s and 1950s. Russell was introduced by Howard Hughes in the controversial Western, The Outlaw, where she practically burned up the celluloid, and soon capitalized on her image in comedies like The Paleface, film noirs like His Kind of Woman opposite Robert Mitchum, and even musicals like Double Dynamite. A busy year in 1952 saw Russell star in The Las Vegas Story, Son of Paleface and Montana Belle. But it was her ability to hold her own with Marilyn Monroe in Howard Hawk’s hit Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that earned the actress greater respect. That proved to be her career’s high watermark, however, as Russell struggled to find quality parts for the remainder of her career. She developed a successful solo act at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and continued a prominent music career begun in the 1940s, though Russell eventually left Hollywood in the mid-1960s. Her legacy lived on, however, and she died in February from a respiratory illness at her home in Santa Maria, CA.
5. Peter Falk – 1927-2011
Though permanently etched in our collective consciousness as television’s rumpled Lt. Columbo, Peter Falk had a long and vibrant screen career that counted a number of classics. In just his second film, Murder, Inc., Falk earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles, the most feared hit man of the notorious mob syndicate. He was in contention again for his supporting turn in Frank Capra’s final picture, Pocketful of Miracles, and appeared alongside the likes of Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle and Ethel Merman in the caper comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Falk began a fruitful collaboration with director and friend, John Cassavetes, who offered the actor a wider palette in 1970’s Husbands and 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence. By the 1970s, Falk’s Columbo was well-known and he delivered a fine send-up of the character as Sam Diamond in the spoof Murder by Death. Following a sharp comedic turn in The In-Laws, he mixed it up between television and film for the remainder of his career, and was memorable as the grandfather who reads his unwilling grandson a fairy tale in The Princess Bride. Falk suffered from dementia in his final years and died from cardiac arrest this past June.
6. Sidney Lumet – 1924-2011
Over the course of six decades, director Sidney Lumet helmed numerous classic movies that also became cultural touchstones. Lumet started as an actor, but quickly moved to directing off-Broadway productions and television. He made an auspicious debut in features with 12 Angry Men, and soon went on to direct some of Hollywood’s biggest stars: Henry Fonda in Stage Struck, Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind and Katharine Hepburn in Lond Day’s Journey into Night. After directing Rod Steiger in his acclaimed drama The Pawnbroker, Lumet had mild successes with The Deadly Affair and Bye Bye Braverman. But the 1970s became the decade where he produced his finest work, starting with the classic crime drama, Serpico, starring Al Pacino as an honest cop battling corrupt fellow officers. Lumet directed a fine adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, starring Albert Finney, Sean Connery and Lauren Bacall, before reuniting with Pacino on another crime classic, Dog Day Afternoon. His finest decade culminated with the Oscar-winning satire, Network, which also became one of 1976’s biggest hits. Lumet ended the 1970s on a low note with The Whiz, but went on to make movies well into his 80s and ended it all with the excellent crime thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Lumet passed in April from a battle with lymphoma and left behind a stunning body of work.
7. Jackie Cooper – 1922-2011
Jackie Cooper’s popularity as a child actor was eclipsed only by Shirley Temple. He started acting at three years old and was a member of Hal Roach’s Our Gang, becoming one of the first major characters during the series’ transition to sound. In 1931, Cooper became the youngest-ever performer to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar with his performance in Skippy, and went on to win hearts in classics by Wallace Beer like The Champ, The Bowery and Treasure Island. By this time, he was a childhood superstar far removed from Our Gang. But he had problems making the transition to more adult roles in his adolescent years and was no longer the baby-faced performer of years past. He co-starred opposite Henry Fonda in the Western The Return of Frank James, and appeared alongside James Stewart and Judy Garland in Ziegfeld Girl. With his child stardom on the wane, Copper served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, advancing to the rank of captain. He returned stateside to tour the U.S. as Ensign Pulver in Mr. Roberts and began appearing on television. Cooper entered the business side of Hollywood in the 1960s and served as vice president of Screen Gems TV at Columbia Pictures, before returning to acting in character roles and directing television. He played editor Perry White in Superman: The Movie and announced his retirement in 1989 to raise horses. Cooper died of natural causes in May at 88 years old.