For Classic Film Fans, Death is a Way of Life

Chris“This is really the closest thing you get to news in your world,” my girlfriend’s brother said to me the day Christopher Lee’s death was announced.

The passing of a 93-year-old is never a surprise; still, Thursday was a somber day for anyone who loves movies, particularly scary ones. I had cancelled my evening plans in order to participate in a memorial tweet-along of two of the horror legends best-loved films: HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and THE WICKER MAN (1973). But John had another programming suggestion: the NBA playoffs.

“No Cleveland sports team has won a championship since the Browns in ’64!” he said, appalled by my apathy. “This is historic. People are in the streets!”

“Not as historic as the death of Dracula,” I replied, pointing to the posters from four Christopher Lee movies adorning the walls of the apartment I share with his sister.

Of course, anyone who’s seen the classics from Britain’s Hammer Films knows that Dracula dies frequently, sometimes multiple times in the same picture. But you get my meaning, and so did John. Still, he had a very good – and very depressing – point: death is a way of life for old movie buffs.

Last year was the biggest gut punch in recent memory, with Lauren Bacall, Shirley Temple, and Mickey Rooney all retiring to the great backlot in the sky. Even those of a subsequent generation (James Garner, Bob Hoskins, Polly Bergen) are dying off, and if your retro love extends to classic TV, the bad news comes even more frequently (worst of all if you’re a Golden Girls fan.)

I’m reminded that the health status of aging icons is a very touchy subject every time I mention a still-burning star on social media.

“You scared me!” somebody will scold. “I thought they died!”

“Sometimes I write about people who are still alive,” I reply, frustrated with the limitations of my chosen “beat.”

But I should be used to this by now.

When Zeppo Marx died on November 30, 1979 numerous members of my sixth grade class expressed their condolences to me as if a beloved family member had passed away. I hadn’t even heard about it, but somehow they all knew – and, more importantly, they knew how I’d feel about it. I remember that Friday morning 35 years ago like it were yesterday, but most memorable was the hug my teacher gave me as she handed me a present: a book called The Marx Bros: Their World of Comedy. 

“To help you remember him,” said Miss Kruzoff (upon whom I had a huge crush, which only got bigger that day).

Zeppo was 79 when he died, and hadn’t made a movie in 46 years. But there I was, the only 11-year-old kid in America leading his Catholic school class in a memorial prayer for a dead Jewish actor who hadn’t made a movie since 1933.

Back in the present, John’s entreaties fell on deaf ears and the double feature live tweet proceeded as planned. He and his sister watched the Warriors defeat the Cavs at a local sports bar (tying up the series at 2-2), and when Maggie got home we continued the memorial with Freddie Francis’ THE SKULL (1965), in which Lee teams up with frequent partner-in-fright Peter Cushing. (Who is also dead. Of course.)

Within hours of Lee’s death, Turner Classic Movies began broadcasting their memorial montage (pre-cut, apparently, which makes sense). And they’re giving all of us an opportunity to grieve together on June 22 with an eight-film marathon, including five of the Hammer horrors that used to scare the Hell out of me during a period when I was not actually allowed to say “Hell” (because it’s not in the Bible).

Old Movie Weirdos of all ages are accustomed to going it alone; many of us have been doing it all our lives. But sometimes it’s nice to have a community to lead in prayer, even when you’re praying for the Prince of Darkness.

June 22, 2015 – TCM Remembers Christopher Lee 

6:15 AM – THE MUMMY (1959)
9:30 AM – HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
2:30 PM – HORROR EXPRESS (1972)


About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, producer, and digital marketing consultant. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. I've written for, Game Show Network, getTV, Sony Movies, and NYC weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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25 Responses to For Classic Film Fans, Death is a Way of Life

  1. dlhartzog says:

    Fine tribute to a exceptional actor.

  2. taylorsartre says:

    Lovely story about Zeppo- and you! Thanks for the entire post It’s not easy losing our “friends”…

  3. taylorsartre says:

    Lovely story about Zeppo- and you! Thank you for entire post. It’s not easy losing our cinema “friends”…

  4. mandymarie20 says:

    I completely empathize with this post. It seems like every day we lose more of our treasured Hollywood stars, our friends. The TCM Remembers are always so bittersweet. All of their good work is displayed, but the loss . . . No one I know seems to understand why I am sad from the loss people I never knew who made pictures years ago. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels the loss. I’ll definitely be watching TCM on the 22nd to celebrate the wonderful work of Sir Christopher Lee.

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  6. I absolutely loved this, Will! Very touching indeed and I will be tuning in on June 22nd for sure (I must remember to call in ‘sick’ that day).

  7. I’m glad TCM will include the Musketeers movies. Lee’s performance as right-hand man to Cardinal Richlieu is terrific.

  8. I heart this post so much! I will forever picture you as an 11 year old mourning Zeppo. Your lot in life was predestined friend…. 🙂 Thanks for being one of our unofficial leaders!

  9. What a lovely set of memories, interweaving the past and the present! I enjoy your writing style. I must admit that the story of your school giving you condolences made me laugh a little. But it is such a big deal when the inevitable happens, isn’t it? And in some cases a person has assumed that someone has already died.

    I don’t know why I avoid all the memorials of the classic stars until after the hoopla has died down. I’m like the person who comes the day after a funeral to lay a white rose anonymously on a tombstone and spirit away.

    Thanks for this.

  10. Laura says:

    “But there I was, the only 11-year-old kid in America leading his Catholic school class in a memorial prayer for a dead Jewish actor who hadn’t made a movie since 1933.”

    That’s beautiful.

    Best wishes,

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