We’re a little more than a month into the new year, and already Hollywood has in short order mourned the losses of so many thespian treasures: Cicely Tyson, Cloris Leachman, Hal Holbrook and Christopher Plummer. When screen legends die, it seems to carry an emotional resonance. Perhaps it’s because over the decades, we’ve watched them deliver such memorable, substantive performances that we feel some special connection to them, the characters they played and the empathy they stirred in us.
Holbrook’s face is what generations of Americans conjure when they think of Mark Twain, the famed humorist and novelist whom the actor portrayed some 2,000 times over the course of five decades beginning with his first performance in the solo show “Mark Twain Tonight!” Off Broadway in 1959 and on Broadway seven years later.
Tyson was not only a celebrated performer but an American pioneer 50 years ago when Black actors were rarely cast in starring roles. When she died, Oprah wrote, “She used her career to illuminate the humanity in Black people. The roles she played reflected her values.” Of course, that included two of her most unforgettable performances — as a sharecropper’s wife in the 1972 film “Sounder” and her Emmy-winning turn as a 110-year-old former slave in the 1974 TV drama “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
Who didn’t love Leachman as Phyllis in the groundbreaking “Mary Tyler Moore Show”? But it was her heartbreaking, Oscar-winning performance as a neglected middle-aged housewife in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 movie “The Last Picture Show” that will always stand out. Leachman displayed such a wrenching range of emotions, from the deep sadness of loneliness to pure elation over an affair she had with a tender high school student — then utter devastation, disappointment and anger when it ended.
It’s heartening to know that a new generation of audiences were introduced to these 90-something actors later in their careers: Plummer in “Beginners” and “All the Money in the World”; Tyson in “How to Get Away With Murder” and “The Help”; Holbrook in “Lincoln” and “Into the Wild”; Leachman on “Dancing With the Stars!”
No matter how old you are, there will be so much to miss about these ageless icons.