Betty White’s death put the crummy capper on the rough year that was 2021. Sidney Poitier’s passing showed 2022 might not be any better.
And then Bob Saget’s death hit like a gut punch.
The last thing we need at this time — with omicron raging and people still getting into fights over mask-wearing after nearly two years — is having beloved entertainers die. White and Poitier had built up decades of goodwill for their performances and for who they were as people.
Everybody, it seemed, loved Betty White. She was on TV before TV was a thing, on a 1939 broadcast when the technology was in its infancy. She kept us laughing with impeccable work into her 90s, all the while displaying a love for people perhaps surpassed only by her advocacy for animals. In a country where almost everything is divided on party lines, White united the country.
Sidney Poitier blazed a trail that once seemed unimaginable, including becoming the first Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar. He did things that Black actors hadn’t done onscreen before. When his character in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” fell in love with the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, he pursued the then-taboo relationship. When a racist slapped him in “In the Heat of the Night,” Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs hit him right back.
It’s hard to imagine someone making those things palatable to white audiences, but Poitier did it. And he was as big a force for change and progress off camera, winning a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
Saget didn’t leave behind the impact of body of work that White or Poitier did, but his death at 65 on Sunday came as the type of shock a nonagenarian’s never could. There are people who have only a vague memory of White on “The Golden Girls” — and none of her on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” — who grew up with Saget on “Full House.” Some folks too young to truly appreciate how revolutionary Poitier’s work was were watching “America’s Funniest Home Videos” from the time they were toddlers.
The love for Saget was just as sincere. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel had to give his tribute without his audience because he knew he would break down talking about his friend.
Whether you know Saget as the lovable dad in the sitcom “Full House,” the genial home videos host or the raunchy comic who appeared in “The Aristocrats,” the 2005 documentary about that dirty joke, and in his stage act, to know him was to love him, apparently.
Nothing is certain except death and taxes, and our heroes are not immune. In 2016, departures seemed to come one after another, with David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder and Carrie Fisher among the many notables to leave this world.
But when we lost those greats, we hadn’t lost more than 800,000 of our fellow citizens to a virus. In 2016, the only time most people saw someone wearing a mask was when they were getting their teeth cleaned.
In the before times, Sidney Poitier and Betty White would have been honored by a roomful of luminaries at the Golden Globe Awards. But with nominees boycotting due to lack of diversity in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, there was no televised ceremony Sunday — and if there had been, omicron may have nixed it anyway.
The world is a different place in the pandemic and a lesser place without Betty White, Sidney Poitier and Bob Saget. With all the uncertainty now, we need our icons to stay with us more than ever.
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