Two figures central to American culture died December 28: former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and former NFL coach John Madden, whose namesake video game has enthralled football fans for decades, having sold more than 180 million copies by 2018. They are the latest in a list of high-profile losses in 2021, from the worlds of Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and beyond.
We lost 91-year-old Oscar-winning actor Christopher Plummer, whose long, distinguished career included everything from The Sound of Music to Knives Out to Pixar’s Up. Plummer’s Up costar, Ed Asner, who played the film’s lovable curmudgeon, also died at age 91; Asner was known for his husky delivery and comic chops in Elf and as iconic newsman Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Cloris Leachman, also an alum of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the most-awarded performer in Emmy history, died in January. And Michael K. Williams, who most famously portrayed Omar Little on The Wire, died in September at age 54.
TV host Larry King died in January; he reportedly conducted more than 50,000 interviews during his decades-long career, including with every sitting U.S. president since Gerald Ford. We mourned many comedy stars: Jessica Walter, best known as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development; British comedian Sean Lock; and Saturday Night Live’s Norm MacDonald, whose deadpan style lives on, most memorably in his popular moth joke. We also lost two beloved actors from sitcom history: Dustin Diamond, who played oddball Screech in Saved by the Bell, and James Michael Tyler, who played the meek coffeehouse waiter, Gunther, on Friends.
In music, hip-hop lost legends including rapper DMX, known for his raw content and gruff flow; MF Doom, the rapper with a comic book-inspired persona (and mask); and Biz Markie, whose feel-good single “Just a Friend” was certified platinum in 1990. Legendary Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts died in August at age 80, as did Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith, who was 68. Actor-musician Michael Nesmith of the Monkees died just this month at 78. Prolific Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim died in November; the 91-year-old was one of the key figures of the modern musical, writing the lyrics for West Side Story and the music for Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods.
The literary world mourned the loss of dozens of renowned writers, including Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry in March and three influential women writers in December: vampire chronicler Anne Rice; Joan Didion, who was renowned for her nonfiction works exploring American culture of the 1960s and ’70s; and feminist author Gloria Jean Watkins, known by her pen name bell hooks, who wrote on the intersection of race and gender and the experiences of Black and working-class women.
Public figures and politicians
In April, Queen Elizabeth lost her husband and royal consort, 99-year-old Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. He was a passionate pilot, with a long military career; interest in him had heightened in recent years with the release of The Crown on Netflix, in which he was depicted by Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies. In December, human rights activist Desmond Tutu, the first Black bishop of Johannesburg and archbishop of Cape Town, died at age 90. An influential voice for nonviolence during South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
In U.S. politics, Reid was instrumental in passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010, but he wasn’t the only former Senate Majority Leader who died in 2021: Bob Dole, who led the Senate Republicans from 1987 to 1996 and lost the 1996 presidential race to Bill Clinton, died in early December at age 98. Retired Army General Colin Powell, the country’s first Black secretary of state and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, died in November at 84. Powell played a key part in justifying the Iraq War in 2003 under President George W. Bush; in 2020, however, he announced his support of Democrat Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the presidential election, and renounced allegiance to the GOP after the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
Business and science
The business world lost Richard Trumka, who was president of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S. A former president of the same federation, John Sweeney, also died. Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler magazine, known for a slew of First Amendment legal battles, died in February. And fashion designer Virgil Abloh, who worked as artistic director of Louis Vuitton and was the first African American to head a luxury French fashion house, died at 41 following a battle with cancer.
The science community mourned NASA astronaut Michael Collins, who, along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, flew to the moon on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. And E.O. Wilson, the evolutionary biologist who started his career studying ants and looked at the complexity of genetics and human behavior, died in December. The 92-year-old was often referred to as “Darwin’s natural heir.”
Villains and heroes
Some controversial figures also died this year, including Rush Limbaugh, the incendiary conservative radio host who frequently lied and generated conspiracy theories—and who problematically received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Trump. Phil Spector, the record producer whose discography included some of the biggest hits of all time—including “Let It Be,” “Imagine,” and “Unchained Melody”—died in January while serving a prison sentence for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson. And Bernie Madoff died in April; the financier and former chairman of the Nasdaq ran the world’s largest-ever Ponzi scheme, reportedly worth about $65 billion. In 2009, he was sentenced to 150 years in federal prison.
Perhaps most poignantly, we lost a hero for the pandemic age: Captain Tom Moore, a former British Army officer who raised 30 million pounds (more than $40 million) for the NHS during the coronavirus crisis by walking around his garden 100 times in the lead-up to his 100th birthday. In February, struck with pneumonia, he died of complications after testing positive for COVID-19.