Celebrities and global icons who died in 2021
Remembering famous figures the world lost this year
Over the past 12 months, the world has mourned the loss of high-profile figures ranging from big-screen star Christopher Plummer and Rolling Stones rocker Charlie Watts to British royal Prince Philip and NHS fund-raising hero Captain Tom Moore.
As the year nears its close, here is a reminder of some of the well-known people who died in 2021.
Larry King – 23 January
A legend of US broadcasting and the king of the talk show, Larry King died aged 87 on 23 January. Over five decades, he interviewed some 50,000 people, from presidents and movie stars to death row inmates.
Sporting his trademark braces over a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, he presented himself as an old-school news man, said The Times – but he described himself as an “infotainer”. He wanted, he said, to ask the kind of questions a curious member of the public would ask.
In 1985, the cable channel CNN offered King his own nightly TV show, Larry King Live. It ran for 25 years. “Every day of my life is a learning experience, and I’m fascinated by everything,” he said in 2014. “My curiosity in all those years has never dimmed since I was a little kid.”
Cicely Tyson – 28 January
Cicely Tyson was a pioneering black actress whose seven-decade-long career encompassed film, theatre and television. Refusing to take any role that she felt demeaned black people, even if that meant not working, she won three Emmys, a Tony, an honorary Oscar and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was cited as an inspiration by countless younger actors.
Tyson took the lead role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a hit TV drama from 1974 about the life of a 100-year-old woman who was born into slavery, and played the mother of Kunta Kinte in the seminal TV miniseries Roots, in 1977.
Later, she played Sipsey in the film Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), she had a recurring role as a congresswoman in Netflix’s House of Cards and, from 2015, she was Viola Davis’s mother in the TV show How to Get Away with Murder. In 2018, she won an honorary Oscar – the first black woman to do so.
Dustin Diamond – 1 February
Dustin Diamond, best known for playing Samuel “Screech” Powers in the US sitcom Saved by the Bell, died aged 44, just three weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
Diamond portrayed Screech for the show’s entire run, from 1989 to 1992, as it developed what Johnny Diaz in The New York Times described as a “cult following among millennials and members of Generation X and grew into an internet obsession for some fans”.
When the series ended, Diamond reprised the character for various spin-off shows and appeared on reality TV, but spoke openly about the difficulty he had in finding work.
Captain Tom Moore – 2 February
Captain Tom Moore received international attention and a knighthood when he raised more than £32m for the NHS by walking 100 laps of his garden before his 100th birthday. He said he began raising funds to thank the “magnificent” NHS staff who treated him for cancer and a broken hip.
Moore died at the age of 100 after testing positive for Covid-19. The Queen and Boris Johnson paid tribute to the Army veteran, with the prime minister describing him as a “hero in the truest sense of the word”.
Christopher Plummer – 5 February
Christopher Plummer was a “tremendous” Canadian actor, with “an imposing physique, a broad brow, sculpted features and a magnificent voice”, who is “destined, or doomed” to be primarily remembered for his role as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965), said Michael Coveney in The Guardian.
Appearing on “stage, screen and Alpine meadow” for more than six decades, he played all the great Shakespearean roles, outlived his fellow hellraisers to become a “go-to” actor for senior star roles, and, aged 82, became the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar.
Mary Wilson – 8 February
As a 15-year-old living in a housing project in Detroit, Mary Wilson co-founded one of the most successful (and glamorous) singing groups of the 1960s. She remained with The Supremes until the Motown hit machine was finally dissolved in 1977 – having weathered numerous feuds, and the departure of both her co-founders, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross.
In total, The Supremes had 12 Billboard No. 1 hits in the US – a record unsurpassed for a female vocal group – and they rivalled The Beatles for commercial success. Thanks to TV, Wilson said, “people were able to see us all over America and see black people in a different light”.
Wilson’s first solo album didn’t sell well, and she was dropped by Motown in 1980. But she continued to perform. She also wrote four memoirs, one of which was a runaway bestseller, and worked as an activist, campaigning successfully for better trademark protection for musicians.
Bunny Wailer – 2 March
Bunny Wailer, whose real name was Neville Livingston, was the last surviving founder member of The Wailers – the group that propelled Bob Marley to superstardom, and helped popularise reggae worldwide.
The Wailers were described as the Jamaican Beatles and, like the Fab Four, they had distinct identities and pursued solo careers. Wailer’s debut solo album, Blackheart Man (1976), is “widely felt to be one of reggae’s highest peaks”, said The Guardian.
A devout Rastafarian, Wailer, who died aged 73, lived on a farm outside Kingston he’d bought with his settlement from Island Records, where he grew food and smoked herb.
Paul Ritter – 5 April
Paul Ritter, who died of a brain tumour at the age of 54, is “destined” to be remembered for playing the eccentric yet lovable dad on the Channel 4 series Friday Night Dinner. “And rightly so,” said Stuart Heritage in The Guardian. “That role… brought Ritter a level of fame he had previously never achieved.”
Before Friday Night Dinner, Ritter had appeared in big hits including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Vera and the critically acclaimed Chernobyl. He was also a talented stage actor, nominated for both Tony and Olivier awards.
Writing for The Herald, Neil Cooper described Ritter as “a quietly brilliant character actor who had the ability to inhabit each new role to the point of being unrecognisable”.
Prince Philip – 9 April
Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband and closest confidant for 73 years, died on 9 April aged 99 at Windsor Castle.
Described by Queen Elizabeth II in her golden wedding speech as “my strength and stay all these years”, the Duke of Edinburgh retired from public duties in August 2017, having completed 22,219 solo engagements since 1952.
The death of Prince Philip, just two months short of his 100th birthday, prompted a flood of tributes from world leaders and members of his family.
His grandson, Prince William, called him an “extraordinary man” from “an extraordinary generation”, who would want him to “get on with the job”. And Prince Harry described his grandfather as “master of the barbecue, legend of banter, and cheeky right till the end”.
DMX – 9 April
The rapper DMX died aged 50 after being hospitalised by a heart attack, with his family calling him “a warrior who fought till the very end”. “He loved his family with all of his heart, and we cherish the times we spent with him," they added.
DMX, whose real name was Earl Simmons, had five US No. 1 albums, featuring iconic songs such as Party Up (Up in Here), What’s My Name? and X Gon’ Give It to Ya.
His music was often “menacing and dark”, but it was “infused with Christian spirituality”, said Daniel E. Slotnik in The New York Times. It was also informed by his “long struggle with drugs, his bleak childhood”, with many of his “most swaggering songs” containing “hints of lingering trauma”.
Nikki Grahame – 9 April
Former Big Brother contestant Nikki Grahame, who was particularly well known for her diary room tantrums, died at the age of 38 after being hospitalised with an eating disorder.
Davina McCall, the former presenter of the show, said she was “so desperately sad” to hear of the death of “the funniest, most bubbly sweetest girl”.
Speaking to The Guardian last year, Grahame said she had “fond memories” of the show, “even though there were times where it looked like I was having a meltdown”. Big Brother gave her “a lot” financially, she said. “I bought the flat I live in now. I’ve never had to get a ‘normal’ job; I’ve always had something to fall back on… I’ve been very lucky. Overall, it has had a positive effect on my life.”
Helen McCrory – 16 April
One of Britain’s finest actors, Helen McCrory, who died of breast cancer aged 52, was only 5ft 3in tall yet such was the energy she brought to her performances, she could command London’s biggest stages, said The Daily Telegraph.
McCrory made her professional debut in 1990 – and thereafter worked more or less continuously. By the 2000s, critics had started referring to her as “the next Judi Dench”.
In 2006, she played Cherie Blair in Stephen Frears’s film The Queen, which kick-started her screen career. She was in three of the Harry Potter films and appeared in a huge range of TV roles. She was a scene-stealing presence in all five series of Peaky Blinders, playing Aunt Polly, the terrifying matriarch of the gangster clan.
Una Stubbs – 12 August
Una Stubbs, who died aged 84, was an enormously versatile actress, and a familiar face on British television for several decades, said The Daily Telegraph. Although best known for her sparkling, mischievous and sometimes kooky performances in comedy roles, she starred in everything from pantomime and musicals to serious theatre.
From 1979 she cemented her place in popular television culture with her role as the prim Aunt Sally in the much-loved ITV adaptation of Worzel Gummidge. Around the same time, she began her long stint as captain of the women’s team on the charades-based panel show Give Us a Clue, with Lionel Blair, who also died this year.
Meanwhile, she continued to pop up on TV, ending her career on a high with her role as the “touchingly concerned” Mrs Hudson in Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch (whom she had known since he was four).
Sean Lock – 18 August
The stand-up comedian, actor and team captain on 8 Out of 10 Cats died from cancer at the age of 58. “Bespectacled, besuited and well-groomed”, Lock “projected a constant air of puzzlement as he imparted his deadpan observational humour”, said Anthony Hayward in The Guardian.
Lock won the British Comedy Award for Best Live Comic in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he found fame in the comedy panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats. He toured widely as a stand-up while recording episodes of the hit Channel 4 show.
According to Marcus Williamson in The Independent, when asked by Jimmy Carr what he’d like his obituary to say, he quipped: “I don’t care, I’ll be dead. But ideally I’d like it to say, nooooooo, whyyyyyy, nooooooo, aaaahhh, you can’t write tears, Jimmy…”
Charlie Watts – 24 August
Perhaps the most reluctant rock star to emerge from the 1960s, drummer Charlie Watts, who died aged 80, was certainly the most “mild-mannered member of the Rolling Stones”, said The Times. However, the paper added, his “phlegmatic presence was a vital ingredient in the Stones’ often volatile chemistry”.
A dapper, unassuming man whose abiding love was jazz, he was happier in a well-cut suit than in a leather jacket or kaftan. And when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were being chased by screaming fans, busted for drugs and pilloried by politicians, Watts was quietly getting on with his drumming, maintaining a zen-like focus during their concerts.
“Watts was the Stone who never rolled,” said The Daily Telegraph, yet he was the “linchpin” of the band – by far “the most respected by musicians and popular with the fans”.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – 29 August
Lee “Scratch” Perry was an eccentric Jamaican record producer who “revelled in disorder”, said The Daily Telegraph. In his tiny Black Ark studio in Kingston, he would whirl like a dervish around his mixing desk, dressed in shorts and a singlet, often barefoot – and almost always stoned. Yet the sounds he created, as a pioneer of both roots reggae and dub, reverberated around the world.
The success of the two albums he made with The Wailers – Soul Rebels (1970) and Soul Revolution (1971) – brought other acts flocking to him.
From his studio, which he built in 1973, he produced a string of classic songs and albums, many of which had political themes, including Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon, and Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves. The latter was covered by The Clash, and in 1977 Perry produced their single Complete Control.
Sarah Harding – 5 September
In 2002, thousands of young hopefuls auditioned for the ITV reality show Popstars: The Rivals. But when Sarah Harding appeared in front of the judges in August that year, it took them no time to see her potential.
Four months later, viewers voted the 20-year-old into the newly created girl band Girls Aloud. They superseded the Spice Girls by having “a record-breaking run of 20 consecutive top ten singles”, said The Times, four of which reached No. 1. Six of their albums went platinum.
In August 2020, Harding revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “Nothing is certain any more,” she told The Times. “I’m just grateful to wake up every day and live my best life, because now I know just how precious it is.”
Michael K. Williams – 6 September
Michael K. Williams, who died aged 54, broke into acting when the rapper Tupac Shakur chose him – on the strength of a Polaroid picture – to play his brother in the 1996 thriller Bullet, said The Guardian. It led to other roles, but it was The Wire, from 2002, that made him famous.
Appearing as the terrifying, shotgun-wielding stick-up artist Omar Little, he brilliantly conveyed that character’s menacing charisma, as well as his peculiar tenderness. President Obama described The Wire as the best show on television, and Omar as his favourite character in it.
Williams also played dapper bootlegger Chalky White in Boardwalk Empire for five years from 2010, and more recently had starred in Lovecraft Country. He also won an Emmy nomination for a documentary he produced on the failings of America’s youth justice system.
Willie Garson – 21 September
Willie Garson was the actor best known for playing talent agent Stanford Blatch, Carrie Bradshaw’s male best friend, in the iconic TV show Sex and the City.
A New York Times obituary written by his loved ones described the 57-year-old’s role over six seasons of the show as “not only hilarious, but also vulnerable at times, as he struggled in his own efforts to navigate sex and the city”.
Over the last four decades, Garson appeared in more than 300 television shows and 70 films, the obituary added. His most notable film credits included There’s Something About Mary, Groundhog Day, Being John Malkovich and Freaky Friday.
James Michael Tyler – 24 October
The actor best known for his role as Gunther, manager of the Central Perk coffee shop in the NBC sitcom Friends, died aged 59. He had started as an extra on the show, given the role because he could work the coffee machine.
Friends stars, including Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox and Matt LeBlanc, paid tribute to the actor, with Aniston saying that the show “would not have been the same” without him.
David Crane, the co-creator of Friends, told the BBC that Tyler’s comedic timing was “impeccable”. “We just kept giving him more and more, and when we realised there was a storyline about his secret love for Rachel, it was just the gift that kept on giving,” he said.
Lionel Blair – 4 November
With his bouffant hair, gleaming smile and perma-tan, Lionel Blair was an “all-round entertainer who could sing, dance, act, tell jokes and hold together the flimsiest of low-budget television game shows”, said The Daily Telegraph.
He credited working with Sammy Davis Jr at the 1961 Royal Variety Performance with transforming his career. They devised a skit that included a joyous rendition of Shall We Dance, and culminated in a dazzling tap routine – which proved a sensation.
Blair had a role in A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and gave up dancing in the mid-1970s to focus on acting. He starred in plays by the likes of Sheridan and Stoppard, and was in the film Absolute Beginners (1986). But these parts were overshadowed by his appearances on a string of game shows (Give Us a Clue, Name That Tune, Blankety Blank), as well as in panto.
Stephen Sondheim – 26 November
US composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was responsible for a series of celebrated shows – from A Little Night Music to Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Follies and Sunday in the Park with George – that reshaped American musical theatre in the late 20th century.
His first professional musical, Saturday Night (1954), was shelved when its producer died, but two years later, he was asked to write the lyrics for West Side Story – an adaptation of Romeo & Juliet about New York gangs and the ambivalence of the immigrant experience. The success of subsequent productions including 1970’s Company saw Sondheim “hailed as the most significant innovator in musical theatre of his day”, said Tom Sutcliffe in The Guardian.
Following Sondheim’s death at the age of 91, the lights on Broadway and in the West End were dimmed in his honour.
bell hooks – 15 December
bell hooks was a trailblazing black feminist whose books, including Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism and All About Love: New Visions, explored “the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality”, said The Washington Post.
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, the social activist, who died at 69, chose to lowercase her adopted name in order to keep people’s focus on her writing and not “who I am”.
Writing for gal-dem, a magazine that shares perspectives from people of colour of marginalised genders, Tao Leigh Goffe said that hooks’ work “set so many radical thinkers flowing with her brave declarations”. In her 2000 book All About Love, hooks “gave the oppressed a language and licence for how to be loved in the margins as a place of possibility”, Goffe added.
Richard Rogers – 18 December
Tributes poured in following the death of the architect behind the Millennium Dome, the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Lloyd’s of London building and Heathrow Terminal 5.
Rogers received a series of accolades during his life, including the Riba Gold Meda, Britain’s foremost architecture prize, in 1985. He was knighted in 1991, and in 2007 won the Pritzker Prize, described by The Times as “the highest honour in architecture”.
More recently, in 2015, he was named by GQ magazine as one of Britain’s 50 best-dressed men. Designer Anya Hindmarch said Rogers’ “inspiring” use of colour in his work was “echoed in his dazzling wardrobe”.