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Year-end summaries of celebrity deaths can hit home

The year-end recitation of the celebrities who passed on in 2018 included some big names, including Stephen Hawking, Burt Reynolds, Penny Marshall, Stan Lee and Anthony Bourdain, not to mention Aretha Franklin and Neil Simon.

Some of those that flew under the radar – well, my radar, at least – were the likes of country musician Roy Clark of Hee Haw fame, who died November 15 at age 85; Robin Leach, he of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, died August 24 at the age of 76, and actress Sondra Locke, dead at 73 on November 3. Writer Tom Wolfe was 88 when he died on May 14. Verne Troyer, known for his role as Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films, died on April 21 at 49. Margot Kidder died May 13 at the age of 69. Jerry Van Dyke was 86.

For music fans, Dolores O’Riordan of the Irish rock group The Cranberries was 46 when she died January 15, while Pete Shelley of the legendary Buzzcocks left us on December 6, age 63.

Some of the most melancholy moments came courtesy of the passing of those who were part of my TV-viewing past. That list included Ken Berry, of F Troop and Mayberry R.F.D. fame, who died December 1 at age 85. Bill Daily, who was Major Healey on the I Dream of Jeannie and who appeared on The Bob Newhart Show died Sept. 8 at 91.

Fans of the memorable Soap lost both Robert Mandan, who played Chester Tate, and Donnelly Rhodes, who was the hapless escaped convict Dutch Leitner.

David Ogden Stiers, Maj. Charles Winchester III on M.A.S.H, and John Mahoney, dad Martin Crane on the sitcom Frasier, were also memorable characters from iconic shows.

Taking stock at year’s end is always tough. Those of us born in the TV age grew up with a wide social circle invented by Hollywood and beamed into homes round the clock. In many ways, we’re more attached to the people we see on TV than in those around us – our Friends are more real than our friends, in some instances. And when they die, either as actors or characters, the grief can be as real as if somebody close to you had passed on.

While movies had launched the notion of celebrity, our attachment grew in leaps and bounds with television, which brought them into the intimate confines of our homes. The phenomenon is linked to the suburban growth that followed the war.

The common responses to celebrity deaths demonstrate important realities about how people build relationships with the media they consume, according to a Kansas State University cognitive psychologist. Prof. Richard Harris has studied a number of aspects of the psychology of mass communication. His focus has been on how people acquire knowledge from media. Among his studies has been an examination of how watching certain media with different people influences the experience.

Harris says many people develop relationships with media characters in a similar manner to how they do so in real life. This phenomenon is referred to as parasocial interaction. The one-sided relationship is most commonly observed between celebrities and their fans. A prominent example cited by Harris was the popular television show Friends. The show aired for 10 years and revolved around six principal characters.

“Many people have probably spent more time with the characters on ‘Friends’ than they have with most of their real-life friends,” Harris says. “Of course they haven’t interacted with them – it’s very one-sided. People can, if drama is particularly well acted and written, identify with the characters. That’s a significant relationship. That becomes particularly acute often when a character dies or a famous person dies with whom you have such a relationship with.”

Spontaneous displays of grieving after the death of a famous person or celebrity are not new. For example, impromptu memorials appeared for Princess Diana, Michael Jackson and John Lennon following their deaths.

Harris says these losses have a distinct difference from the loss of a family member.

“We don’t have the social structures and support for grieving the loss of a media character or, in particular, a fictional character,” he notes. “Somebody’s real upset that their favorite soap opera character was killed off yesterday and they tell someone about that and they laugh. It’s a very different reaction than if their grandmother had died.”

As a result, social media postings can turn therapeutic for some devoted fans or supporters, Harris said. Fellow celebrities have also taken to social media sites and other mediums to mourn the loss of fellow stars or influential people.

While parasocial interaction was first written about as early as the 1950s, instances only began increasing with the rise of television and movies and the more realistic depictions of fictional characters.

“Both have the visual and auditory modality,” Harris says. “Television and movies look a lot more real than radio or print media. I think the degree of identification and emotional response is much greater.”

We spend more time with fictional characters – and the actors portraying them – than we do with many of the real people in our lives. When old aunt Cora, who you saw occasionally at family functions over the years, passes away, you’re likely to feel little, if anything at all. It seems that’s not the case if the actor you watch daily in reruns shuffles off this mortal coil. People who don’t shed a tear at a family funeral might bawl like babies over the death of a character on TV or in the movies.

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