Notable deaths of 2020


At their essence, obituaries are about making connections with strangers. Even celebrities, seemingly well-known, are mysteries to most of us, their humanity lost beneath their public persona and behind the publicity hype. The craft of the obituary involves excavating another person’s humanity, so that we might better understand a life perhaps far different from our own. These obituaries, a sampling of the thousands that appeared this year in The Washington Post, offer portraits of a small number of the inconceivable number of lives lost in 2020, and an opportunity to remember those who have shaped our shared humanity.

(Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Terry Jones

Jan. 21, age 77 | The British writer and actor injected a surreal silliness into pop culture as a charter member of the Monty Python comedy juggernaut, playing roles as varied as a revoltingly obese gourmand and the annoyed mother of an accidental messiah named Brian. | Read more

(Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Jim Lehrer

Jan. 23, age 85 | The understated television newscaster co-founded what is now “The PBS NewsHour,” which he anchored for 36 years, and was dubbed the “dean of moderators” for presiding over 12 presidential debates. | Read more

(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Kobe Bryant

Jan. 26, age 41 | The five-time NBA champion’s tirelessness and competitive drive were as notable as his versatility and ambition. Known late in his career by the nickname “Black Mamba,” Mr. Bryant was one of the smoothest and most dangerous shooters in a league previously dominated by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. | Read more | See more photos

(Mike Derer/AP)

Mary Higgins Clark

Jan. 31, age 92 | She was one of the most successful crime writers of all time, pouring out novel after novel about resilient women befallen by unnatural deaths, disappearances and wicked criminal deeds. | Read more

(The Washington Post)

Kirk Douglas

Feb. 5, age 103 | With a distinctive cleft chin, raspy voice and highly charged dramatic energy, he became one of Hollywood’s foremost leading men and enduring stars. He also produced and directed films; helped put an end to the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s; wrote memoirs, novels and children’s books; and with his second wife, Anne Douglas, ran a project to improve school playgrounds in underprivileged neighborhoods. | Read more

(Domenico Stinellis/AP)

Beverly Pepper

Feb. 5, age 97 | The American sculptor transformed tons of steel and stone into airy creations that enlivened the public spaces they occupied and were displayed in some of the most important art museums in the world. | Read more

(Katy Winn/Getty Images)

Barbara “B.” Smith

Feb. 22, age 70 | A top Black fashion model in the 1970s, she parlayed her glamour and personality into ventures as a restaurateur, TV host and lifestyle maven. | Read more


Katherine Johnson

Feb. 24, age 101 | Laboring in obscurity for much of her life, she developed equations that helped the NACA and its successor, NASA, send astronauts into orbit and, later, to the moon. In 26 signed reports for the space agency, and in many more papers that bore others’ signatures on her work, she codified mathematical principles that remain at the core of human space travel. | Read more

(Wally Fong/AP)

Max von Sydow

March 8, age 90 | The brooding Swedish star was a mainstay of Ingmar Bergman’s movie masterpieces, but in a career spanning seven decades and more than 150 films, the breadth and lucidity of his performances — in roles that were commanding, stoic, tormented and, at times, broadly comic — elevated him to the highest echelon of international cinema. | Read more

(Peter Winterbach/AP)

Betty Williams

March 18, age 76 | After witnessing a stray bullet striking a toddler, she abandoned her anonymous life as a Belfast mother for one of full-time advocacy and received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the Troubles in Northern Ireland. | Read more

(Wally Fong/AP)

Kenny Rogers

March 20, age 81 | The country-pop crooner specialized in narrative-driven ballads such as “Lucille” and “The Gambler,” the second of which sent its life-as-a-card-game refrain echoing through popular culture. | Read more

(Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Fred “Curly” Neal

March 26, age 77 | For decades, the Harlem Globetrotter amazed crowds with his nimble dribbling skills, keeping the ball bouncing even as he dropped to his knees, spun around in circles and sprang back to his feet. | Read more

(Charles Bennett/AP)

Joseph Lowery

March 27, age 98 | The civil rights leader was among the prominent ministers who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He served as the group’s president for 20 years. | Read more

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Tom Coburn

March 28, age 72 | The Oklahoma obstetrician served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, where he became known as “Dr. No” for his unyielding opposition to federal spending and pork-barrel largesse. His unwavering commitment to social and fiscal conservatism was manifest in his opposition to abortion rights, same-sex marriage, global-warming science and federal government expansion. | Read more

(Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)

Bill Withers

March 30, age 81 |The Grammy winner wrote and sang a string of soulful hits in the 1970s that remain cultural staples, including “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” | Read more

(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Ellis Marsalis

April 1, age 85 | He was a leading jazz pianist in New Orleans for decades and the father of four sons who became acclaimed musicians, including superstars Branford and Wynton Marsalis. | Read more

(Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)

Adam Schlesinger

April 1, age 52 | The Emmy- and Grammy-winning musician and songwriter was known for his work with his band Fountains of Wayne and on the TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” He was also nominated for an Academy Award for writing the title song for the 1996 movie “That Thing You Do!” | Read more

(Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Honor Blackman

April 5, age 94 |The British actress gained stardom as a ­leather-clad, judo-chopping spy on the hit TV show “The Avengers,” and then as henchwoman and living double-entendre Pussy Galore in the James Bond film “Goldfinger.” | Read more

(Rich Fury/AFP/Getty Images)

John Prine

April 7, age 73 | A raspy-voiced heartland troubadour, he wrote and performed songs about faded hopes, failing marriages, flies in the kitchen and the desperation of people just getting by. He was, as one of his songs put it, the bard of “broken hearts and dirty windows.” | Read more


Don Shula

May 4, age 90 | He led his teams, the Baltimore Colts and the Miami Dolphins, to the Super Bowl six times and won two of them. In 1997 he was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. | Read more


Little Richard

May 9, age 87 | In rock’s infancy, Little Richard was the unstoppable pacesetter, the pompadoured wild man whose flamboyant showmanship and incendiary spirit of abandon — “a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom” — would drive the music for generations. | Read more

(Nury Hernandez/New York Post Achives/Getty Images)

Jerry Stiller

May 11, age 92 | The Brooklyn-born entertainer formed a popular comedy act in the 1960s with his wife, Anne Meara, before playing crotchety, kvetching fathers on network sitcoms — most notably the hypertensive Frank Costanza on “Seinfeld.” | Read more

(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)


May 31, age 84 | An audacious environmental artist known for his monumental works, he wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin in silvery fabric, dressed several islands near Miami in flamingo-pink skirts, ran a 24-mile-long fence through Northern California and installed 7,500 goal-post-like gates in New York’s Central Park. His installations, which in some cases attracted millions of visitors, expanded the definition of contemporary art. | Read more

(The Washington Post)

Wes Unseld

June 2, age 74 | A powerful NBA center, he was the most important figure in the history of the franchise that morphed from the Baltimore Bullets to the Washington Bullets to the Washington Wizards. | Read more

(Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

Kurt Thomas

June 5, age 64 | Known for his “Thomas flair,” a widely imitated series of midair scissor kicks on the pommel horse, he burst onto the American sports scene as a gymnast of uncommon creativity and unprecedented fame. He became the first American man to win a world championship, but his quest for Olympic gold was thwarted by the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow. | Read more


Vera Lynn

June 18, age 103 | The British singer’s girl-next-door persona and wistful interpretation of popular songs made her a favorite among Allied troops during World War II. She rose to stardom in the late 1930s and early 1940s with hits including “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover,” “There’ll Always Be an England,” “Yours” and “We’ll Meet Again” and reached broad audiences with her BBC radio program “Sincerely Yours.” | Read more

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ian Holm

June 19, age 88 | The British actor’s roles demonstrated remarkable dramatic range, from Shakespeare dramas to a hobbit in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to an Oscar-nominated performance as a track coach in “Chariots of Fire.” | Read more

(Neville Elder/Corbis/Getty Images)

Milton Glaser

June 26, age 91 | His creation of the I ❤ NY logo and co-founding of New York magazine as well as his involvement in hundreds of other projects helped make him one of the most influential graphic designers of his generation. | Read more

(Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz)

Freddy Cole

June 27, age 88 | The jazz pianist and balladeer long performed in the shadow of his older brother Nat King Cole but enjoyed a late-career blossoming with four Grammy nominations and the jaunty number “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me” as his anthem. | Read more

(Harold Filan/AP)

Carl Reiner

June 29, age 98 | The gifted comic improviser created the enduring 1960s sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and Mel Brooks’s 2,000-Year-Old Man character, a cranky Jewish rascal who claimed to have dated Joan of Arc (“what a cutie”) and have 42,000 children (“and not one comes to visit me”). He also directed movies that launched Steve Martin’s film career in the 1970s and 1980s. | Read more

(Giulio Napolitano/AFP/Getty Images)

Ennio Morricone

July 6, age 91 | The Italian composer’s wildly inventive soundtracks — from the electric guitar, whistle, whip crack and coyote howl of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” to the dramatic choral and orchestral score of “The Mission” — made him a revered figure in international cinema. | Read more

(Horace Cort/AP)

C.T. Vivian

July 17, age 95 | A Baptist minister and aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he was bloodied on the front lines of the civil rights movement and helped shape the protests that were a turning point in the battle against racial injustice in the Jim Crow South. | Read more

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

John Lewis

July 17, age 80 | The civil rights leader preached nonviolence while enduring beatings and jailings during seminal front-line confrontations of the 1960s and later spent more than three decades in Congress defending the crucial gains he had helped achieve for people of color. | Read more | See more photos

(Eric Jamison/AP)

Regis Philbin

July 24, age 88 | The boisterous television personality’s trademark blend of enthusiasm, quick wit and excitability made him a popular host for more than six decades. According to Guinness World Records, Mr. Philbin spent more hours on U.S. television — over 16,000 — than anyone else in history. | Read more


Olivia de Havilland

July 26, age 104 | The Hollywood actress was the last surviving star of “Gone With the Wind,” won two Academy Awards and risked her career to push for complex roles and challenge punitive film-industry labor laws. She was one of the last links to the old studio system whose treatment of actors she did much to transform. | Read more

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Herman Cain

July 30, age 74 | The Godfather’s pizza chain CEO and tax-fighting conservative sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 before his candidacy ran aground amid charges of sexual harassment. He remained a prominent Black ally of President Trump and a fixture of right-wing news outlets. | Read more

(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Chadwick Boseman

Aug. 28, age 43 | The charismatic African American actor starred in earnest biopics of Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall before his commercial breakthrough in the 2018 superhero blockbuster “Black Panther.” | Read more | See more photos

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

John Thompson Jr.

Aug. 30, age 78 | The basketball coach elevated Georgetown University hoops to national prominence, earned Hall of Fame honors and carved a place in history as the first African American coach to lead his team to the NCAA championship. | Read more | See more photos

(AFP/Getty Images)

Diana Rigg

Sept. 10, age 82 | The classically trained English actress vaulted to fame as a leather-clad private eye on the 1960s British TV series “The Avengers,” which became a cult hit and earned her the title of the “sexiest TV star of all time.” | Read more

(Brad Barket/Getty Images)

Stanley Crouch

Sept. 16, age 74 | The cultural critic’s contrarian and trenchant writings exploring music, politics, race and literature made him a prominent and often controversial figure in American arts and letters. He was a bare-knuckled literary provocateur who reveled in truculent takedowns, often of works by other African American artists and intellectuals. | Read more

(Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Sept. 18, age 87 | The Supreme Court justice, the second woman to join its ranks, was a legal pioneer for gender equality whose fierce high court opinions made her a hero to the left. She earned a reputation as the legal embodiment of the women’s liberation movement and was a widely admired role model for generations of female lawyers. | Read more | See more photos

(Pierre Guillaud/AFP/Getty Images)

Juliette Gréco

Sept. 23, age 93 | The acclaimed French chanteuse’s sensual stage mystique and doleful voice bewitched audiences for more than six decades and made her an international recording and concert star. | Read more


Helen Reddy

Sept. 29, age 78 | The Australian-born performer’s rousing song “I Am Woman” was a galvanizing force in the women’s movement of the early 1970s and made her one of the most popular singing stars of the decade. | Read more


Bob Gibson

Oct. 2, age 84 | The Hall of Fame baseball pitcher’s fierce glare and blazing fastball intimidated hitters for nearly two decades. He led the St. Louis Cardinals to three World Series, winning two, and is ranked by baseball historians as one of the top 15 pitchers in history. | Read more

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Eddie Van Halen

Oct. 6, age 65 | The guitar virtuoso’s pyrotechnic riffs and solos expanded the vocabulary of hard rock, inspired legions of headbanging imitators and propelled his band Van Halen to four turbulent decades of stadium-rock stardom. | Read more


Whitey Ford

Oct. 8, age 91 | The Yankees pitching ace displayed a craftiness at the mound that befuddled some of the best hitters of his time as he led his team to six World Series titles and 11 American League championships in the 1950s and 1960s. | Read more

(NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images)

Viola Smith

Oct. 21, age 107 | The swing-era musician was promoted in the 1930s as the “fastest girl drummer in the world” and championed greater inclusion of women in the almost completely male preserve of big bands. | Read more

(Eric Risberg/AP)

Cecilia Chiang

Oct. 28, age 100 | The elegant San Francisco restaurateur introduced generations of Americans to the authentic provincial cooking of her native country, earning the title the “Julia Child of Chinese food.” | Read more

(Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Sean Connery

Oct. 31, age 90 | The Scottish-born actor was film’s first — and for many viewers, the only — “Bond, James Bond,” and his charismatic swagger enlivened dozens of other movies, including his Oscar-winning performance in “The Untouchables.” | Read more

(Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Alex Trebek

Nov. 8, age 80 | The “Jeopardy!” quizmaster and TV personality was, for more than three decades, a daily presence in millions of households, earning near-rabid loyalty for the intellectual challenge of his show. | Read more

(Steve Ueckert/Houston Chronicle/AP; The Problem We All Live With, 1964, by Norman Rockwell as part of a Look magazine article/Norman Rockwell Museum permanent collection)

Lucille Bridges

Nov. 10, age 86 | Once a sharecropper, she was determined to obtain for her daughter the proper education that she as a Black girl had been denied. Her child Ruby became one of the first African American pupils to integrate an elementary school in the South. | Read more

(Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)

Jan Morris

Nov. 20, age 94 | An author and renowned travel writer of extraordinary range and productivity, she was one of the world’s first well-known transgender public figures. She wrote of her transition in the book “Conundrum” (1974). | Read more

(Carlo Fumagalli/AP)

Diego Maradona

Nov. 25, age 60 | A mesmerizing Argentine soccer star and coach who many consider the best player of all time, he led his country to victory in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and played for Barcelona, Napoli and others. | Read more | See more photos

(US Air Force/AP)

Chuck Yeager

Dec. 7, age 97 |The American military test pilot was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound and live to tell about it, launching America into the supersonic age. His abundant confidence and innate understanding of engineering mechanics — what an airplane could do under any form of stress — made him a jet- and space-age exemplar of what Tom Wolfe called “the right stuff.” | Read more

(Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

John le Carré

Dec. 12, age 89 | The British author drew on his experiences as a Cold War-era spy to write powerful novels about a bleak, morally compromised world in which international intrigue and personal betrayal went hand in hand. His best-known books, including “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1963) and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (1974), sold in the millions and were made into acclaimed film and television adaptations. | Read more

(Alexis Duclos/AP)

Pierre Cardin

Dec. 29, age 98 | The French designer was a perennial trendsetter, radically transforming men’s and women’s fashion in the 1960s with modern designs such as the Nehru jacket and the space-race-inspired bubble dress. He redefined the field of commercial branding by licensing his name to products including toiletries, jewelry, luggage, candy, wine and wigs. He also bought the landmark Parisian restaurant Maxim’s and built it into an international chain of eateries, boutiques and clubs. | Read more | See more photos

Photo editing by Steve Cook, Jennifer Beeson Gregory and Dee Swann. Text by Adam Bernstein

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