WHAT'S THE deal here? Go away for just a little while and celebrities and notables both famous and infamous start dropping like flies. Three were heroes:
Lester "Y'all Ain't Eatin' No Chicken In Here" Maddox, former Georgia governor, died Wednesday at 87.
Yes, I know what you're thinking: How could I? How could I claim that the racist, segregationist, pickax handle-swinging Maddox -- who wielded the clubs to chase blacks away from his chicken-eating joint in the early 1960s -- is his hero?
For a Muhammad Ali fan, it's easy. I look at the big picture and give credit to the guy who was most responsible for Ali's return to the boxing ring after 42 months of banishment that resulted from his refusal to be drafted into the Army.
It was Governor Maddox who gave the nod for Ali to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in October 1970. Once Ali got his boxing license back, all Maddox did was forgiven, in my eyes. I wanted to plant a sloppy one right on the guy's bald head.
After easily dispatching Quarry, Ali went on to the classic trio of fights with former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier -- in 1971, 1974 and 1975 -- and the fight where he regained the title after seven long, agonizing, frustrating years for Ali fans: the dismantling and schooling of George Foreman, in which The Greatest gave Foreman his pugilistic bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees all in the same night.
It happened in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), on Oct. 30, 1974. Four of boxing's most classic fights in a mere five years. And who would have thought a reconstructed racist like Maddox would make it all possible?
Gregory Peck died June 12.
"Noooo, not the Gregster," I moaned when I first heard this news, having arrived back in the good old U.S. of A the night before. Peck was one of my favorites.
I was not alone. The American Film Institute voted Atticus Finch, the character he played in To Kill A Mockingbird, the greatest cinematic hero in the nation's history. Peck played a guy who opposed the Lester Maddoxes of the South. Ironic, isn't it, that they should die in the same year and month.
To Kill A Mockingbird was released in 1962, exactly two years before Maddox went on his ax handle-wielding spree at his Pickrick Restaurant. Finch was a lawyer who defended a black man accused of raping a white woman and had to cope -- along with his two children -- with the racist fallout that resulted.
To Kill A Mockingbird was hailed as a great film and an indictment of racism, but apparently Maddox didn't get the memo until after he was elected governor of Georgia in 1966.
Once in office, Maddox flip-flopped 180 degrees. According to his obituary that appeared in The Sun, he hired and promoted African-Americans working in state government. It seemed the Atticus Finch in Maddox was trying to emerge. Either that or the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act served as an attitude adjuster.
William Marshall died June 11.
This is the story the news media missed. Marshall was an African-American Shakespearean actor who appeared on stage, screen and television. His birth and film career both started eight years after Peck's.
Marshall -- born in 1924 -- made his film debut in 1952's Lydia Bailey. The Internet Movie Database lists only 31 films for Marshall to Peck's 61. Had it not been for the racism that Peck's Atticus Finch character opposed, who knows how far Marshall's career could have gone?
Marshall is probably most famous for his starring roles in Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream. With an exquisite bass voice that makes James Earl Jones sound like Yosemite Sam by comparison, Marshall was the best thing about Blacula. (Well, him and Vonetta McGee's gams.)
The nightclub scene alone was perhaps a milestone in black history, since it ended the fantasy that all blacks have rhythm.
I once asked a college class how many had seen the movie. One guy raised his hand. I immediately proclaimed him the bravest person in his generation.
But if you're looking for some quick laughs and want to see a man who, but for the times, could have been one of the country's greatest stars, you might want to go out and rent Blacula.
Just remember to fast-forward through the nightclub scene.