Our regular column covering the deaths of significant – but lesser reported – people of the past month.
Melissa Mathison was responsible for creating ET, one of the most popular and best-recognised characters in cinema. While Stephen Spielberg came up with the idea of a boy and his extra-terrestrial friend, it was Mathison who turned the thought into a film script. She also came up with lines such as “ET phone home”, which have been mercilessly spoofed in a variety of films. She created the look of the character, sketching the long spindly limbs and the plaintive expression on an over-large head. Released in 1982, ET became the highest-grossing film of all time until overtaken by Jurassic Park a decade later. Mathison first met Spielberg on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark which starred her boyfriend (and future husband) Harrison Ford. Previously she had worked with Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Her last project was a screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG which is released next year.
Financier Jim Slater was one of the most high-profile figures in the British financial boom of the 1960s and early 70s. Together with the Conservative MP (and future minister) Peter Walker he formed Slater Walker Securities. The company grew rich from using investors’ money to buy up businesses and turn a quick profit by selling off under-performing parts, a practice that became known as asset stripping. By the early 70s the company was valued at 200m, a huge sum in those days, with interests in banking and insurance as well as stakes in dozens of companies. However, the financial crash in the mid-70s undermined the business and Slater was forced to resign as chairman, and later faced fraud charges. He managed to rebuild some of his fortune by property trading and as a successful writer of children’s books, including the A Mazing Monster series.
Cynthia Robinson played trumpet and was a founder member of Sly and The Family Stone, the pioneer soul and funk band. It was unusual in the 1960s for any woman, let alone a black woman, to be playing a brass instrument in a major US band. She later recalled that when she began playing a trumpet at school, it was usual for girls to play woodwind instruments. She was friends with Sly Stone, with whom she later had a daughter, when he first formed a band in 1966. This morphed into the Family Stone, one of whose biggest hits, Dance to the Music, featured Robinson’s vocals urging the audience to “get up and dance to the music”. When the band imploded in 1975 she went on to work with a number of stars including Prince and George Clinton. Latterly she began touring with a reincarnated Family Stone – minus Sly but featuring their vocalist daughter.
The famous logo for the 1984 film Ghostbusters was created by designer Michael Gross. The symbol, featuring a cartoon ghost blocked by a warning road sign featured on posters and merchandise as well as in the film itself. Gross himself was surprised at its success, not least when, on visiting an air show, he saw it painted on the nose of a B52 bomber. He cut his design teeth on Cosmopolitan and contributed to the logos for the 1968 Mexico Olympics, before moving to National Lampoon magazine. He injected some design quality into what was an anarchic publication, adding considerably to its penchant for social parody. These included a spoof of Penthouse magazine, using soft toys in provocative poses. Gross, who had worked on the special effects for Ghostbusters, also contributed to other films including Kindergarten Cop.
Tony Read was one of the most prolific television scriptwriters of his generation. His BBC career began as a freelance contributor to the ground-breaking police drama, Z cars. He joined the corporation full-time a year later. He went on to work on The Troubleshooters, a long-running drama, based on the oil industry. By the time the series came to an end he had become script editor and then producer. In 1978 he was recruited as script editor for Doctor Who, joining halfway through the 14th season with Tom Baker in the title role. He was instrumental in creating the character of the first Romana and also recruited Douglas Adams as a scriptwriter and, later, as Read’s replacement when he left the programme. The Baker Boys, based on the Sherlock Holmes stories, won him an award from The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. He went on to write a number of studies of World War Two.
Ian Greer‘s career as a political lobbyist came crashing down when he was involved in the “cash for questions” affair. A former Conservative Party employee, he began a lobbying firm in the 1970s at a time when the term was barely recognised – the old boy network was still the favoured method of doing business. However, the Thatcher revolution made businesses realise they needed a direct line to government and Greer, a consummate networker, was happy to supply it. He carefully cultivated MPs, offering help with election expenses. But in 1994 the Guardian alleged that Greer had bribed two MPs, Tim Smith and Neil Hamilton, to ask questions in Parliament on behalf of the Harrods owner, Mohammed al-Fayed. A subsequent enquiry cleared Greer but the resulting scandal destroyed his business after it emerged he had been making payments to another Tory MP, Michael Grylls.
Among others who died in November were:
Warren Mitchell, famous for his role as opinionated cockney Alf Garnett
Peter Dimmock, suave pioneer of television outside broadcasts
Keith Michell, actor who played Henry VIII and had a hit with Captain Beaky
Jonah Lomu, rugby’s first global superstar
Peter Donaldson, radio announcer and one of the most famous voices on Radio 4
Saeed Jaffrey, Bollywood actor who moved successfully into mainstream cinema
Cynthia Payne, Britain’s most famous madam
Phil Taylor, drummer who anchored Motorhead’s blistering sound
Pat Eddery, eleven-time champion jockey
Helmut Schmidt, German chancellor who championed closer European union
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