BBC Culture

Honouring arts and culture luminaries who died in 2013

About the author

Christian Blauvelt is deputy editor of BBC Culture.

  • Doris Lessing

    The International Woman of Letters and 2007 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Lessing was a work in progress throughout much of her formidable career. Jumping from Communism to feminism to Sufism, she excited readers with her wildly original novels and stories, beginning in the 1950s with The Grass Is Singing, the Children of Violence cycle, and The Golden Notebook. Born in Tehran and raised in Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) she possessed a truly global view of a writer’s role, declaring in her 1987 polemic Prisons We Choose to Live Inside: "I see writers generally in every country, as a unity, almost like an organism, which has been evolved by society as a means of examining itself." She died on 17 November at her home in London, aged 94. Literature also lost Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Oscar Hijuelos, Tom Clancy, Richard Matheson, and Elmore Leonard in 2013. (AP Photo/Martin Cleaver)

  • Bobby 'Blue' Bland

    The R&B star signalled a sea change in the blues in the early 1960s. Where heartbreak and hysteria had defined the soulful American music genre before him – think of Muddy Waters’ howling voice and BB King’s wailing guitar – Bland adopted the low-key crooning of Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como to make the blues mellow. He added a cool chill to a form that usually blazed hot, and his slow-burn style influenced everyone from Otis Redding to Van Morrison to Kanye West, who sampled Bland’s 1974 Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City on Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint. He died on 23 June at his home in Germantown, Tennessee, aged 83. Other musicians who died this year include George Jones and Richie Havens. (Reuters/Fred Prouse)

  • Esther Williams

    Plucked out of the pool and put on the big screen, Esther Williams, who died on 6 June aged 91, is the symbol of what may be Hollywood’s most uniquely original genre: the swimming musical. She originally trained for the Olympics but got snatched up by Hollywood in the 1940s to star in Technicolor-splashed extravaganzas like Neptune’s Daughter, Million Dollar Mermaid and Dangerous When Wet, which replaced traditional song-and-dance numbers with synchronised swimming. At a time when Hollywood actresses were usually expected to be passive objects of desire, Williams was active and athletic. Perhaps the first adopter of ‘sporty chic’ she influenced a generation of young women to adopt healthier, exercise-driven lifestyles, a campaign she continued well after her movie career ended, such as when she provided on-air commentary during the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. Like Johnny Weissmuller before her, she also established a tradition of athletes becoming actors and paved the way for the likes of Jim Kelly, a martial artist turned actor best known for his role in Enter the Dragon, who also died in 2013. (Alamy)

  • Lou Reed

    The Velvet Underground frontman and acid-tongued rocker died on 27 October aged 71. Arguably few musicians had a greater influence on subsequent generations than Reed did because of his work with the Velvets in the 1960s and 70s – the band, with its purposefully discordant, often unmelodic sounds, left its fingerprints on punk, grunge, and even hip-hop, leading music critic Greg Kot to argue they have been more influential than The Beatles. Though Reed’s songs eventually became detached from their original context – his song Perfect Day about heroin addiction popped up recently on a TV commercial – his insight never lost its potency. Right before his death he even wrote a lengthy tribute to Kanye West’s Yeezus that showed he was still feeling the pulse of innovation. Among other rock legends who died in 2013 was The Doors’ Ray Manzarek. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

  • James Gandolfini

    Few actors have ever made evil more relatable than James Gandolfini in the role of Tony Soprano on HBO’s legendary series, The Sopranos. Even when he was doing horrible things, you couldn’t help but have some affection for the guy. Gandolfini never had the looks of a traditional leading man, but he was drenched in star power – and carried his acting skill over to the big screen with films like Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly and the recent, critically-acclaimed romantic comedy Enough Said. He died of a sudden heart attack in Rome on 19 June, aged 51. Other TV personalities lost in 2013 include Frank Thornton, Jean Stapleton, David Frost, Cory Monteith, Eydie Gormé and Jonathan Winters. (AP Photo/HBO)

  • Sir Anthony Caro

    While most sculptors seek to create a form in space, Caro sought to slash through space itself. He shaped found industrial objects – I-Beams and sheet metal – into jagged, angular compositions. In a 1984 BBC programme the artist, who died 23 October aged 89, recalled how his children sometimes could not distinguish between his work and actual industrial machines: “I remember when my kids were young and I was making big yellow sculptures and they'd go past some road machine and say: ‘Sculpture, daddy!’ He then added, to specify the nature of his work as different from mere functionality: “Mine was intended to be a feeling object.” Other art world luminaries who died in 2013 include expressionist Don Reichert, pop artist Ronnie Cutrone and critic Arthur Danto. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Joan Fontaine

    Few actors have more richly conveyed the quiet internal lives of movie characters than Fontaine, who died on 15 December aged 96. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), she plays characters unmoored by circumstance and uncertain of their ability to piece together and interpret reality. In combination with Hitchcock’s trademark point-of-view cinematography, Fontaine, pictured right opposite Judith Anderson in Rebecca, generated unprecedented in-her-shoes subjectivity for her characters. Understated empathy radiates off the screen from a Joan Fontaine performance – her non-Hitchcock work was equally impressive, especially her turn in Max Ophuls’ heartbreaking masterwork Letter from an Unknown Woman. It is a shame that she was remembered in recent years more for her legendary feud with sister Olivia de Havilland, still alive and kicking at 97, than for her lustrous cinematic art. Other legends of classic Hollywood who died in 2013 include Deanna Durbin and Eleanor Parker. (Corbis/John Springer Collection)

  • Ray Harryhausen

    Before CGI there was Ray Harryhausen. This master of stop-motion animation helped revolutionise the possibilities of film special effects in the 1950s through to the ‘80s. Where many special effects artists strive for verisimilitude, Harryhausen, who died on 7 May aged 92, went in a more outré direction, conjuring fantastically Baroque monsters, such as a tentacle-headed Medusa, a multi-armed goddess Kali and reanimated skeletons for the B-movies Clash of the Titans (1981), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), respectively. Terry Gilliam once said: “What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.” George Lucas has gone so far as to say, “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no Star Wars.” Behind-the-camera film legends who died this year also include Spaghetti Western screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and make-up artist Stuart Freeborn, who designed Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back. (Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Julie Harris

    In her life, Julie Harris, who died on 24 August aged 87, was honoured with five Tony Awards, three Emmys, a Grammy, the National Medal of Arts, and the Kennedy Center Honor. Yet she still isn’t recognised enough for helping move Hollywood away from glamour and toward a new realism with her bracingly authentic screen roles in the 1950s and ‘60s in movies like East of Eden, Requiem for a Heavyweight and Reflections in a Golden Eye. Her screen debut in 1952 in director Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Carson McCullers’ play The Member of the Wedding remains particularly striking – her hair cropped androgynously, she portrayed a lonely, volatile teenage girl, a role she had originally inhabited on Broadway. It is one of the cinema’s great portraits of isolation. Two other actresses who followed in her wake also died in 2013: Karen Black and Eileen Brennan. (AP)

  • Peter O'Toole

    What makes Lawrence of Arabia the grandest epic ever put on screen? Because it is also so intimate. It is a portrait of singularity, of man’s inherent loneliness that would have been unthinkable without its then unknown star Peter O’Toole, who lends an aura of elegant detachment to his portrayal of British war hero TE Lawrence. O’Toole, who died on 14 December aged 81, lent radiant insight to the many different roles he embodied during his five-decade screen career: from pompous King Henry II in The Lion in Winter to the bon vivant, swashbuckling Errol Flynn stand-in Allan Swann in My Favorite Year. Other movie actors who died in 2013 include Richard Griffiths and Paul Walker. (AF archive/Alamy)