In a year defined by a devastating pandemic, the world lost iconic defenders of civil rights, great athletes and entertainers who helped define their genres.
Many of their names hold a prominent place in the collective consciousness — RBG, Kobe, Maradona, Eddie Van Halen, Little Richard, Sean Connery, Alex Trebek, Christo — but pandemic restrictions often limited the public’s ability to mourn their loss in a year that saw more than a million people die from the coronavirus.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — known as the Notorious RBG to her many admirers — was one of the many noteworthy figures who died in 2020.
In a court known for solemn legal proceedings, Ginsburg became a cultural and social media icon whose fierce defense of women’s rights earned her a devoted following. She died in September after 27 years on the country’s highest court. Making few concessions to age and health problems, she showed a steely resilience and became the leader of liberal justices on the court.
The world also said goodbye to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a lion of the civil rights movement who died in July.
Other former political figures who died this year include Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, New York Mayor David Dinkins, Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, and FBI Director William S. Sessions.
Some of the year’s deaths struck down relatively young people, leaving mourners with the heartbreak of a life gone too soon.
Basketball great Kobe Bryant died along with several others in a January helicopter crash at age 41. And in a shock to fans, actor Chadwick Boseman, who inspired audiences with his portrayal of comic book superhero Black Panther, died of cancer in August at age 43.
Others in the world of arts and entertainment who died in 2020 include actors Olivia de Havilland, Kirk Douglas, Irrfan Khan, Max von Sydow, Diana Rigg, Ian Holm, Rishi Kapoor and Franca Valeri; musicians Ellis Marsalis Jr., John Prine, Bonnie Pointer, Kenny Rogers, Juliette Greco and Toots Hibbert; filmmakers Nobuhiko Obayashi, Joel Schumacher and Ivan Passer; authors Mary Higgins Clark and Clive Cussler; TV hosts Regis Philbin and Jim Lehrer; magician Roy Horn; and fashion designer Kenzo Takada.
Here is a roll call of some influential figures who died in 2020 (cause of death cited for younger people, if available):
David Stern, 77. The basketball-loving lawyer who took the NBA around the world during 30 years as its longest-serving commissioner and oversaw its growth into a global powerhouse. Jan. 1.
Neil Peart, 67. The renowned drummer and lyricist from the influential Canadian band Rush. Jan. 7.
Buck Henry, 89. “The Graduate” co-writer who as screenwriter, character actor, “Saturday Night Live” host and cherished talk-show and party guest became an all-around cultural superstar of the 1960s and 70s. Jan. 8.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said, 79. He was the Mideast’s longest-ruling monarch who seized power in Oman in a 1970 palace coup and pulled his Arabian sultanate into modernity while carefully balancing diplomatic ties between adversaries Iran and the U.S. Jan. 11.
Thomas Railsback, 87. An Illinois Republican congressman who helped draw up articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon in 1974. Jan. 20.
Terry Jones, 77. A founding member of the anarchic Monty Python troupe who was hailed by colleagues as “the complete Renaissance comedian” and “a man of endless enthusiasms.” Jan. 21.
Jim Lehrer, 85. The longtime host of the nightly PBS “NewsHour” whose serious, sober demeanor made him the choice to moderate 11 presidential debates between 1988 and 2012. Jan. 23.
Kobe Bryant, 41. The 18-time NBA All-Star who won five championships and became one of the greatest basketball players of his generation during a 20-year career spent entirely with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jan. 26. Helicopter crash.
Mary Higgins Clark, 92. She was the tireless and long-reigning “Queen of Suspense” whose tales of women beating the odds made her one of the world’s most popular writers. Jan. 31.
Anne Cox Chambers, 100. A newspaper heiress, diplomat and philanthropist who was one of America’s richest women. Jan. 31.
Bernard Ebbers, 78. The former chief of WorldCom who was convicted in one of the largest corporate accounting scandals in U.S. history. Feb. 2.
Daniel arap Moi, 95. A former schoolteacher who became Kenya’s longest-serving president and presided over years of repression and economic turmoil fueled by runaway corruption. Feb. 4.
Kirk Douglas, 103. The intense, muscular actor with the dimpled chin who starred in “Spartacus,” “Lust for Life” and dozens of other films, helped fatally weaken the blacklist against suspected communists and reigned for decades as a Hollywood maverick and patriarch. Feb. 5.
Orson Bean, 91. The witty actor and comedian who enlivened the game show “To Tell the Truth” and played a crotchety merchant on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” Feb. 7. Hit by a car.
Mirella Freni, 84. An Italian soprano whose uncommon elegance and intensity combined with a sumptuous voice and intelligence to enthrall audiences for a half-century. Feb. 9.
Zoe Caldwell, 86. A four-time Tony Award winner who brought humanity to larger-than-life characters, whether it be the dotty schoolteacher Miss Jean Brodie, an aging opera star Maria Callas or the betrayed, murderous Medea. Feb. 16.
Charles Portis, 86. The novelist was a favorite among critics and writers for such shaggy dog stories as “Norwood” and “Gringos” and a bounty for Hollywood whose droll, bloody Western “True Grit” was a bestseller twice adapted into Oscar-nominated films. Feb. 17.
Mickey Wright, 85. The golf great with a magnificent swing who won 13 majors among her 82 victories and gave the fledgling LPGA a crucial lift. Feb. 17.
Sy Sperling, 78. The Hair Club for Men founder who was famous for the TV commercials where he proclaimed “I’m not only the Hair Club president but I’m also a client.” Feb. 19.
Katherine Johnson, 101. A mathematician who calculated rocket trajectories and Earth orbits for NASA’s early space missions and was later portrayed in the 2016 hit film “Hidden Figures,” about pioneering Black female aerospace workers. Feb. 24.
Clive Cussler, 88. The million-selling adventure writer and real-life thrill-seeker who wove personal details and spectacular fantasies into his page-turning novels about underwater explorer Dirk Pitt. Feb. 24.
Hosni Mubarak, 91. The Egyptian leader who was the autocratic face of stability in the Middle East for nearly 30 years before being forced from power in an Arab Spring uprising. Feb. 25.
Jack Welch, 84. He transformed General Electric Co. into a highly profitable multinational conglomerate and parlayed his legendary business acumen into a retirement career as a corporate leadership guru. March 1. Renal failure.
Ernesto Cardenal, 95. The renowned poet and Roman Catholic cleric who became a symbol of revolutionary verse in Nicaragua and across Latin America, and whose suspension from the priesthood by St. John Paul II lasted over three decades. March 1.
James Lipton, 93. The longtime host of “Inside the Actors Studio.” March 2. Cancer.
Bobbie Battista, 67. She was among the original anchors for CNN Headline News and hosted CNN’s “TalkBack Live.” March 3. Cancer.
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, 100. The two-term United Nations secretary-general who brokered a historic cease-fire between Iran and Iraq in 1988 and who in later life came out of retirement to help reestablish democracy in his Peruvian homeland. March 4.
Amory Houghton Jr., 93. He led his family’s glass company in upstate New York and later spent nearly two decades in Congress as a Republican with a reputation for breaking with his party. March 4.
Rev. Darius L. Swann, 95. His challenge to the notion of segregated public schools helped spark the use of busing to integrate schools across the country. March 8.
Kenny Rogers, 81. The Grammy-winning balladeer who spanned jazz, folk, country and pop with such hits as “Lucille,” “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” and embraced his persona as “The Gambler” on records and TV. March 20.
Terrence McNally, 81. He was one of America’s great playwrights whose prolific career included winning Tony Awards for the plays “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class” and the musicals “Ragtime” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” March 24. Coronavirus.
Fred “Curly” Neal, 77. The dribbling wizard who entertained millions with the Harlem Globetrotters for parts of three decades. March 26.
Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, 98. A veteran civil rights leader who helped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and fought against racial discrimination. March 27.
Tom Coburn, 72. A former U.S. senator from Oklahoma who earned a reputation as a conservative political maverick when he railed against federal earmarks and subsidies for the rich. March 28.
Bill Withers, 81. He wrote and sang a string of soulful songs in the 1970s that have stood the test of time, including “Lean on Me,” “Lovely Day” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” March 30.
Ellis Marsalis Jr., 85. The jazz pianist, teacher and patriarch of a New Orleans musical clan. April 1. Coronavirus.
Tom Dempsey, 73. The NFL kicker born without toes on his kicking foot who made a then-record 63-yard field goal. April 4. Coronavirus.
Earl Graves Sr., 85. He championed Black businesses as the founder of the first African American-owned magazine focusing on black entrepreneurs. April 6.
John Prine, 73. The singer-songwriter who explored the heartbreaks, indignities and absurdities of everyday life in “Angel from Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There” and scores of other songs. April 7. Coronavirus.
Linda Tripp, 70. Her secretly taped conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky provided evidence of an affair with President Bill Clinton that led to his impeachment. April 8.
Mort Drucker, 91. The Mad magazine cartoonist who for decades lovingly spoofed politicians, celebrities and popular culture. April 9.
Phyllis Lyon, 95. A gay rights pioneer who, with her longtime partner, was among the first same-sex couples to marry in California when it became legal to do so in 2008. April 9.
Jane Hull, 84. She was Arizona’s first woman elected governor and part of the “Fab Five” celebrated as the nation’s first all-female elected state executive branch leadership group. April 17.
Paul O’Neill, 84. A former Treasury secretary who broke with George W. Bush over tax policy and then produced a book critical of the administration. April 18.
Denis Goldberg, 87. A South African anti-apartheid activist. April 29.
Bobby Lee Verdugo, 69. One of the leaders of the 1968 East Los Angeles high school walkout to protest discrimination and dropout rates among Mexican American students, which triggered a movement across the American Southwest. May 1.
Don Shula, 90. He won the most games of any NFL coach and led the Miami Dolphins to the only perfect season in league history. May 4.
Roy Horn, 75. He was half of Siegfried & Roy, the duo whose extraordinary magic tricks astonished millions until Horn was critically injured in 2003 by one of the act’s famed white tigers. May 8. Coronavirus.
Little Richard, 87. He was one of the chief architects of rock ‘n’ roll whose piercing wail, pounding piano and towering pompadour irrevocably altered popular music while introducing Black R&B to white America. May 9. Bone cancer.
Jerry Stiller, 92. For decades, he teamed with wife Anne Meara in a beloved comedy duo and then reached new heights in his senior years as the high-strung Frank Costanza on the classic sitcom “Seinfeld” and the basement-dwelling father-in-law on “The King of Queens.” May 11.
Astrid Kirchherr, 81. She was the German photographer who shot some of the earliest and most striking images of the Beatles and helped shape their trend-setting visual style. May 12.
Phyllis George, 70. The former Miss America who became a female sportscasting pioneer on CBS’ “The NFL Today” and served as the first lady of Kentucky. May 14.
Saleh Abdullah Kamel, 79. The billionaire Saudi businessman who founded the banking and real estate conglomerate Dallah Albaraka Group. May 19.
Larry Kramer, 84. The playwright whose angry voice and pen raised theatergoers’ consciousness about AIDS and roused thousands to militant protests in the early years of the epidemic. May 27. Pneumonia.
Christo, 84. He was known for massive, ephemeral public arts projects that often involved wrapping large structures in fabric. May 31.
Wes Unseld, 74. The workmanlike Hall of Fame center who led Washington to its only NBA championship and was chosen one of the 50 greatest players in league history. June 2.
Bonnie Pointer, 69. She convinced three of her church-singing siblings to form the Pointer Sisters, which would become one of the biggest acts of the 1970s and ’80s. June 8. Cardiac arrest.
Pierre Nkurunziza, 56. As president of Burundi, his 15-year-rule was marked by deadly political violence and a historic withdrawal from the International Criminal Court. June 8.
William S. Sessions, 90. A former federal judge appointed by President Ronald Reagan to head the FBI and fired years later by President Bill Clinton. June 12.
Edén Pastora, 83. Better known as “Commander Zero,” he was one of the most mercurial and charismatic figures of Central America’s revolutionary upheavals. June 16.
Jean Kennedy Smith, 92. She was the last surviving sibling of President John F. Kennedy and who as a U.S. ambassador played a key role in the peace process in Northern Ireland. June 17.
Rudolfo Anaya, 82. A writer who helped launch the 1970s Chicano Literature Movement with his novel “Bless Me, Ultima,” a book celebrated by Latinos. June 28.
Carl Reiner, 98. The ingenious and versatile writer, actor and director who broke through as a “second banana” to Sid Caesar and rose to comedy’s front ranks as creator of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and straight man to Mel Brooks’ “2000 Year Old Man.” June 29.
Hugh Downs, 99. The genial, versatile broadcaster who became one of television’s most familiar and welcome faces with more than 15,000 hours on news, game and talk shows. July 1.
Charlie Daniels, 83. Country music firebrand and fiddler who had a hit with “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” July 6. Stroke.
Kelly Preston, 57. She played dramatic and comic foil to actors ranging from Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire” to Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Twins” and was married to actor John Travolta. July 12. Cancer.
Joanna Cole, 75. The author whose “Magic School Bus” books transported millions of young people on extraordinary and educational adventures. July 12. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
John Lewis, 80. An icon of the civil rights movement whose bloody beating by Alabama state troopers in 1965 helped galvanize opposition to racial segregation, and who went on to a long and celebrated career in Congress. July 17.
Rev. C.T. Vivian, 95. An early and key adviser to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who organized pivotal civil rights campaigns and spent decades advocating for justice and equality. July 17.
Regis Philbin, 88. The genial host who shared his life with television viewers over morning coffee for decades and helped himself and some fans strike it rich with the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” July 24.
Peter Green, 73. The dexterous blues guitarist who led the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac in a career shortened by psychedelic drugs and mental illness. July 25.
Olivia de Havilland, 104. The doe-eyed actress beloved to millions as the sainted Melanie Wilkes of “Gone With the Wind,” but also a two-time Oscar winner and an off-screen fighter who challenged and unchained Hollywood’s contract system. July 26.
Lee Teng-hui, 97. A former Taiwanese president who brought direct elections and other democratic changes to the self-governed island despite missile launches and other fierce saber-rattling by China. July 30.
Herman Cain, 74. A former Republican presidential candidate and former CEO of a major pizza chain who went on to become an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. July 30. Coronavirus.
Wilford Brimley, 85. He worked his way up from movie stunt rider to an indelible character actor who brought gruff charm, and sometimes menace, to a range of films that included “Cocoon,” “The Natural” and “The Firm.” Aug. 1.
John Hume, 83. The visionary politician who won a Nobel Peace Prize for fashioning the agreement that ended violence in his native Northern Ireland. Aug. 3.
Brent Scowcroft, 95. He played a prominent role in American foreign policy as national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and was a Republican voice against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Aug. 6.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, 83. A prolific Jewish scholar who spent 45 years compiling a monumental and ground-breaking translation of the Talmud. Aug. 7.
Robert Trump, 71. President Donald Trump’s younger brother, he was a businessman known for an even keel that seemed almost incompatible with the family name. Aug. 15.
Slade Gorton, 92. A cerebral politician from Washington state who served as a U.S. Senate Republican leader before he was ousted by the growing Seattle-area liberal electorate in 2000. Aug. 19.
Chadwick Boseman, 43. He played Black American icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown with searing intensity before inspiring audiences worldwide as the regal Black Panther in Marvel’s blockbuster movie franchise. Aug. 28. Cancer.
John Thompson, 78. The imposing Hall of Famer who turned Georgetown into a “Hoya Paranoia” powerhouse and became the first Black coach to lead a team to the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Aug. 30.
Tom Seaver, 75. The Hall of Fame pitcher who steered a stunning transformation from lovable losers to Miracle Mets in 1969. Aug. 31. Complications of Lewy body dementia and the coronavirus.
Toots Hibbert, 77. One of reggae’s founders and most beloved stars who gave the music its name and later helped make it an international movement through such classics as “Pressure Drop,” “Monkey Man” and “Funky Kingston.” Sept. 11.
Florence Howe, 91. An activist, educator and major contributor to American literature and culture who as co-founder of the Feminist Press helped revive such acclaimed and influential works as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills.” Sept. 12.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87. The U.S. Supreme Court justice developed a cultlike following over her more than 27 years on the bench, especially among young women who appreciated her lifelong, fierce defense of women’s rights. Sept. 18.
Rev. Robert Graetz, 92. The only white minister to support the Montgomery bus boycott and who became the target of scorn and bombings for doing so. Sept. 20.
Gale Sayers, 77. The dazzling and elusive running back who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite the briefest of careers and whose fame extended far beyond the field for decades thanks to a friendship with a dying Chicago Bears teammate. Sept. 23.
Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, 91. The ruler of Kuwait who drew on his decades as the oil-rich nation’s top diplomat to push for closer ties to Iraq after the 1990 Gulf War and solutions to other regional crises. Sept. 29.
Helen Reddy, 78. She shot to stardom in the 1970s with her rousing feminist anthem “I Am Woman” and recorded a string of other hits. Sept. 29.
Timothy Ray Brown, 54. He made history as “the Berlin patient,” the first person known to be cured of HIV infection. Sept. 29.
Mac Davis, 78. A country music star who launched his career crafting the Elvis hits “A Little Less Conversation” and “In the Ghetto,” and whose own hits include “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me.” Sept. 29.
Sister Ardeth Platte, 84. A Dominican nun and anti-nuclear activist who spent time in jail for her peaceful protests. Sept. 30.
Bob Gibson, 84. A baseball Hall of Famer and the dominating St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who won a record seven consecutive World Series starts and set a modern standard for excellence when he finished the 1968 season with a 1.12 ERA. Oct. 2.
Eddie Van Halen, 65. The guitar virtuoso whose blinding speed, control and innovation propelled his band Van Halen into one of hard rock’s biggest groups and became elevated to the status of rock god. Oct. 6. Cancer.
Johnny Nash, 80. A singer-songwriter, actor and producer who rose from pop crooner to early reggae star to the creator and performer of the million-selling anthem “I Can See Clearly Now.” Oct. 6.
Whitey Ford, 91. The street-smart New Yorker who had the best winning percentage of any pitcher in the 20th century and helped the Yankees become baseball’s perennial champions in the 1950s and ’60s. Oct. 8.
Joe Morgan, 77. The Hall of Fame second baseman became the sparkplug of dominant Cincinnati teams in the mid-1970s and was a two-time National League Most Valuable Player. Oct. 11.
Bernard S. Cohen, 86. He won a landmark case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of laws forbidding interracial marriage and later went on to a successful political career as a state legislator. Oct. 12. Complications from Parkinson’s disease.
Spencer Davis, 81. A British guitarist and bandleader whose eponymous rock group had 1960s hits including “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.” Oct. 19.
Diane di Prima, 86. A poet, activist and teacher who was one of the last surviving members of the Beats and one of the few women writers in the Beat movement. Oct. 25.
Billy Joe Shaver, 81. An outlaw country singer-songwriter who wrote songs like “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” Oct. 28.
Sean Connery, 90. The charismatic Scottish actor who rose to international superstardom as the suave secret agent James Bond and then abandoned the role to carve out an Oscar-winning career in other rugged roles. Oct. 31.
Alex Trebek, 80. He presided over the beloved quiz show “Jeopardy!” for more than 30 years with dapper charm and a touch of schoolmaster strictness. Nov. 8.
Saeb Erekat, 65. A veteran peace negotiator and prominent international spokesman for the Palestinians for more than three decades. Nov. 10. Coronavirus.
Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, 84. As Bahrain’s prince, he was one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers and led his island nation’s government for decades. Nov. 11.
Paul Hornung, 84. The dazzling “Golden Boy” of the Green Bay Packers whose singular ability to generate points as a runner, receiver, quarterback and kicker helped turn the team into an NFL dynasty. Nov. 13.
Walid al-Moallem, 79. Syria’s longtime foreign minister, he was a career diplomat who became one of the country’s most prominent faces to the outside world during the uprising against President Bashar Assad. Nov. 16.
Jan Morris, 94. The celebrated journalist, historian, world traveler and fiction writer who in middle age became a pioneer of the transgender movement. Nov. 20.
David Dinkins, 93. He broke barriers as New York City’s first African American mayor but was doomed to a single term by a soaring murder rate, stubborn unemployment and his mishandling of a riot in Brooklyn. Nov. 23.
Bruce Carver Boynton, 83. A civil rights pioneer from Alabama who inspired the landmark “Freedom Rides” of 1961. Nov. 23.
Diego Maradona, 60. The Argentine soccer great who scored the “Hand of God” goal in 1986 and led his country to that year’s World Cup title before later struggling with cocaine use and obesity. Nov. 25.
Eddie Benton-Banai, 89. He helped found the American Indian Movement partly in response to alleged police brutality against Indigenous people. Nov. 30.
Valery Giscard d’Estaing, 94. He was the president of France from 1974 to 1981 and became a champion of European integration. Dec. 2.
Rafer Johnson, 86. He won the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin in 1968. Dec. 2.
Tabaré Vázquez, 80. He was Uruguay’s first socialist president, rising from poverty to win two terms as leader. Dec. 6. Cancer.
Paul Sarbanes, 87. He represented Maryland for 30 years in the Senate as a leader of financial regulatory reform and drafted the first article of impeachment against Republican President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal as a congressman. Dec. 6.
Charles “Chuck” Yeager, 97. The World War II fighter pilot ace and quintessential test pilot who in 1947 became the first person to fly faster than sound. Dec. 7.
Charley Pride, 86. He was one of country music’s first Black superstars whose rich baritone on such hits as “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” helped sell millions of records and made him the first Black member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Dec. 12. Coronavirus.
John le Carre, 89. The spy-turned-novelist whose elegant and intricate narratives defined the Cold War espionage thriller and brought acclaim to a genre critics had once ignored. Dec. 12.
William Winter, 97. The former Mississippi governor was a Democrat who pushed to strengthen public education in one of the poorest states in the U.S. and to improve race relations. Dec. 18.
K.T. Oslin, 78. A country singer who hit it big with the 1987 hit “80′s Ladies” and won three Grammy awards. Dec. 21.
Phil Niekro, 81. The baseball Hall of Famer pitched with a knuckleball that baffled hitters for more than two decades, mostly with the Atlanta Braves. Dec. 26.
Pierre Cardin, 98. The French fashion designer revolutionized fashion with his iconic looks of the 20th century. Dec. 29.
Luke Letlow, 41. Louisiana’s congressman-elect died of complications related to COVID-19. be. Dec. 29.
Dawn Wells, 82. She played the wholesome Mary Ann on the 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.” Dec. 30.
Republished with permission from The Associated Press.