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In memoriam: Remembering the celebrities we lost in 2021

Take a look back at the famous faces from television, movies, music and the world stage that we said goodbye to this year.
Look back as we honor the famous faces we lost in 2021.
Look back as we honor the famous faces we lost in 2021. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

We're about to welcome a new year, but before we do, it’s time to say goodbye to 2021 — and to the actors, musicians, filmmakers and other pop culture icons we lost.

They inspired us, entertained us and their impact will never be forgotten.

Betty White 1922-2021

Betty White in 1954.NBC

On the last day of 2021, Betty White — whose pioneering career as a TV star mirrored that of the medium itself — died. She was 99 years old, just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday.

"Even though Betty was about to be 100, I thought she would live forever," her agent and close friend Jeff Witjas said in a statement given to TODAY. "I will miss her terribly and so will the animal world that she loved so much. I don't think Betty ever feared passing because she always wanted to be with her most beloved husband, Allen Ludden. She believed she would be with him again."

White took the occasional guest role on TV series in the ‘60s before she landed the career-changing part as Sue Ann Nivens on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” First appearing on the landmark comedy’s fourth season in 1973, White played a co-worker of Moore’s Mary Richards, earning a pair of Emmy Awards.

White’s career-defining role, though, would come in 1985 when she joined Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty to make up a quartet of senior citizens living together in Miami on the smash NBC comedy “The Golden Girls.”

Her portrayal of naïve Rose Nylund resonated with viewers and critics alike. The show was a ratings winner, and White snagged the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series in 1986. She would garner another six nominations for the role. The show itself remains a cultural phenomenon running strongly in syndication.

CBS via Getty Images

Ed Asner 1929 – 2021

The world lost a legend when actor, activist and two-time Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner died Aug. 29 at the age of 91.

Asner starred in dozens of film and television series over the course of his 70-plus years in the entertainment industry, but there’s one character he’ll be remembered for more than any other — TV news director-turned-newspaper editor Lou Grant. It was a comedic role that he debuted on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1970 and one that carried over as a dramatic part in the character’s eponymous spinoff in 1977. Over the course of both series, Asner won five Emmy Awards for playing Grant.

With seven total Emmy acting wins, the late star also holds the distinction as the Primetime Emmys' most honored male entertainer.

Michael Ochs Archives

Cicely Tyson 1924 - 2021

Hollywood icon and “Sounder” star Cicely Tyson collected accolades throughout her seven decades in show business, including three Emmys, one Tony, four Black Reel Awards, a Peabody and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The model-turned-actor created her path in film and television in a time when roles from Black women were scarce. And when Tinseltown finally started to come around, with the rise of stars like Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, Tyson declared it was “long overdue.”

“We have been a race of people that have been suppressed out of fear and finally we have been able to get a hold on the power that this industry wields,” she told NBC News.

Tyson died Jan. 28. She was 96.

Vera Anderson / WireImage

Jessica Walter 1941 - 2021

New York born actor Jessica Walter got her big screen break in 1964 in the drama “Lilith,” but her star power continued to rise throughout her nearly 80-year career.

The part she was best known for was one she began in 2003, that of Lucille Bluth on the sitcom “Arrested Development.” The Emmy winner went on to gain more acclaim for her voice role as Malory Archer on the FX adult animated series “Archer.” The most recent season of the spy comedy, released after her death, ended with her character retiring to a peaceful life.

Walter died March 24 at the age of 80.

Alastair Grant / Getty Images

Prince Philip 1921 - 2021

Philip was an 18-year-old Greek and Danish prince when he met a 13-year-old British princess who would change the course of his life. Though it was a few years longer before he’d discover the impact of their meeting.

Philip and Princess Elizabeth courted one another through letters while he was away in the Royal Navy. Upon his return from service, he married a then 21-year-old Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey in 1947. She became queen five years later, and he began his tenure as Britain’s longest serving royal consort.

After four children, eight grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and 73 years of marriage, the Duke of Edinburgh died on April 9. He was 99.

Peter Power / Toronto Star via Getty Images

Ned Beatty 1937 – 2021

While character actors are often regarded as secondary stars, Ned Beatty proved to be an absolute scene-stealer in his supporting work in a number of Hollywood hits, including his unforgettable performance in his debut big screen effort, 1972’s “Deliverance.”

From “Network” (1976) to “Toy Story 3” (2010) and from “All the President’s Men” (1976) to “Superman” (1978), Beatty tackled played villains, heroes and bumbling sidekicks with equal aplomb.

On June 13, Beatty died at the age of 83.

Chris Haston / NBC

Dustin Diamond 1977 – 2021

Former child star Dustin Diamond gained fame at the age of 12 playing the part of Samuel “Screech” Powers on the 1989 sitcom “Saved by the Bell.” But it was long after his Bayside High School days, in 2009, when he published a scandalous account of life behind the scenes on the teen comedy, one that accused his co-stars of a variety of sordid behaviors.

The actor later recanted the allegations made in “Behind the Bell,” and apologized to his former friends, alleging the claims were fabricated by a ghostwriter.

Diamond passed away Feb. 1, just three weeks after turning 44 — and three weeks after being diagnosed with what his spokesperson referred to as a “brutal, relentless form of malignant cancer.”

Robert Ascroft / NBC

Willie Garson 1964 – 2021

“Sex and the City” fans came to know Willie Garson for playing the part of Carrie Bradshaw’s devoted best friend — or at least best male friend. Garson brought Stanford “Stanny” Blatch to life during the series’ original six-season run on HBO, in both of the “Sex and the City” big screen releases and he even appears in the newly released HBO Max sequel series “And Just Like That...”

But that will be the last part of his work with the franchise. On Sept. 21, the 57-year-old star died from pancreatic cancer.

Kim Kulish / Corbis via Getty Images

Charles Grodin 1935 – 2021

Stage-and-screen actor, deadpan comedian and author Charles Grodin died from bone marrow cancer May 18 at the age of 86.

Grodin starred in dozens of films, including “Catch-22” (1970), “Beethoven” (1992) and “The Comedian” (2016), and achieved success in a wide variety of television roles. He also made a name for himself as a comic foil on late-night TV in the 1970s and 1980s with his playfully aggressive banter with the likes of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

Amanda Edwards / WireImage

Hal Holbrook 1925 – 2021

Hal Holbrook, Emmy and Tony-winning actor, director and screenwriter, had a long list of Hollywood credits to his name over the course of his 70 years in the industry. But despite appearing in many big screen hits, including “All the President’s Men” (1976) and “Wall Street” (1987), he’s best remembered for one role.

Holbrook took on the part of American novelist and humorist Mark Twain in his own one-man play “Mark Twain Tonight!” which he launched in 1954. He performed the play more than 2,200 times before retiring from the role in 2017.

The star died Jan. 23 at the age of 95.

Steve Granitz / WireImage

Larry King 1933 -2021

Veteran television and radio personality Larry King died Jan. 23. He was 87 years old. King was regarded as one of the great interviewers of his generation, honing his craft over a 60-plus-year career in broadcasting that included 35 years at the helm of CNN’s “Larry King Live.” According to CNN, King conducted more than 50,000 interviews during his life.

In 2013, King told TODAY’s Willie Geist, "I love asking questions. I’ve been doing it all my life. When I was 9 years old, I asked the bus driver, 'Why do you want to drive a bus?' And I’m still doing that, 'Why do you want to drive a bus?'"

CBS via Getty Images

Cloris Leachman 1926 – 2021

Like her former “Mary Tyler Moore Show” co-star, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman holds an Emmy-winner distinction. With eight acting wins, she’s tied with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the winningest female entertainer in the history of Primetime Emmy Awards. She was nominated a total of 22 times.

And as with Asner, fans of this iconic actor and comedian were left mourning this year following her death in January at the age of 94.

During her 79 years on stage and screen, Leachman a number of other accolades for her many roles, including an Academy Award for her supporting performance in 1971's "The Last Picture Show."

Mario Ruiz / Getty Images

Jackie Mason 1928 – 2021

Borscht Belt funnyman and stage, screen and radio star Jackie Mason died July 24, just a month after he turned 93.

The Tony and Emmy winner was known for his no-holds-barred humor, one-man shows, as well as film and television roles that ranged from a part in Steve Martin’s 1979 comedy “The Jerk” to his recurring voice role as Rabbi Hyman Krustofski on “The Simpsons.”

But he’s also remembered for a legendary celebrity feud with Ed Sullivan, who banned him from his eponymous variety show after claiming Mason gave him the middle finger during a 1960s visit. It was a claim Mason later disproved in court.

NBC

Norm Macdonald 1959 – 2021

Former “Saturday Night Live” star Norm Macdonald died Sept. 14. The 61-year-old had been privately battling cancer for nearly a decade.

Known for his numerous impersonations and his wry delivery on “SNL’s” “Weekend Update,” Macdonald worked steadily in film and television after leaving the sketch comedy show and was well admired by his peers.

Following the news of Macdonald’s death, Jim Carrey referred to him as “one of our most precious gems. An honest and courageous comedy genius.”

ABC Photo Archives

Gavin MacLeod 1931 – 2021

Yet another “Mary Tyler Moore Show” alum passed in 2021. Gavin MacLeod, who played Murray Slaughter on the 1970s series, died May 29 at the age of 90.

After making a name for himself on all 168 episodes of that classic sitcom, MacLeod gained even more recognition for his next long-running role — that of Captain Merrill Stubing on the ‘70s and ‘80s prime-time hit “The Love Boat.”

The actor also had recurring roles in “McHale’s Navy,” “Perry Mason” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Christopher Plummer 1929 – 2021

Christopher Plummer, the celebrated actor who played Captain Georg von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” (1965), died in his Connecticut home on Feb. 5. He was 91.

The Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner also had more than 100 other film credits to his name, including “Malcom X” (1992), “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2011) and “Knives out” (2019), but it was his endlessly rewatchable performance as von Trapp, alongside Julie Andrews, that endures most in the minds of fans.

"The world has lost a consummate actor today and I have lost a cherished friend," Andrews told NBC News in a statement following Plummer’s death. “I treasure the memories of our work together and all the humor and fun we shared through the years."

Keith Hamshere / Getty Images

Tanya Roberts 1955 – 2021

Model-turned-actor-turned-producer Tanya Roberts earned a devoted fan following for her work in the 1984 James Bond film “A View to a Kill,” starring as the title character in “Sheena” (1984) and for her role as “hot mom” Midge Pinciotti on “That ‘70s Show.”

But in January, those fans grieved the loss of the star more than once.

On the 3rd, Robert’s spokesperson, Mike Pingel, told TODAY and other publications the star had died. However, the next morning, it was announced that Roberts, while hospitalized, was still alive.

The correction only served to delay the sad news for a few hours though, as she passed away on the evening of Jan. 4. Roberts was 65.

Walt Disney Television Photo Archives / ABC

Peter Scolari 1955 – 2021

Peter Scolari, the actor known for his breakout work with Tom Hanks on "Bosom Buddies," in addition to later roles on the hit series “Newhart” and "Girls," died Oct. 22 at 66.

Hanks honored his friend just days after the Emmy winner’s death from cancer.

“I don’t know how many people truly do change your lives when you cross paths with them,” Hanks said during an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”. “But he and I met, we picked up the scripts and we started screwing around, and I actually thought, ‘Oh, this is it. This is how this works. This is like a hand inside a glove.’”

Douglas Elbinger / Getty Images

Stephen Sondheim 1930 – 2021

Prolific American composer and musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim died Nov. 26 at the age of 91

The “West Side Story” lyricist also wrote the words and music for "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Company," "Follies," "Into the Woods" and many other iconic musicals.

Sondheim earned numerous accolades during his career, including eight Tony Awards, one Oscar, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize. And in 2015, President Barack Obama presented the icon with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Phil Spector 1939 – 2021

Michael Ochs Archives

For most of his life, it seemed Phil Spector’s legacy would be that of an eccentric and wildly successful record producer who created the Wall of Sound — a production style that involved layering recordings until it resulted in a lush and full sound with instrumentation that could no longer be distinguished, perfected on the Righteous Brothers' 1964 release, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”

But Spector’s musical contributions faded to the background when he was convicted of murder in the death of actor Lana Clarkson, which he committed at his home in Alhambra, California, in 2003.

In 2009, he was sentenced to 19 years to life. The 81-year-old remained incarcerated at the time of his Jan. 16 death.

ABC Photo Archives

Dean Stockwell 1936 – 2021

Hollywood native Dean Stockwell kicked off his career in 1945, when, at just 9 years old, he starred in Tay Garnett’s “The Valley of Decision.” With the exception of a brief hiatus in the 1960s, the actor remained active on the big and small screens until his retirement in 2015.

Throughout his 70 years in entertainment, Stockwell delivered memorable performances with auteur directors, including David Lynch (in 1984’s “Dune” and 1986’s “Blue Velvet”) and Wim Wenders (in 1984’s “Paris, Texas). And he made an indelible mark on television in the early 1990s with “Quantum Leap.”

Stockwell died Nov. 7. He was 85.

Paul Zimmerman / Getty Images

James Michael Tyler 1962 – 2021

James Michael Tyler, who played the role of barista Gunther on the hit ‘90s sitcom “Friends,” died Oct. 24 at the age of 59.

According to his family, he "passed away peacefully” at his Los Angeles home after “losing his life to prostate cancer.”

After his death, Jennifer Aniston shared a tribute to the actor on Instagram, writing, "Friends would not have been the same without you. Thank you for the laughter you brought to the show and to all of our lives. You will be so missed.”

Evening Standard / Getty Images

Charlie Watts 1941 – 2021

Rolling Stones charismatic drummer Charlie Watts provided the rhythmic backbone of the band since he joined the act in 1963. But just weeks before his death, fans of the rock ‘n’ roll icon learned they wouldn’t get a chance to see him on the band’s tour, which was set to kick off in September.

“For once my timing has been a little off,” Watts said in a statement. “I am working hard to get fully fit but I have today accepted on the advice of the experts that this will take a while.”

Watts died in a London hospital on Aug. 24. He was 80.

ABC Photo Archives

Art LaFleur 1943 - 2021

Character actor Art LaFleur carved out a career of playing gritty cops, tough guys and a couple of unforgettable baseball players.

In 1993, LaFleur played Babe Ruth in the coming-of-age comedy “The Sandlot,” and before that, in 1989, he took on the role of Black Sox player Chick Gandil in “Field of Dreams.”

LaFleur died Nov. 17 following a battle with Parkinson’s. He was 78.

Rodrigo Varela / Getty Images

Michael K. Williams 1966 - 2021

Michael K. Williams was beloved for his work as shotgun-toting Baltimore stickup man Omar Little on HBO’s crime drama “The Wire.”

His death, on Sept. 6 at the age of 54, shocked fans and fellow stars. It was later determined that he died of a drug overdose.

Williams had been open about his past battle with drug addiction, telling the New York Times in 2017, “Addiction doesn't go away. It's an everyday struggle for me, but I'm fighting."

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

DMX 1970 -2021

Born Earl Simmons, rapper, composer and actor DMX achieved huge success with his first studio album, 1998’s “It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

While he’d go on to release another six studio albums in his lifetime (and one posthumous release), he also pursued his acting ambitions in a number of films, including the 1998 crime drama "Belly," and the 2000 Jet Li action movie “Romeo Must Die.”

DMX was hospitalized on April 2 after suffering a heart attack. He died seven days later. He was 50.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Clarence Williams III 1939 – 2021

As the grandson jazz musician Clarence Williams and the son of actor and singer Eva Taylor, Clarence Williams III had roots in the entertainment industry long before he decided to become an actor.

Williams served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army before heading to Broadway in 1960. But it was eight years later before he landed the role that would elevate him to star, playing undercover police officer Linc Hayes on “The Mod Squad.”

Williams died of colon cancer on June 7. He was 81.

NBC / NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via

Peter Aykroyd 1955 – 2021

Former “Saturday Night Live” writer and featured player Peter Aykroyd died on Nov. 6 at the age of 65.

The Canadian actor, who got his start in the comedy troupe Second City, joined “SNL” in its fifth season, in 1979, four years after his older brother, Dan Aykroyd. He worked alongside his brother on several projects, including the films “Spies Like Us” (1985) and “Coneheads” (1993).

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Richard Donner 1930 – 2021

While Richard Donner got his start as a television director in 1957, he found his greatest success as a big screen director.

He was behind some of the biggest box office hits of the 1970s and ‘80s, including “The Omen,” “Superman,” “The Goonies” and “Lethal Weapon.”

Donner died on July 5. He was 91.

CORRECTION (Dec. 22, 2021, 7 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the birth year of Hal Holbrook. He was born in 1925.