There are some older celebrities, like Betty White, whom we see on television all the time. She’s been pounding away role after role on the small screen literally since television entered our homes. Then there are famous people, like former President George H.W. Bush, who seems to always be having health updates on the news and who tossed the coin at the Super Bowl in early 2017. Some people just never go away.
Most actors, musicians, politicians, and others who become famous through TV or the movies usually reach an age where they no longer crave the spotlight, and they fade into the background. The only time you hear about these people is when they die and every news show runs a two-minute retrospective.
But then, there are those celebrities who just never seem to pass on to the great beyond, and when their names invariably pop up, you’re left feeling bad that the first thing that comes to your mind is, “I thought they were dead.”
Just because somebody isn’t on TV every week doesn’t mean they’ve kicked the bucket. Plenty of people simply retire. Anyway, before they leave this earth, let’s take a look at 15 Famous People You Thought Were Dead… But Aren’t.
15. Diana Ross
She was one of the biggest names in music for decades, but since overcoming substance abuse issues (including getting a drunk driving charge while she was in rehab in 2002) more than 10 years ago, Diana Ross has kept a relatively low profile compared to her active lifestyle that started when she was the lead singer for R&B legendary group The Supremes, through her busy touring schedule around 2000. The 73-year-old was instrumental in launching many other acts during her career, including Michael Jackson, and regularly made television appearances on talk shows and other specials. The last time she appeared on TV was a guest spot on The Voice in 2014. Ross doesn’t hit the road for concerts nearly as much as she used to, but she does regularly play for a week or two at a time at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort.
14. Hugh Hefner
It’s ironic that the man who defined excessive living and put it out to the masses with his Playboy magazine is still alive and well. He was born in April 1926, which makes him 91 years old when this list was written in August 2017. While he’s been married three times and has had a string of semi-famous girlfriends (remember when he was allegedly dating Holly Madison, Kendra Wilkinson, and Bridget Marquardt at the same time?), Hefner has actually done a lot more in his life than just be the poster child for his men’s magazine. He’s donated millions to worthy charities (including at one point paying $27,000 to refurbish the ‘Y’ in the Hollywood sign) and created such events as the Playboy Jazz Festival. Hopefully, he’s remembered as much for his contributions to the conversation about freedom of the press as he is for all the ladies he introduced to the world.
13. Bob Barker
For a couple of generations of people, staying home from school was always marked with the opportunity to watch The Price is Right, hosted by Bob Barker. The next generation, which was maybe too young to remember Barker as the host, met the animal rights activist through the Adam Sandler film, Happy Gilmore, where Barker played himself and got into a fistfight with Sandler. While he was the host of Truth or Consequences for nearly two decades, the 93-year-old Barker is always going to be remembered as the host of The Price is Right for 45 years. Barker has said people still ask him to say “Come on down!” to this day, despite the fact that the host never actually uttered the popular catchphrase. It was the announcer who summoned contestants from the audience to the stage.
12. Jimmy Carter
It’s quite something to think that if you were born in 1977, the man who was President of the United States is still living, but despite his 92 years and a recent bout of cancer, he continues to arguably do more for the world since he left office in 1981 than he ever did as President. A little piece of interesting trivia is that while many early presidents were farmers, Carter was the last person to make his living as one. His family owned a peanut-farming business in Georgia. It’s unexpected another farmer will be President soon. He also was the only President who fell on hard times as a young man and had to live in subsidized housing. This is why he’s spent so much of his time after his presidency working with Habitat for Humanity, building homes for socioeconomically disadvantaged people.
11. Kirk Douglas
Sometimes, it seems like it’s a miracle Michael Douglas is still alive, but it seems like even more of a miracle that his even-more-famous-in-his-time father, Kirk Douglas, is still around. While more people these days may be familiar with Martin and Charlie Sheen, these two were arguably the most famous father-son act in the history of Hollywood. Kirk turned 100 in December 2016 and made his debut in the 1946 movie The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. He received his first Academy Award nomination in 1949 for the movie Champion and went on to appear in such legendary films as Spartacus and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His career wound down in the late 1990s, and his final role on the big screen was in the 2004 independent film Illusion. The year before, he appeared with his son, grandson, and ex-wife in the movie It Runs In The Family. We’d list all the awards he’s won, but we’d be here all day.
10. Harry Belafonte
Middle-aged people probably remember seeing the Michael Keaton/Alec Baldwin/Winona Ryder masterpiece Beetlejuice when they were younger, and odds are, it was the first time they were exposed to calypso music and, more specifically, the amazing voice of Harry Belafonte. Beetlejuice is now about 30 years old, but at the time of production, songs like “The Banana Boat Song” and “Jump in the Line” were already 30 years old. So, the next time you’re at a sporting event, there’s a lull, and the guy who runs the music hits the button that makes the “Day-O!” sign play over the loudspeaker, realize the music you’re listening to is almost 60 years old. Belafonte, who was 90 as of August 2017, retired from performing in 2003 but has continued to be a political and humanitarian activist supporting many causes of social justice. He also had a more successful career in Hollywood than most actors, appearing in over 30 movies and 20 television shows.
9. Doris Day
If you were around in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of asking “Who is Doris Day?” seems like a joke because she was easily one of the most recognizable singers and actresses of her day, but since her active retirement from Hollywood in 1968, she’s largely lived a private life. She first gained national fame in 1945 after recording the song “Sentimental Journey” and recorded more than 650 songs, releasing 20 albums in her lifetime, although only one was recorded after 1967. She was also in 39 movies between 1948 and 1968, including Calamity Jane, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Pillow Talk, and her finale, With Six You Get Eggroll. A bankruptcy forced her onto television with The Doris Day Show from 1968 to 1973, and ever since then, she’s devoted herself to animal welfare charities, rare interviews, and showing up to collect the occasional award she’s still given. As of this writing, she’s 95 years old.
8. Bob Dole
Bob Dole was an American war hero, and by all accounts, a pretty good representative in Washington for the people of Kansas for decades, but he’ll likely just be remembered as the guy who lost badly to Bill Clinton for the Presidency in 1996. His defeat was major; he only managed 159 electoral votes to Bill Clinton’s 379, and those were the states where anybody would beat a Democrat. Showing that he had a bit of a sense of humor and that he knew the rare window he had been given to capitalize on his name had closed, Dole entered the commercial world, doing spots for Pepsi, Viagra, and Visa. He made the talk-show-circuit rounds and showed more charisma than he ever did as a politician. He turned 94 in July 2017.
7. Angela Lansbury
She’s probably best known to audiences these days as either the main character from Murder, She Wrote reruns or as one of the voices in the original, animated version of Beauty and the Beast, but Angela Lansbury has had a long career prior to those gigs and continues to take the occasional role. She was the subject of a rumor that she was going to appear as a regular on Game of Thrones, but that proved to be false. Lansbury began her film career back in 1944 and was nominated for her first role in the film Gaslight. Perhaps more impressive is that she continued to return to the stage throughout her career, winning five Tony Awards along the way. The 91-year-old has recently been filming scenes for the movie Mary Poppins Returns, which is scheduled to be in theaters December 2018.
6. Dick Van Dyke
It’s hard to believe that someone who was middle-aged and had his own show that’s been off the air for 50 years is still around, but that’s exactly the story for Dick Van Dyke, the 91-year-old actor who was quite active up until a few years ago, leading some to wonder if he had left this earth. Nope, he’s still kicking and only considers himself semi-retired. Along with The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran from 1960-1966, Van Dyke was the star of The New Dyke Van Dyke Show (we wonder how long it took to come up with that name) from 1971-1974 and saw a rebirth as a dramatic TV actor on Diagnosis: Murder from 1993-2001. That means he was the star of a top-rated show in 1961 and 2001… 50 years apart! His last television role was a guest spot on The Middle, and while he never made it as big in the movies as he did on TV, he’ll be returning to the big screen in a cameo role in the 2018 Mary Poppins Returns. The original movie from 1964 was only his third movie ever.
5. Charlotte Rae
Some people never seem to age, and that’s certainly the case for Charlotte Rae, who still looks exactly like she did when she played her most famous role of Mrs. Garrett in the late 1970s and 1980s on Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. If you took the bright orange hair she sported in those days and made it gray, you’ve got a spitting image of what the 91-year-old looks like today. While she may have gone the guest-star route for acting after those shows, she was a regular for voiceover work, having done regular roles on both Itsy Bitsy Spider and 101 Dalmatians cartoon shows. Her last role on the small screen was as a grandmother on Girl Meets World. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with bone cancer in April 2017.
4. Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier has done for actors of color what Jackie Robinson did for minority baseball players, and when the 90-year-old eventually does pass, hopefully, he is remembered as one of the great pioneers in the history of Hollywood. Originally from The Bahamas, Poitier was the first black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. He took that honor in 1964 for Lilies of the Field. If you haven’t heard of that film, you’re probably familiar with his roles in To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In The Heat of the Night (upon which a television series without Poitier was based). Technically, he’s “Sir Sidney Poitier” since the Queen of England bestowed him knighthood in 1974. He’s very close with Bill Cosby and directed two of the comedian’s films, Let’s Do It Again and Ghost Dad.
3. Hugh Downs
For a generation of kids growing up watching the Friday night lineup on ABC, be it back in the late 1970s with The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, up through the 1980s and 1990s with the TGIF lineup of shows like Perfect Strangers, Full House, and Step By Step, there was always the signal that it was time to go to bed when 20/20 came on. When the faces of Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs came on the screen, the funny was over and the news was starting. Downs was on the show from 1978 to 1999, but that was after a long career as a newsman dating back to the late 1940s. He also served as a television announcer, pitch man, author of nearly a dozen books, talk show host, actor, and game show host, and he even recently hosted an infomercial. The 96-year-old lost his wife of over 70 years in early 2017.
2. Olivia de Havilland
You may not recognize the actress’s name, and if you do, you may not be able to immediately recall her films, but Olivia de Havilland was there at the explosion of Hollywood, with her first starring role coming in 1935. She was considered the gold standard for actresses in those early years of movie making, with parts in such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gone With the Wind (the picture above is from the movie’s trailer.) When you’re talking about fascinating lives, you’ve got to put de Havilland near the top of the list. She was born in Tokyo to British parents in 2016 and holds the distinction, along with her sister, Joan Fontaine, of being the only siblings to ever win the same Academy Award in an acting category. Her film acting career slowed in the late 1950s when she married Pierre Galante and moved to Paris, and her last few acting jobs were in the late 1970s. She narrated a documentary called I Remember Better When I Paint about how artistic work has helped some dementia patients in 2009. Shortly before turning 101 in July 2017, she was appointed a Dame by the Queen of England.
1. Connie Sawyer
While Olivia de Havilland is the oldest super-famous living actor, the overall title of oldest living actor who’s still active easily goes to 104-year-old Connie Sawyer. She never had a regular role in a series or a starring role in a movie, but she’s one of those people who’ve held the title of “Don’t I Know Her From Somewhere?” during your lifetime, your parents’ lifetime, and probably your grandparents’ lifetime, too. Her guest-starring roles on shows always have her playing the kindly old lady for the last 30 years, but if you look at her resume, she’s been in some of the greatest shows in history: Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, The Andy Griffith Show, Good Times, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Will & Grace, The Rockford Files, Dynasty, Home Improvement, and Starsky & Hutch are just scratching the surface. Imagine having been able to work on all of those sets! As far as movies go, she had small roles in Dumb & Dumber, When Harry Met Sally, True Grit, and Pineapple Express, among others. She’ll turn 105 right around Thanksgiving later this year.
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