Paperwork: When a celebrity dies it feels like we’ve lost a friend

Lonny Cain

I am not a “red carpet” guy.

I don’t swoon over celebrities. I don’t care what designer clothes they are wearing.

But ... I do like the awards program when now and then I see the person not the “star” with sincere emotions, revealing a passion for their craft and its purpose. I connect to their desire to be appreciated, applauded, respected – even loved.

Yes, loved. And we do love celebrities ... in a variety of ways. I am reminded of this now and then when famous names I’ve grown up with die and I feel grief and sadness.

My heart aches for actor Bruce Willis who has a form of dementia and was forced to retire. He is not family yet he’s been in my living room and a part of my life. I have shared time with his on-screen characters, not the man.

It’s the characters we come to love, respect and admire. Although I wonder if actors can fully separate themselves from the characters they bring alive.

A friend recently emailed me a package of “rare photos.” They were candids of celebrities including actors, musicians and athletes. Many were older such as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Elvis, Dean Martin and Sophia Loren. There was one of artist Salvador Dali with Raquel Welch (in a bikini, of course).

I recognized most and remembered how they fit into my life at a given time and the impact. Many had influenced me through movies and songs and their skills and talent.

I thanked my friend for the interesting slide show and then wondered about my fascination.

“What is it about celebrities that makes them feel like extended family?” I asked. And I am still wondering.

Of course there are experts with answers about what is called “parasocial relationships.”

Angela Haupt, in an online article in July 2023 (time.com), gave this definition: “a one-sided social and emotional connection developed with fictional characters or celebrities. By some estimates, 51% of Americans have been in parasocial relationships, though only 16% will admit to it.”

She notes a 2017 study that suggests such relationships help people, especially adolescents, form an identity and develop autonomy. Studies also show it helps those with low self-esteem.

She quotes Lynn Zubernis, a clinical psychologist, who said: “We find people, characters, stories, whatever it is to emulate and to take attributes from and to sort of use as inspiration. It’s a lifelong process – not just something that happens in adolescence.”

Researcher Gayle Stever studies fan groups and finds many use the community bond to overcome loneliness or trauma.

“My experience has been that in the largest percentage of cases, the impact is positive. It’s more healthy than unhealthy,” she said.

I remember a fleeting moment in a Manhattan cinema. I was walking toward my movie. A tall man rushed out of one of the theaters. He was walking fast toward me. He jerked his ball cap down over his face, as if to hide it a bit.

It was actor, musician and playwright Jeff Daniels – who I respect. He avoided eye contact and clearly did not want to be seen. I understood why and just watched him scurry by.

There were no words. No autograph. No passing smile or nod. Yet I still savor the moment.

I think the experts are right. We applaud and admire celebrities, but what we embrace most is who we become when they are in the room. And who we want to be when they leave.

Lonny Cain, retired managing editor of The Times in Ottawa, also was a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet in the 1970s. His PaperWork email is lonnyjcain@gmail.com. Or mail The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.