Remembering the celebrities we lost in 2021: Actors, musicians, authors and more

Betty White, Ed Asner, Cicely Tyson and Michael K. Williams are among the stars who departed the stage this year.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Expertise Breaking news, entertainment, lifestyle, travel, food, shopping and deals, product reviews, money and finance, video games, pets, history, books, technology history, generational studies. Credentials
  • Co-author of two Gen X pop-culture encyclopedia for Penguin Books. Won "Headline Writer of the Year"​ award for 2017, 2014 and 2013 from the American Copy Editors Society. Won first place in headline writing from the 2013 Society for Features Journalism.
Gael Cooper
7 min read
Cicely Tyson

Award-winning actor Cicely Tyson accepted an honorary Oscar in 2018. 

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Any way you look at it, 2021 was a tough year. And it took with it a number of famous faces who'd been a part of our lives for decades, whether they were known for their musical or acting abilities or their place in history. 

Hundreds of famous people died in 2021, and narrowing the list was a frustrating job. Dozens of names were left off, but still deserve to be remembered. And as the year ended, one more icon was added to the list: Betty White died on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31.

From White to Ed Asner to Cicely Tyson to Michael K. Williams, here's a look at some of the icons who left the world this year.  

Ed Asner

Oh, Mr. Grant. The star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, the movie Up, and so many other shows and films, died on Aug. 29 at age 91.

Eric Carle

Carle wrote and illustrated such beloved children's books as The Very Hungry Caterpillar and illustrated the classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? He died on May 23 at age 91.

Beverly Cleary

The author created Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and so many other beloved childhood characters. She died on March 25 at age 104, just 18 days from her 105th birthday.

Chick Corea

The jazz composer, bandleader and performer was a member of Miles Davis' band in the 1960s and won 25 Grammy Awards for his lifetime of work. He died on Feb. 9 at age 79.

Dustin Diamond

The actor, best known for his role as Screech on 1990s classic sitcom Saved by the Bell, was just 44 when he died on Feb. 1.

Joan Didion

No one wrote about California like native daughter Joan Didion. The author and journalist died on Dec. 23 at age 87.

Joan Didion in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during the Summer of Love in 1967.

Joan Didion in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during the Summer of Love in 1967. Her famous essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem records her reactions to the scene there.

Ted Streshinsky/Getty Images

Don Everly

The older of the two musical Everly Brothers, Don Everly died on Aug. 21 at age 84, seven years after his brother Phil died at age 74. The New York Times called the duo the "most successful rock act to emerge from Nashville in the 1950s."

Siegfried Fischbacher

Fischbacher survived Roy Horn, his partner in Siegfried and Roy, by eight months. The two performed with white tigers and lions as a Las Vegas act until Horn was injured by a tiger during a show in 2003. Fischbacher was 81 when he died on Jan. 13.

Tom T. Hall

As a singer, Hall may be most famous for his 1972 country hit (Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine; as a songwriter, he may be best known for writing Harper Valley PTA, a huge hit for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968. He died on Aug. 20 at age 85.

Dusty Hill

Hill played bass and sang with ZZ Top for over 50 years. He died on July 28 at age 72.

Larry King

Talk show host Larry King interviewed over 50,000 people in his 50-plus-year career. He died on Jan. 23 at age 87.

Cloris Leachman

The actress played Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, earning a brief spinoff, Phyllis. Other credits include The Last Picture Show, The Facts of Life, Young Frankenstein, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and more. She died on Jan. 27 at age 94.

Norm Macdonald

Comedian Macdonald anchored Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, starred in movies, and headlined his own sitcom, The Norm Show. He was fired from SNL in 1998, reportedly for mocking O.J. Simpson, who was a friend of NBC Entertainment president Don Ohlmeyer. Macdonald died on Sept. 14 at age 61.

Gavin MacLeod

Gavin MacLeod was known best to some as Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but to others, he'll forever be Captain Merrill Stubing on The Love Boat. He also appeared in numerous movies and co-starred on McHale's Navy. MacLeod died on May 29 at age 90.

John Madden

Madden, the Super Bowl-winning football coach and legendary broadcaster, died Dec. 28 at age 85. Always a colorful character, Madden became known to a new generation thanks to the Madden NFL video game series (and old-schoolers will remember his appearances in the classic series of ads for Miller Lite beer.)

Biz Markie

The rapper, nicknamed The Clown Prince of Hip-Hop, was best known for the 1989 hit single Just A Friend. He died on July 16 at age 57.

Gerry Marsden

Marsden was the leader of the Merseybeat band, Gerry and the Pacemakers, whose hits included Ferry Cross the Mersey, You'll Never Walk Alone, and Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying. He died on Jan. 3 at age 78.

Jackie Mason

Comic Jackie Mason epitomized the borscht belt style of comedy for many, with movies, TV, Broadway shows, and more on his resume. He died on July 24 at age 93.

Larry McMurty

Author McMurty is best known for his Western- or Texas-themed books, many of which were made into movies. His works include Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment, and he helped adapt the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain. He died on March 25 at age 84.

Eddie Mekka

Mekka is best known for playing Carmine "The Big Ragoo" Ragusa, the boyfriend of Shirley Feeney on hit show Laverne & Shirley. He died on Nov. 27 at age 69.

Michael Nesmith

Known to some as the Monkee with the wool cap, Nesmith was an acclaimed musician despite The Monkees' "Pre-Fab Four" reputation. He was a pioneer in what became the music-video industry, and yes, his mom invented Liquid Paper. Nesmith died on Dec. 10 at age 78.

Prince Philip

The husband of Queen Elizabeth II had been at her side since she was just a young princess. He died on April 9 at age 99, just two months from turning 100.

Christopher Plummer

The actor may be best known for his iconic role as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, but his acting resume is varied -- he also played many Shakespearean roles, and once starred as a Klingon general in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He died on Feb. 5 at age 91.

Anne Rice

Author Anne Rice was best known for her Vampire Chronicles book series, though she also wrote erotic fiction and a series of novels about the life of Jesus. She died on Dec. 11 at age 80.

Joanne Rogers

Yes, there was a Mrs. Rogers. Joanne Rogers and Fred Rogers were married from 1952 until his death in 2003, raising two sons and creating a television legacy. She died on Jan. 14 at age 92.

Stephen Sondheim

The composer and lyricist co-created such Broadway classics as West Side Story, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Gypsy and Into the Woods. He died on Nov. 26 at age 91.

Phil Spector

Spector revolutionized rock music with his Wall of Sound production style, creating hit records for such groups as the Ronettes, the Crystals, Darlene Love and the Righteous Brothers. He died Jan. 16 at age 81 in prison, where he was serving his sentence after being convicted of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

B.J. Thomas

Grammy-winning singer Thomas had hits with Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head, (Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song, and Hooked on a Feeling, among others. He died at age 78 on May 29.

James Michael Tyler

Tyler is best known for his role as Gunther, a coffeehouse employee at Central Perk, where the Friends hung out on the hit sitcom. He died on Oct. 24 at age 59.

Cicely Tyson

Award-winning actress Tyson refused to star in blaxploitation movies and TV shows, instead taking roles depicting strong Black women. Her work includes Sounder, Roots, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, The Help, and more. She died on Jan. 28 at age 96.

Melvin Van Peebles

Filmmaker Van Peebles has been called the godfather of modern Black cinema. His 1971 movie, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, is a landmark of the blaxploitation genre. He died on Sept. 21 at age 89.

Jessica Walter

The actress played Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development, voiced Malory Archer in Archer, and starred opposite Clint Eastwood in Play Misty for Me, among other roles. She died on March 24 at age 80.

Charlie Watts

The legendary Rolling Stones drummer appears on every Stones studio record and never missed a gig since joining the band in 1963. He died on Aug. 24 at age 80.

Betty White

She almost made it to 100. Actress Betty White, famous for The Golden Girls, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hot in Cleveland and so many other shows, as well as movies, radio and more, died on Dec. 31 at age 99. White's charm, as well as her longevity, had made her a favorite of many generations.

Michael K. Williams

The actor's distinctive facial scar lent credibility to the sometimes dangerous, always complex characters he played, such as Omar Little on The Wire (President Barack Obama's favorite character on the show) and Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire. Williams died on Sept. 6 at age 54.

Mary Wilson

Wilson, a founding member of The Supremes, one of the best-selling all-women musical groups of all time, died on Feb. 8 at age 76.