Every Major Death In December 2021 Explained

Each year, billions of people across numerous faiths and cultures look forward to December, eager and excited to celebrate festive, rejuvenating, heartwarming, and inspiring holidays. From Christmas to Hanukkah to Kwanzaa to New Year's, to name but a few, December is for a great many a time to celebrate life and live life to the fullest. While the world, and plenty of tasks and responsibilities, seem to be on hold during the last month of the year, time does still march on, and so, alas, does life itself. Nothing lasts forever, and even during a time of merriment, death still comes to end life for those for whom it's time. Celebrities, while seemingly immortal because they live in the public eye for years and their great works succeed them, die too, and they die in December. Here are all the biggest names from around the globe — musicians, actors, athletes, broadcasters, filmmakers, writers, and visionaries — who died in the waning days of 2021.

Bob Dole

Bob Dole did just about everything an American politician can do, running for or holding office on the local, state, and federal levels and making himself an indelible and influential part of the national lawmaking conversation for five decades. In the 1940s, per the Kansas City Star, Dole enlisted in the U.S. Army and earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for fighting Nazis (and rescuing a wounded fellow soldier) during World War II, enduring injuries that nearly killed him and left his right arm permanently paralyzed. Upon his return and after a long recovery period, Dole leveled up from the Kansas House of Representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Senate. In 1976, Dole ran as Vice President on an ultimately losing ticket with a re-election-seeking President Gerald Ford, and in 1996, he was the Republican party's presidential candidate (losing to President Bill Clinton).

A statement from the Dole family (via CNN), released on December 5, 2021, announced that the politician died early that day in his sleep. Less than a year earlier, Dole revealed that he was in treatment for advanced-stage lung cancer. The senator was 98.

Michael Nesmith

In the mid-1960s, Michael Nesmith, a Los Angeles-based folk and rock musician, answered an ad looking for "four insane boys" to portray a Beatles-like band in a sitcom and on record, according to ABC News. Nesmith landed the gig, and shortly after "The Monkees" debuted in 1966, he was a pop and TV superstar. Recognizable for his ever-present stocking cap and dry, subtle wit, and Texan accent, Nesmith was the group's guitarist (even though he and the other Monkees didn't always play on the records at first), and the show propelled many songs to hit status, including #1 smashes "I'm a Believer," "Daydream Believer," and "Last Train to Clarksville." Nesmith bristled against producer control and successfully lobbied for the right to write and play original tunes, and after the band split, Nesmith's First National Band had a hit with "Joanne," according to NPR. In the '70s, Nesmith created Pacific Arts Corporation to produce music and TV shows, among them the acclaimed sketch comedy special "Elephant Parts," and "PopClips," a music video showcase series from 1979 that inspired the very concept of MTV.

Nesmith died from heart failure at his home in Carmel Valley, California, on December 10, 2021, according to NPR. The Monkee, musician, and producer was 78.

Anne Rice

While Anne Rice wrote profusely on a number of subjects, she made gothic and supernatural fiction (with a hefty through-line of romanticism) her speciality, and her mastery of that genre made her a much-imitated titan of modern literature. After Bram Stoker brought Dracula to the forefront of the collective imagination, Anne Rice made vampire fiction a permanent and extremely popular genre. Rice's 13-book "Vampire Chronicles" saga introduced many of the tropes commonly associated with the monstrous, ageless blood-drinkers, particularly via primary character Lestat, a very old, very charming, very enigmatic gentlemanly creature of the night. Rice's best-selling "Interview with the Vampire" from 1976 (per CNN) was adapted into a blockbuster movie (starring Tom Cruise as Lestat) in 1994.

On December 11, 2021, Rice's son and collaborator Christopher Rice, announced on social media channels that his mother had died, the death attributable to the after-effects of a stroke. Anne Rice was 80.

Desmond Tutu

Born to a teacher and a household worker in South Africa in the 1930s, per CNN, Desmond Tutu followed his father into education but was so repulsed and alarmed by the condition of schools set aside for Black students in South Africa — just one part of the country's legally and brutally mandated system of segregation, or apartheid — that he became a full-time and utterly tireless crusader against the extreme injustice and inequality in his home nation. He also became a priest in the Anglican Church and rose to the powerful position of Archbishop, giving him clout and a sounding board to speak out against apartheid, demanding the South African government end it. When apartheid was finally abolished in the early 1990s, thanks in no small part to "The Arch," anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was elected president in the country's first elections open to all races, and the new executive named Tutu the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which rooted out insidious acts committed in the name of apartheid. Tutu received many honors for his life's work, including a U.S. Presidential Medal of Honor and a Nobel Peace Prize.

According to the Associated Press, Tutu received a prostate cancer diagnosis in 1997 and had been frequently hospitalized during the last six years. Per the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Trust, the activist and leader died on December 26, 2021, at the Oasis Frail Care Center in Cape Town, South Africa. Tutu was 90.

John Madden

If American football could be represented by a single individual, then that person could very well be John Madden. A name, face, and voice closely associated with the sport, he found success as a player, coach, and especially a broadcaster who enthusiastically and humorously explained and shared his love of the game with millions of viewers every week for three decades. According to ESPN, Madden was an all-conference two-way player for Cal Poly in the late 1950s, but a knee issue prevented him from ever playing professionally, so he moved into coaching, named a linebackers coach for the Oakland Raiders in 1967 and head coach a year later. Madden's teams never had a losing record, won a Super Bowl, and went 03-32-7, among the best coaching records in NFL history. At age 42, Madden retired, launching his broadcasting career, in 1979 (per the New York Times). He'd go on to win 16 Emmy Awards and call 11 Super Bowls over all four broadcast networks. He's also synonymous with football video games, lending his name to EA Sports' successful and influential "Madden NFL Football" franchise.

After analyzing upwards of 500 games (and an induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame), Madden retired from sportscasting in 2009, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, underwent hip replacement and heart surgery. In recent years, he consulted with the NFL on player safety. On December 28, 2021, the NFL announced that Madden had died earlier that day. He was 85.

Joan Didion

In casting a critical, analytical, exposing eye toward her subject matter, American writer Joan Didion helped to create an entirely new form of literature, per the Washington Post. Her first major work, the essay collection "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," written about her displeasing and hollow time spent in heavily romanticized California, connected Didion with the New Journalism generation, a group of writers (along with Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and others) that wrote nonfiction as if it were a novel — with length, introspection, and inserting themselves into the story. Didion helped make reporting expressive, florid, lyrical, self-conscious, and artistic, as she explored the tenuous and superficial elements of life in later works like 1979's "The White Album" and her 2005 memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking." The latter won the National Book Award and tracked Didion's profound and complex grief over the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne.

A representative from Knopf, Didion's publisher, confirmed to The Guardian that the author died at her Manhattan home on December 23, 2021. Didion died from complications of Parkinson's disease at the age of 87.

Jean-Marc Vallée

A prolific director of prestige American television and critically-acclaimed, award-nominated films, Jean-Marc Vallée began his career as a filmmaker as a student of the art at the Université de Montréal in his Quebec hometown, according to Variety. In the '80s, he directed and edited videos for acts like Park Avenue, Glockenspiel, and Angel, before moving into ads and TV episodes, and broke out big in 2005 with "C.R.A.Z.Y.," a nostalgic dramedy that won Vallée and other parties a slew of awards. Suddenly in demand for personal, character-driven projects, Vallée then directed "The Young Victoria," "Wild," and "Dallas Buyers Club," which earned him an Oscar nomination for his other professional love, editing. Vallée's most recent projects: directing and editing "Big Little Lies" and "Sharp Objects" for HBO.

Deadline reported on December 26, 2021 that Vallée died at his cabin near Quebec City, Quebec. He reportedly suffered a heart attack on Christmas Day while waiting for guests to arrive the next morning. The director was 58.

Demaryius Thomas

In the 2010 NFL Draft, according to ESPN, the Denver Broncos selected two major talents in the first round: cultural sensation quarterback Tim Tebow, and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. The latter quickly and thoroughly established himself as one of the Broncos' all-time greats. After nine seasons, he finished as the team's #2 receiver in history (with 9,055 yards) and third in total catches (655). In 2013, the year the Broncos scored an NFL record 606 points, Thomas was responsible for a lot of those, with 14 touchdowns. Thomas earned recognition outside of Denver, too, with four Pro Bowl selections and a Super Bowl championship ring.

According to TMZ, police discovered Thomas, deceased, in his home in Roswell, Georgia, on December 9, 2021. A cause of death wasn't immediately ascertained, although Thomas's cousin, LaTonya Bonseigneur, told the Associated Press that the football player had been having seizures for the previous year, and the family believes that this medical issue may have played a role. Thomas was 33.

Lina Wertmuller

In the English-speaking film world, Lina Wertmuller is likely best known for breaking an unofficial but almost impenetrable glass ceiling: In 1977, she became the first woman nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards (per CNBC) for her film "Pasqualino Settebellezze," or "Seven Beauties." Wertmuller also earned a screenwriting nomination for that movie and received an honorary Oscar in 2020 in recognition of her immense contribution to the art of cinema and films made in her native Italy. According to The Guardian, Wertmuller's films were major hits on the nascent indie film circuit in the 1970s, setting new box office records for non-English films. In addition to "Seven Beauties," about the dark, twisted, and violent actions of a low-level criminal from a large family, Wertmuller also made envelope-pushing, lyrical, visually stunning, and immaculately composed films like "Swept Away" and "Love and Anarchy."

According to the Italian Ministry of Culture (via the Los Angeles Times), Wertmuller died in her home in Rome with family present on December 9, 2021. The filmmaker was 93.

Al Unser Sr.

A very small number of sports figures are so successful in their field that their fame and legacy transcended their niche sport and they became a household name. Probably the most well-known family in Indy car racing history is Unser, and of the champions to carry that name, Al Unser Sr. may be the most famous of all. In the '70s Indy car, or "open-wheel" racing circuit, following an uneventful stint in NASCAR in the '60s, Unser dominated, winning the 1970 and 1971 Indianapolis 500 (one of only five to win that massive event back-to-back). While he'd drive in more than 300 races, Indy would be his signature track — Unser would rank as the all-time lap leader over a 30-year-career that included 27 starts and numerous near-victories.

According to a news release from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the location of Unser's four Indianapolis 500 victories, Unser died on December 9, 2021. The racing icon died at his home in Chama, New Mexico, 17 years after a cancer diagnosis at the age of 82.

Betty White

Betty White's career parallels that of television, the medium in which the actor was most dominant for nearly a century. After moving to California, she scored her first TV role in 1949, before starring on the early 1950s series "Life with Elizabeth," one of the first TV sitcoms. She amassed dozens more TV credits, including hundreds of appearances as her self-deprecatingly funny and witty self on game shows like "Match Game" and "Password" (the latter hosted by her husband, Alan Ludden) along with her two most famous roles (per TMZ): flirtatious and manipulative TV personality Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and sweet but dumb elderly Midwesterner Rose Nylund on the smash hit/cult classic "The Golden Girls." A 21-time Emmy Award nominee, White won five, her last in 2010 for hosting "Saturday Night Live," a gig that came about after a successful campaign on the internet, where White was a beloved cultural pillar.

White's image graced the cover of People in late 2021, in anticipation of her 100th birthday and a star-studded entertainment special commemorating the milestone. On the morning of December 31, 2021, authorities were called to White's home, where she had died. The entertainer was 99.