Notable figures who died in 2023

Notable figures who died in 2023

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Remembering some of the most notable deaths of the past year:

Harry Belafonte

With a life spanning from music to civil rights activism, Harry Belafonte became known as one of the most influential Black figures of the 1950s. 

He constantly broke down barriers, being the first Black man to win a Tony Award and the first Black producer to win an Emmy. He is one of the few performers to earn each of the major awards, completing an EGOT.

In activism, Belafonte was a lifelong supporter of the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and financed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He once bailed King out of jail, and participated in the famous 1963 March on Washington.

“I’ve often responded to queries that ask, ‘When as an artist did you decide to become an activist?’” Belafonte once said. “My response to the question is that I was an activist long before I became an artist. They both service each other, but the activism is first.” 

Following the Civil Rights Movement, Belafonte remained a strong activist, going on to help organize the record-breaking Live Aid concert and the famous star-studded recording of “We Are the World.” 

He died April 25 at 96 years old.

Silvio Berlusconi 

The embattled mogul Silvio Berlusconi served as an icon of Italian politics for more than two decades. 

The head of one of the country’s largest media companies in the 1980s and ’90s and Italy’s richest man, Berlusconi jumped into politics, immediately becoming a rising populist leader in conservative circles. 

Charming and always boastful, Berlusconi led Italy through the worst of the 2008 global financial crisis, with his poor leadership resulting in his ouster from politics in 2011.  

Charged with corruption multiple times, the leader was constantly in tabloid headlines for sex parties and numerous infidelities. Investigations targeted his alleged sexual misconduct, tax fraud and businesses including the football club AC Milan.

He was found guilty on the tax charge in 2013 and kicked out of Italian politics, but even then returned to the country’s Senate in 2022. Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, is part of the country’s right-wing coalition government.

Supporters saw him as a capable and charismatic statesman who sought to elevate Italy on the world stage. To critics, he was a populist who threatened to undermine democracy by wielding political power as a tool to enrich himself and his businesses. 

He died June 12 at 86 years old. 

Jim Brown 

The greatest running back to ever play football, Jim Brown dominated the gridiron before a silver screen career that also saw him become a strident civil rights activist.

The three-time NFL MVP won an NFL Championship with the Cleveland Browns in 1964 and was selected as a first-team All-Pro eight times. Coming off of an MVP-winning 1965 season, he abruptly decided to retire from football to move to Hollywood. 

His notable roles included “The Dirty Dozen,” “Any Given Sunday,” “100 Rifles” and “Mars Attacks!” 

In his personal life, he used his wealth and stature to support the civil rights movement. He organized “The Cleveland Summit” of 1967 to rally Black athletes to support Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam and founded the nonprofit Amer-I-Can in 1988 to help disadvantaged inner-city youth and former convicts.  

Brown’s relationship with Ali and activist work was remembered in the 2020 film “One Night in Miami…” 

He died May 18 at 87 years old. 

Rosalynn Carter 

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, the wife of former President Carter, dedicated much of her career to advocacy for mental health, elderly care and women’s rights.

Known as a humanitarian in her own right, Carter served as the honorary chair of the newly established President’s Commission on Mental Health, leading to the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. She led hearings across the U.S. and became the second first lady to testify before Congress.

Carter was actively involved in White House activities during her husband’s tenure from 1977 to 1981 and established her own office in the East Wing. She often sat in on Cabinet meetings and important briefings.

After departing the White House, the Carters founded the Carter Center, where Rosalynn spearheaded a push to end the stigma around mental illness. The former first couple also advocated for human rights and global health concerns after Carter’s presidential term.

She died Nov. 19 at 96 years old.  

Daniel Ellsberg 

Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg changed the world when he decided to leak what became known as the Pentagon Papers in 1969. 

One of the most prominent whistleblowers in U.S. history, Ellsberg’s actions led to the American public learning about how the government was misleading the general public about the Vietnam War. 

Ellsberg helped draft the Pentagon Papers in the mid 1960s while with the RAND Corporation and decided to reveal them after he became disillusioned with the war effort. 

He turned himself in after the leak, hailed as a hero while potentially facing 100 years in prison. But the two cases against him fell apart over mishandling of evidence and meddling from the Nixon administration “White House plumbers” who later carried out the Watergate burglary. 

The Justice Department attempted to stop The New York Times and The Washington Post from publishing the papers, but their secrets were made public after a ruling from the Supreme Court. The saga is memorialized in the film “The Post.” 

“When I copied the Pentagon Papers in 1969, I had every reason to think I would be spending the rest of my life behind bars. It was a fate I would gladly have accepted if it meant hastening the end of the Vietnam War, unlikely as that seemed (and was),” Ellsberg wrote in a March post announcing his cancer diagnosis. 

“Yet in the end, that action — in ways I could not have foreseen, due to Nixon’s illegal responses — did have an impact on shortening the war. In addition, thanks to Nixon’s crimes, I was spared the imprisonment I expected, and I was able to spend the last fifty years with Patricia and my family, and with you, my friends.” 

He died June 16 at 92 years old. 

Dianne Feinstein 

One of the most prominent female politicians in U.S. history, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) opened the doors for women in politics across the country by dedicating her life to one of public service.  

Feinstein broke glass ceilings throughout her life, from becoming the first woman to serve as president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the first female mayor of San Francisco to the first female senator from California. She was elected to the upper chamber in 1992 in what later became known as the Senate’s “year of the woman.”  

She was also the first woman to chair the Senate Intelligence and Rules committees, and first woman to be ranking member of the Judiciary panel.

One of her most impressive legislative achievements was the passage of the National Assault Weapons ban in 1994 that barred the sale and manufacture of assault-style weapons for a decade.

She also railed against the U.S. government’s use of torture during the war on terror following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She released a 500-page public report on the CIA’s secret interrogation program in 2014 when she was the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

Earlier this year, Feinstein’s health issues prompted lawmakers and critics to call for her resignation. While she announced earlier this year that she would not seek reelection, she continued to cast votes up until her death.  

Feinstein died Sept. 29 at 90 years old. 

Ted Kaczynski 

Known in the media as “The Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski killed three people and injured 23 others in a nationwide mail bombing campaign for nearly two decades starting in 1978.

Living in a secluded off-the-grid shack in Montana that is now on display at the FBI headquarters, Kaczynski targeted people who he believed to be advancing modern technology and the destruction of the natural environment.

A mathematics prodigy, he penned a now-infamous manifesto outlining his ideology, titled “Industrial Society and Its Future.” 

He was caught after an 18-year manhunt, at the time the longest and most expensive investigation in the FBI’s history. The publication of the manifesto led to his arrest after his brother recognized the style. 

He died in prison June 10 at 81 years old. 

Henry Kissinger  

Known for his extensive career in national security and foreign policy, former Secretary of State and presidential adviser Henry Kissinger’s influence on global policy was far-reaching.  

In his role as then-President Nixon’s national security adviser, Kissinger helped lead negotiations to settle the war in Vietnam and eventually was appointed as the 56th secretary of State under Nixon.

He was the first person to serve as both the secretary of State and as a national security adviser simultaneously. In his dual role, Kissinger helped normalize relations between the U.S. and China and conducted negotiations between Egypt and Israel amid the October War of 1973. He later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, for his work in foreign policy.  

Kissinger immigrated from Germany to the U.S. with his family, who is Jewish, fleeing the Nazis, and later served in the U.S. Army as a German interpreter during World War II.

Kissinger’s voice for national affairs remained prevalent after his time in the White House, having served advisory roles under former President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush.  

Kissinger died Nov. 29 at 100 years old.  

Herb Kohl  

Former Milwaukee Bucks owner and U.S. Sen Herb Kohl (D-Mich.) is remembered for his commitment to civic and educational causes, often using his fortune for public good.

Kohl, a native of Milwaukee, served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1958 to 1964 before going on to serve 24 years in the upper chamber. In Congress, Kohl fought for issues important to the state, including dairy and farm policy.

“I never go out and look to grab the mic or go in front of the TV camera. When I go to work everyday, I check my ego at the door,” he once said, per The Associated Press.

The Herb Kohl Foundation called him someone who “always put people first,” whether it was employees and their families, or his customers and charitable organizations.

Kohl purchased the Bucks to keep them from leaving town, and became one of the richest members of the Senate and the upper chamber’s only professional sports team owner. His fortune often went to civic and educational causes.

He used his own money to fund his Senate races, portraying himself as “nobody’s senator but yours,” and he never accepted a pay raise in the Senate.  

He also opened and built a chain of more than 50 Kohl’s grocery stores across the Midwest with his brothers. Kohl’s family opened the first Kohl’s department store in 1962.  

Kohl died on Dec. 27 at the age of 88. 

Sandra Day O’Connor

Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, was a trailblazer on the nation’s highest bench.

Nominated by President Reagan in 1981, O’Connor’s tenure in the Supreme Court spanned more than two decades. She often was a swing vote on some of the court’s most consequential cases.

O’Connor’s work included the high court’s landmark decision to uphold affirmative action in college admission and reaffirming the constitutional right to abortion.

She served in all three branches of Arizona’s state government. Following stints as a deputy county attorney in California and then assistant Arizona attorney general, she served in Arizona’s state Senate and became the first woman in the country to become majority leader in a state legislature.

O’Connor served in state superior and appeals courts before being nominated by Reagan to the country’s highest court.

After retiring from the bench in 2006, O’Connor remained an advocate for civics education and founded iCivics, a nonprofit organization offering online games and lesson plans.

She died on Dec. 1 at the age of 93.

Sinead O’Connor

A politically outspoken and controversial pop icon, Sinead O’Connor used her music success to launch an activist message railing against abuse in the Catholic Church, and for women’s rights. 

Her most remembered moment was when she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II during a performance on “Saturday Night Live,” which nearly ended her career. 

“Everyone wants a pop star, see? But I am a protest singer,” the songwriter wrote in her 2021 memoir “Rememberings.” 

O’Connor, who later in life went by Shuhada’ Sadaqat, marked the biggest hit of her career with 1990’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” written by Prince. 

She died July 26 at 56 years old. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin 

Leader of the mercenary group that brought Russia’s political influence around the world, Yevgeny Prigozhin died in a plane crash not long after he attempted a revolt against the Russian military.

A powerful oligarch and former ally to President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin led the Wagner Group since its inception in 2014. Present all over the world, the organization is most prominent for its use as a combat force in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Reportedly fed up with poor leadership, Prigozhin led his mercenary group on a march north from Ukraine into Russia, intent on taking down military leadership in June. While he backed down from the rebellion and was exiled to neighboring Belarus, the revolt severely weakened the organization. 

He died after a plane he was on crashed in August, with U.S. intelligence claiming that there was likely a bomb on board, raising suspicion that he was assassinated by Putin.

He died Aug. 23 at 62 years old. 

Bill Richardson 

Bill Richardson, a former United Nations ambassador and the former Democratic governor of New Mexico, devoted his post-government career toward the release of Americans wrongfully detained abroad.

Nominated multiple times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Richardson had a “ceaseless pursuit of freedom for Americans,” President Biden said at the time of his death.

Prior to being elected as New Mexico’s governor in 2002, Richardson served as a U.S. envoy to the U.N. and Energy secretary under President Clinton, and he served 14 years as a congressman representing New Mexico. He later traveled around the globe to help negotiate the release of hostages and American service members from North Korea, Iraq, Cuba and Sudan.  

His work included securing the release of American journalist Danny Fenster from a Myanmar prison in 2021, along with the 2023 release of Taylor Dudley, who crossed the border from Poland into Russia.  

He died Sept. 1 at 75 years old.

Paul Reubens

Famous for his character Pee-wee Herman in television and movies, Paul Reubens debuted as the suit-clad optimist on Los Angeles local television in 1981.

His unforgettable laugh and iconic outfit made Herman a pop culture icon of the 1980s.

“The Pee-wee Herman Show” gained a following of both young and old fans, with matinee shows popular with adults and a special airing on HBO.  

Reubens’s odd-ball whimsy was renowned, with the character spawning two films in the 1980s and a follow-up in 2016. 

His Saturday morning television show earned 22 Emmy awards. Later in his career, he made non-Pee-wee appearances in “Batman Returns,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and a guest star run on the TV series “Murphy Brown.” 

He died July 30 at 70 years old. 

Pat Robertson 

Conservative media mogul Pat Robertson served as the voice of the American evangelical community for decades on radio and television waves, acting as a key representative in Republican politics. 

A kingmaker among evangelical voters, Robertson’s career saw him turn a rural radio station into the largest Christian broadcast company in the country.  

The son of a senator, Robertson dominated living rooms for five decades, later founding Regent University and the legal activist group American Center for Law and Justice. 

Known for his bigoted views and penchant for conspiracies, Robertson notably blamed natural disasters on gays and feminists and accused Black Lives Matter demonstrators of being anti-Christian. 

He ran for president in 1988, placing a distant third in the primary won by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Robertson died June 8 at 93 years old. 

Jerry Springer 

An iconic television personality who reveled in conflict, Jerry Springer dominated the daytime airwaves for decades. 

A politician before his time on the small screen, Springer was the mayor of Cincinnati, briefly a candidate for Congress and later an aide to then-presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy before his assassination. 

He moved to television in the 1990s, becoming a household name from the daytime talk show named after him, which leaned into its reputation as “trash TV.” He also made brief stints hosting “America’s Got Talent” and “Judge Jerry.”  

Springer died April 27 at 79 years old. 

Tina Turner

As “The Queen of Rock and Roll,” Tina Turner dominated the charts for nearly three decades in a career that brought together pop, rock and rhythm and blues. 

She topped the chart innumerable times in the 1970s and ’80s, with classics including “River Deep, Mountain High” alongside her husband, and later “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero” as a solo act.

Famously overcoming the abuse of her husband in the mid-1970s and leaving the relationship, she was one of the first celebrities to speak out about domestic violence.

She broke out with her 1984 album “Private Dancer,” which featured songs such as “Let’s Stay Together” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” the latter of which won record of the year.

Turner won a dozen Grammy Awards and was the first Black woman to be on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. 

One of the best-selling artists of all time, her life is the subject of a biographical film, television series and Broadway musical. 

She died May 24 at 83 years old. 

Eddie Bernice Johnson 

Former Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) was one of the most prominent women in Texas politics in her long career of public service. 

Johnson was a registered nurse before being voted into the Texas House in 1972, when she became the first Black woman from Dallas to be elected to public office. She was later elected to the Texas Senate in 1987 and served there until she decided to run for the U.S. House in 1992, where she won her race by a landslide. 

She served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and was the first Black lawmaker and woman to serve as chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. 

“A former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, the first registered nurse elected to Congress, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Dallas, and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, Congresswoman Johnson was a trailblazer who served her constituents and her country honorably in the U.S. Congress for 30 years,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) said in a statement. 

Her family announced her death on Dec. 31. She was 88 years old. 

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