How Hollywood Grieves Now: Tributes on Hold, Informal Zooms

How Hollywood Grieves Illustration by Avalon Nuovo
Illustration by Avalon Nuovo

While actor Nick  Cordero, who died in July of COVID-19, was recently remembered with a full-scale production on a streaming platform, many industry families who've lost loved ones are pushing memorials to 2021, as others plan impromptu videoconference get-togethers.

On Sept. 6, beloved Broadway actor Nick Cordero was remembered by industry family and friends after he succumbed to COVID-19 following a months-long battle. Taking place virtually — and more than two months after Cordero's death — the memorial illustrated the major adjustments many are making to honor stars and industry figures who've died during the novel coronavirus era.

The resulting event featured everything from a photo collage prepared by Cordero's wife, Amanda Kloots, to video tributes, including one from Robert De Niro, who spoke lovingly of Cordero's role in 2016's musical A Bronx Tale. The memorial was streamed live on the video platform Broadway on Demand and included a philanthropic component to benefit the Save the Music foundation.

Elaborate in scale, Cordero's memorial reflected the extent to which his COVID battle touched fans and followers. "He really became this folk hero to so many," says Michael Maddox, a close Cordero friend who produced the memorial.

In normal times, such tributes would be in-person memorials and, for major industry players, often held on studio lots. But as the pandemic continues across the country, large gatherings remain off-limits. Says Galen Goben, clergy services and grief support director at Forest Lawn's L.A. cemeteries, "We are really trying to do the best we can within CDC and state parameters." He adds that because actual ceremonies at cemeteries have been heavily reduced in size, "most folks understand that we are trying to provide meaningful services despite the limitations, though some are understandably frustrated."

Such frustrations have led many Hollywood families to completely forgo in-person ceremonies, at least for now — with some relatives telling THR that they are waiting, likely until sometime in 2021, to hold memorials. "Many folks remain stuck in the planning stages," observes veteran Hollywood press agent Harlan Boll.

Socialite and actress Ruta Lee is still processing the death of her husband, businessman Webster Lowe Jr., who died in July after a long battle with dementia. "It's been a horrendously difficult time," says Lee, who announced Lowe's death via social media. "The word got out, and we received hundreds of messages and donations to our charity, The Thalians," which works to eliminate stigma about mental illness. A formal memorial will have to wait, she says, until she can plan "an all-star event."

A like sentiment is shared by Laura Pursell, whose father, composer William Pursell, died in September from COVID. He was 94 and still writing music. His daughter calls this period "isolating and difficult," noting that her father should have and will have a proper memorial. "It's extremely important that my father's legacy be recognized and continued," she says. "We will have a funeral at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville," she adds, "but having had COVID myself, we will only do so when it doesn't put others at risk."

After actor Sean Connery died in his sleep at age 90 on Oct. 31, a publicist for the star said in a statement, “There will be a private ceremony followed by a memorial yet to be planned once the virus has ended.” Similarly, the family of CBS spokesman Gil Schwartz, who died in May at 68, "hopes to do some celebration of life events in both California and New York sometime in 2021," says CBS spokesman Chris Ender, who worked with Schwartz for more than two decades.

For Neil Schwary, whose father, Oscar-winning producer Ronald Schwary, died in July at age 76, the contrast between managing his dad's death and that of his mother, Susan, a few years ago is striking. "She was a notable makeup artist, so we went through her phone book, made calls and people showed up," says Neil, who's not sure when a memorial will take place for his father. "This will be a far longer process. But there is a silver lining. In this terrible time, we know we have something to look forward to."

Others are opting for informal Zoom memorials, such as one held for former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock — who died in August at age 77 following a heart attack — by a group of people who worked for him at the studio. (While a formal memorial for Pollock has not been announced, the American Film Institute, where he was chairman, has started a scholarship fund in his name.)

Says producer Zanne Devine, a former Universal executive who co-organized the Zoom tribute to Pollock, "Probably 30 or 40 of us ended up on a Friday night [a few days after he died] sharing stories and remembrances and things he taught us. It lasted a couple of hours. It was very intimate and impromptu, filled with funny and heartfelt stories." The fact that it wasn't an official memorial kept the focus squarely on Pollock and his legacy, according to former Universal exec Barry Isaacson. "Traditionally in Hollywood, there are all sorts of agendas," he says. "Sometimes it's about raising money for an institution, sometimes it's a swanky kind of social thing. But this was rather pure by comparison."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.