If you’re like me, you have several images of the late Dick Clark etched in your memory. Mine include the youthful ringmaster of American Bandstand, preternaturally calm and collected as he chats up wildly dressed disco stars in the 1970s; the smug host of 100,000 Pyramid, always suggesting clues that would have worked after contestants failed to win the big money; and finally, the stroke-ravaged host of New Year’s Rockin’ Eve making his last appearance this past Dec. 31.
The first time I saw Clark on air after his December 2004 stroke, as he counted down to 2006, was shocking. His speech was halting and markedly slurred, and his legendary boyish face was now partly paralyzed. I hadn’t heard about his condition before the broadcast and my first thought was, “What the hell happened to Dick Clark?”
We can thank (or curse) Clark, who died of a heart attack Wednesday at 82, for giving Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker and countless other teen idols a national stage. We can acknowledge the canny business sense that helped him amass a nine-figure fortune. And we can nod at his self-appraisal, as quoted in his New York Times obituary: “I’ve always dealt with light, frivolous things that didn’t really count; I’m not ashamed of that. … I’ve been a fluffmeister for a long time.”
But maybe, as we consider the drive that propelled this visibly damaged mogul to stand outside Times Square in the cold each Dec. 31, stroke be damned, and co-host the show that he had produced since 1972, we should re-evaluate our feelings about Clark. If the man who blithely hosted TV blooper reels for 20 years was indeed a fluffmeister, he was one with a tougher core than we thought.
Clark’s Type II diabetes was most likely a factor in his stroke, and he had worked to raise awareness of the link between diabetes, heart disease and stroke. He did not go public with his diagnosis of diabetes for several years, until, as he said in an interview with WebMD, "I heard the announcement that two-thirds of the people with diabetes die of heart disease or stroke and it seemed like a good idea to spread the word."
Clark could not avoid becoming a stroke patient himself, but as Jim Baranski, chief executive of the National Stroke Association, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week, he quickly became a “champion” for the cause. “He told the world, ‘It’s OK. You can go on from this,’" Baranski said.
Some viewers criticized Clark for imposing himself on the New Year’s Eve celebration in his post-stroke condition, and ABC for letting him. To them, Clark had become a downer and Dec. 31 was, after all, the happiest, most hopeful night of the year. But, really, what better time to be reminded that we will need to embrace both joys and challenges as we look to the days ahead, that there will always be struggles and suffering on our path and we can either let them limit us, or, like Clark, refuse.
In his final on-camera appearance, soon after the ball dropped to welcome Jan. 1, 2012, America’s oldest teenager said: “Boy, what a night! Everybody came to have a good time and are they ever having one. … It gets bigger and more fun every year.”
Why would he, or any of us, want to sit out the party?
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