Gravesite Tour: The Dead celebrities of South Florida

Gravesites Tour: The final resting places of the famous — and infamous.

You can’t take it with you, and that includes your sense of humor. So actor Leslie Nielsen left his behind to give us a chortle.

A fart joke adorns the otherwise dignified Fort Lauderdale headstone of the actor, best known for comedic roles in absurdist spoofs such as “Airplane” and the “Naked Gun” movies.

Jackie Gleason is buried beneath a marble temple in Miami, befitting the final resting place of the King of Comedy.

The grave marker for Meyer Lanksy, a major organized crime figure known as the “mob’s accountant,” placidly reads, “Forever in Our Hearts,” but might have included “and also in FBI files.”

Some of South Florida’s resident celebrities are sometimes as flamboyant in death as they were in life. Others slumber in eternal rest beneath tasteful markers that bear no hint of their namesake’s colorful careers.

From Jensen Beach through the Keys, take a tour of the gravesites of our best-known celebrities.

Danny Joe Brown, Southern rocker

The growling lead singer for the Southern rock band, Molly Hatchet, was born in Jacksonville and served in the Coast Guard for two years before joining the band and co-writing some of its best-known songs. He left the band in 1980 due to complications from diabetes, then rejoined in 1982. After suffering a stroke, he moved to Davie, where he died of renal failure at his mother’s home in 2005 at age 53. The inscription on his grave at Lauderdale Memorial Park reads, in part, “… Singing a new song unto the Lord, He Delights in Me.”

Fernando Bujones, ballet star

With his whiplash turns and pure classical technique, Bujones became one of the first male ballet dancers to become a ballet superstar. 

Born to Cuban parents in Miami, Bujones trained in Cuba under ballet legend Alicia Alonso. 

He became a principal with the American Ballet Theater and won a prestigious international dance competition, a first for an American and almost unheard for a male dancer. 

He quit ABT following a feud with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Bujones directed Orlando Ballet for five years. 

He lived in Hallandale where he died in 2005 at age 50 of melanoma. His grave is in Woodlawn Park North Cemetery and Mausoleum in Miami.

Perry Como, singer-TV star

Pierino Ronald Como, the former barber whose smooth baritone crooned its way into the hearts of thousands of fans, was a pioneer of TV variety shows, especially his Christmas specials, whose sign off always included a goodbye “from that little piece of paradise called Jupiter, Florida.” 

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His songs live on as soundtracks of movies and TV shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Oceans Eleven” and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.” He died in 2001 at age 88. His grave, usually marked with coins of remembrance left by admirers, is in Riverside Memorial Park in Tequesta.

Mike Douglas, talk show host

Michael Delaney Dowd, Jr.  started singing in a church choir, then went on to sing in Kay Kyser’s big band, providing the singing voice for Disney’s Prince Charming in “Cinderella” in 1950.

“The Mike Douglas Show” began in Cleveland, then was syndicated in 1963, eventually running for 21 years. Fox News creator Roger Ailes was once Douglas’ producer. 

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Guest hosts included Barbra Streisand and John Lennon with Yoko Ono. Douglas, who once considered buying Mar-A-Lago before Donald Trump did, died in Palm Beach Gardens on his 81st birthday in 2006. His grave is in Riverside Memorial Park in Tequesta.

Jackie Gleason, comedy icon

“The Great One” began in vaudeville, did stints as a hotel comic and had bit parts in Hollywood before finding a home in the new medium of television in 1949. “The Jackie Gleason Show” is where he honed two of his best-known lines, “How sweeeeet it is …” and in announcing the start of the show, “And awa-a-a-ay we go.” A sketch from the show became the hit show “The Honeymooners,” where Gleason played that soulful, put-upon Everyman, Ralph Kramden, who blusters and bellows, but loves his wife and his best pal, Ed Norton.

Gleason, a pool shark, played pool hustler Minnesota Fats opposite Paul Newman in “The Hustler,” as well as Burt Reynolds’ nemesis, Sheriff Buford T. Justice, in the “Smokey and the Bandit” movies. In 1964, Gleason, who also composed and performed music, brought his eponymously-named sketch comedy show to Miami Beach, in the auditorium that now bears his name.

Gleason died of cancer in 1987 at age 71 in Lauderhill. His ornate mausoleum, which has his catchphrase “Away We Go” inscribed on it, is at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami.

Zora Neale Hurston, masterful author

The daughter of former slaves, Hurston grew up in Eatonville, one of the nation’s first incorporated black towns. A folklorist and writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston’s masterwork profiled migrant workers facing the fearsome 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane in “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Despite writing books and magazine stories, Hurston sometimes had to work as a waitress or maid. She earned a Guggenheim Fellowship to study voodoo in the Caribbean and worked for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers Project in Florida during the Great Depression, all the while writing about the “Negro” experience. She spent time in Belle Glade in the 1950s, was a librarian at Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County and a substitute teacher at the then-black Lincoln Academy in Fort Pierce.

Penniless after a stroke, she was living in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home when she died in 1960 at age 69 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1975, writer Alice Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” in Ms. magazine, reawakening an appreciation of Hurston. Walker paid for a grave marker for Hurston, inscribed as “Genius of the South,” at the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery in Fort Pierce.

Don Kirshner, pop producer

The “Man with the Golden Ear” helped craft the careers of Connie Francis, Billy Joel, The Police, Carole King, James Taylor and The Monkees, among dozens of other rock and pop stars of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. 

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His live performance late night TV show, “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” hosted acts from The Allman Brothers and The Eagles to The Ramones. (And inspired an unforgettable parody on “Saturday Night Live.”) Kirshner once said he was a nervous wreck while trying to get the Rolling Stones to play for the premiere of his new show when other networks were offering them a million dollars. “I got Mick Jagger on the phone and he says, ‘So what are you giving me?’ I said, ‘300.’ He says, ‘300 grand?’ I said, ‘No, $300 a man.’ He laughed and said, ‘Chap, I love your work and I’m gonna do it for you.’”

Kirshner died in Boca Raton in 2011 at age 76, one year before he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His grave is in the Temple Beth El Mausoleum in Boca Raton.

Daniel Keyes, classic author

A professor of creative writing and literature, Daniel Keyes published five novels, including “Flowers for Algernon,” about a man with a mental disability who briefly becomes a genius after a medical procedure. Cliff Robertson won an Oscar in the movie version, called “Charly.” Keyes also wrote the well-regarded book, “The Minds of Billy Milligan,” among others. He died of pneumonia at his home in Boca Raton in 2014 at age 86. He is interred at Eternal Light Memorial Gardens in Boynton Beach.

Dina Merrill, Palm Beach actress

She didn’t have to work, that’s for sure, as Dina Merrill grew up in the luxury of her mother’s Palm Beach home, a little place known as Mar-a-Lago. She was the first cool, blonde Palm Beach princess who occupied “Deenie’s” storybook-themed room, long before Ivanka Trump slept there.

Merrill defied her parents — Marjorie Merriweather Post and E.F. Hutton — to become a successful actress if not quite a star. Patrician, cool and always elegant, Merrill often played the spurned wife who loses her man, to Elizabeth Taylor in “Butterfield 8” and to Shirley Jones in”The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” then became a popular guest star on TV shows.

After inheriting a reported $50 million, she became a philanthropist and vice-chairman of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition. She died of Lewy body dementia in 2017 at age 93. She is interred in the Episcopal Church of Bethesda by the Sea Columbarium in Palm Beach.

Mitzi, the dolphin and original Flipper

You thought “Flipper” was male, didn’t you? Nope, just another guy swiping a hard-working female’s thunder. Mitzi was one of several captured dolphins (five females and one male) who played Flipper, the supposedly wild dolphin who saved Sandy from the shark in the movie set in the Florida Keys, which spawned a ’60s TV show of the same name. The training center eventually became the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, where a memorial to Mitzi, who died in 1972, remains.

Anthony Newley, singer-songwriter

A British actor, singer and composer with an unmistakable Cockney accent, Newley began his career as a character actor in English films and plays. With his writing partner, Newley wrote the book and score of “Stop the World I Want to Get Off,” in which he also starred. One of his four wives was Joan Collins. Newley co-starred in “Dr. Doolittle,” and co-wrote the score for the 1971 version of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which included the Sammy Davis, Jr. hit, “The Candy Man.” Newley also co-wrote such classic songs as “What Kind of Fool Am I,” “Pure Imagination” and the Bond theme song “Goldfinger.” He died in Jensen Beach in 1999 at age 67 and is interred at Forest Hills Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Palm City.

Leslie Nielsen, late-blooming comic star

Born in Saskatchewan, Nielsen was a dramatic actor in films such as “Forbidden Planet” and “The Poseidon Adventure” before audiences discovered his true nature as an absurdist comedian with deadpan wit and perfect timing. In a much-quoted bit from the movie, “Airplane,” Nielsen is asked, “Surely, you can’t be serious?” to which he responds, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”

Even in retirement, Nielsen never stopped amusing those around him. He walked the red carpet at the 2005 Palm Beach International Film Festival with a flatulence noisemaker. Not surprisingly, his exit line, inscribed on his headstone, is “Let ‘er rip.” Not far away, a bench dedicated to the actor reads, “Sit down whenever you can.” Nielsen died in 2010 at age 84 and is buried in Fort Lauderdale’s Evergreen Cemetery.

John “Jaco” Pastorius III, electric bass virtuoso

Called the most important and ground-breaking electric bass player in history, Jaco Pastorius  played with everyone from Joni Mitchell to Pat Metheny and the jazz fusion group, Weather Report, before he spiraled into substance abuse and life on the streets of Fort Lauderdale.

Growing up in Oakland Park, Pastorius was a wild child of the beach and woods, who played sports before turning his attention to jazz. When the Florida humidity played havoc with his upright bass, he traded it for a Fender electric bass and never looked back. After teaching bass at the University of Miami, he played on albums by Herbie Hancock, Sam & Dave and Wayne Shorter before joining Weather Report in the late 1970s. Shortly afterward, Pastorius, who was later diagnosed as bi-polar, began abusing drugs and alcohol, addictions which clouded the rest of his life. Homeless and living on the street in the ’80s, Pastorius began picking fights at Fort Lauderdale-area bars. In 1987, a fight at a Wilton Manors club put him in a coma. He died at age 35 and is buried at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale.

Esther Rolle, ’70s TV star

Born the 10th of 18 children to Bahamian immigrants in Pompano Beach, Rolle graduated from Ely High School there before becoming an actress. She played Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles’ Haitian-influenced theater version of “Macbeth” in New York, and appeared in plays with the Negro Ensemble Company. Although she promised her father she would never become a servant or maid, her biggest success was in playing those roles on TV. She was feisty Florida Evans in the “Maude” TV series, then in the spinoff, “Good Times.” Rolle won an Emmy for “The Summer of My German Soldier” and appeared in several movies including “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Rosewood.” She died in 1998 at age 78. Her gravestone at Westview Community Cemetery in Pompano Beach reads “Good Times Florida.”

Claude Kirk, Jr., governor of Florida

From his romance with “Madame X,” a mysterious German former actress he later married, to dismissing the Manatee County school superintendent and school board for ordering school desegregation, Claude Kirk’s single term as Florida governor was a political roller coaster ride. The first Republican to gain the governor’s mansion since Reconstruction, Kirk was a hard-to-pigeon-hole iconoclast who approved a new state constitution, set up a statewide environmental protection agency and killed the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

Presaging another chief executive with a home in Palm Beach County, Kirk told Time magazine in 1967, “The garden of controversy must be continually cultivated. Otherwise, nobody knows you are alive.” Kirk moved to West Palm Beach after losing his bid for a second term. He died in 2011 at age 85 and is buried in the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth.

Gary Carter, Hall of Fame baseball player

“The Kid” was one of baseball’s best catchers, playing 19 years with the New York Mets, Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers. 

The effervescent Baseball Hall of Fame member, who coached the St. Lucie Mets and the Palm Beach Atlantic University team after moving to Palm Beach Gardens in retirement, started a children’s charitable foundation and contributed to area schools and a number of area children’s charities. 

Before he died of brain cancer in 2012 at age 57, his last public appearance was attending PBAU’s opening season a few days earlier. He is buried in Riverside Memorial Park in Tequesta.

Chuck Daly, NBA coaching legend

Always elegantly attired in a series of blue suits, Daly coached the Olympic Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Games after coaching two Detroit Pistons “Bad Boy” teams to consecutive NBA championships.

He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He died in 2009 in Jupiter at age 78 and is buried at Riverside Memorial Park in Tequesta.

Billy Herman, baseball player-manager

In the 1930s and ’40s, William Jennings Bryan Herman was a second baseman, playing for the Chicago Cubs and Brooklyn Dodgers, then became the manager of the Pirates, Dodgers and Boston Red Sox. The Baseball Hall of Fame member moved to Palm Beach Gardens in 1968. He died in West Palm Beach at age 83 and is buried in Riverside Memorial Park in Tequesta.

Lou Little, college coach

The Columbia University football coach guided both future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman and writer Jack Kerouac, who broke his leg playing for Little in 1940. Little became “Lu Libble” in Kerouac’s novel, “Maggie Cassidy.” Little was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1960. He died at a Delray Beach nursing home in 1979 at age 85. He’s buried at Palm Beach Memorial Park in Lantana.

Rocky Marciano, boxing champ

Rocco Francis Marchegiano, born to Italian immigrant parents, went undefeated as the world heavyweight champion in six title fights in the 1950s, because of his formidable punching power and, possibly, an exceptionally durable chin. After retirement, Marciano built a home in Wilton Manors, near Fort Lauderdale. The fighter was 46 when he died in 1969 during a flight to Des Moines, when the small plane in which he was traveling hit a tree during landing. Two other men were killed in the same crash. He is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale.

Jim Mandich, Dolphins player-radio host

After playing for the Miami Dolphins in two Super Bowls, including the team’s perfect 1972 season, then for the Pittsburgh Steelers, “Mad Dog” Mandich became a color commentator for the Dolphins and a popular sports talk radio host on South Florida’s WIOD and WQAM.

The College Football Hall of Fame member was 62 when he died in 2011 in Miami Lakes.

He’s buried in Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery in Royal Palm Beach.

Henry “Hank” Rosenstein, basketball player

He joined the New York Knicks in 1946 and played in the first ever NBA game. Rosenstein was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame. After moving to Palm Beach County, Rosenstein died of heart failure in 2010 at age 89. His grave is in the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth.

Stanley Shakespeare, football player

The Lake Worth High School football star played for the University of Miami and for one season with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

In 2005, he drowned at age 42 after being knocked off his small boat off the Jupiter Inlet.

His grave is at Riverside Memorial Park in Tequesta.

Meyer Lansky, mobster

Born Meier Suchowlański in what is now Belarus, Lanksy spent nearly 50 years in organized crime, never being arrested for anything more serious than illegal gambling. Known as the “Mob’s Accountant” for his business sense, Lansky had bootlegging partnerships in the 1920s with mobsters Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. In the 1930s, Lansky controlled gambling operations in Florida, New Orleans and Cuba, and later in Las Vegas, where he’s reported to have said that the American Mafia was “bigger than United States Steel.” In 1959, Lansky fled Havana just ahead of Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries, who destroyed Lansky’s casinos. After being denied Israeli citizenship in 1970, Lansky returned to Miami Beach where he died in 1983 at age 8o. On paper, Lansky was nearly broke, yet the FBI believed he had $300 million in hidden accounts, which federal authorities never found. He’s buried in Mount Nebo Cemetery in Miami.

Charles Whitman, mass murderer

The perpetrator of the first mass shooting in the modern era, “The Madman in the Tower” who killed 14 and wounded 32 on a 1966 summer morning at the University of Texas in Austin, was a Lake Worth boy. Charles Whitman, the 25-year-old son of a violent plumbing contractor, an engineering student who lived in Austin with his wife and mother (whom he also killed) and a former Marine sniper, grew up in Palm Beach County and graduated from St. Ann High School before writing his name in history books with his victims’ blood. He was killed by police.

Generoso “Gene” Pope, Jr., tabloid king

The son of the owner of Italian-language newspapers in New York, Gene Pope  bought the New York Enquirer in 1952, changing its name to The National Enquirer, which sported gory headlines and tawdry stories about bizarre crimes. Its circulation soared because “inquiring minds want to know,” according to the tagline of the tabloid which Pope placed where shoppers would see it: at the checkout line. Liberace’s AIDS, the gardener who found Grace Kelly in her dying moments, photos of Gary Hart and Donna Rice cavorting in Bimini were all published first in the Enquirer.

After he moved the tabloid to Lantana in 1971, thousands of people made a pilgrimage each Christmas to see the “world’s largest decorated Christmas tree” that he erected each year outside the newspaper’s offices.

Befitting his name, Generoso was also generous to area hospitals and various Palm Beach County organizations. Pope was 61 when he died near his beachside Manalapan mansion in 1988, in an ambulance he had donated. He is interred at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Cemetery in Royal Palm Beach.

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