Rod McKuen, the husky-voiced "King of Kitsch" whose avalanche of music, verse and spoken-word recordings in the 1960s and '70s overwhelmed critical mockery and made him an Oscar-nominated songwriter and one of the bestselling poets in history, has died. He was 81.
McKuen died Thursday at a rehabilitation center in Beverly Hills, Calif., where he had been treated for pneumonia. He had been ill for several weeks and was unable to digest food, his half brother, Edward McKuen Habib, said.
Until a sabbatical in 1981, McKuen was an astonishingly successful and prolific force in popular culture, turning out hundreds of songs, poems and records. Sentimental, earnest and unashamed, he conjured a New Age spirit world that captivated those who didn't ordinarily like "poetry" and those who craved relief from the war, assassinations and riots of the time.
"I think it's a reaction people are having against so much insanity in the world," he once said. "I mean, people are really all we've got. You know it sounds kind of corny, and I suppose it's a cliché, but it's really true; that's just the way it is."
Among his best-known songs was "Seasons in the Sun," a chart-topper in 1974 for Terry Jacks. He was nominated for Oscars for "Jean" and for "A Boy Named Charlie Brown," the title track from the beloved Peanuts movie.
Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Dolly Parton and Chet Baker were among the many artists who recorded his material, although McKuen often handled the job himself, in a hushed, throaty style he honed after an early life as a rock singer cracked his natural tenor.
McKuen is credited with more than 200 albums — dozens of which went gold or platinum — and more than 30 collections of poetry. Among his most quoted phrases: "Listen to the warm" and "It doesn't matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love."
After serving as a propaganda writer in the Korean War, McKuen wound up in San Francisco, where his friend Phyllis Diller helped him find work in the growing nightclub scene. He went on to sing with the Lionel Hampton band, acted in a handful of movies and TV shows, and read poetry on the same bill as Jack Kerouac. He also did voice-overs for Disney's "The Little Mermaid."
Colleen McCullough realized when she was young that she would spend her old age in poverty unless she started to write.
"As I moved through my 20s and 30s, I became aware that I was going to be a 70-year-old spinster living in a cold-water, walk-up flat with a single 60-watt light bulb," she later said.
By day, the garrulous, Australia-born McCullough ran the neurophysiology lab at Yale University. By night, she wrote.
Within a few years, "The Thorn Birds," her 1977 saga of a baronial outback family and a priest tormented by love, sold millions of copies and was made into TV's second-most-popular miniseries, topped only by "Roots."
McCullough, whose literary output ranged from police procedurals set in Connecticut to a series of seven novels ("Masters of Rome") based on her extensive readings in ancient Roman history, died Thursday in a hospital on Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.
She was 77.
McCullough sold the paperback rights to "The Thorn Birds," her second novel, for $1.9 million, a record at the time. The book has since sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, according to HarperCollins Australia.
However, the 1983 miniseries, starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward, was not on McCullough's must-see list, despite its six Emmys. In interviews, she described it, with her characteristic candor, as "instant vomit" and resisted calls for a follow-up.