The Man In Black

JOHNNY CASH, 71

After a couple of pages of family history--the old Scottish name was Caesche--he began telling the story of his life with characteristic plainspokenness. "My name is John R. Cash," he wrote in his 1997 autobiography. "I was born on February 26, 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas... Vivian and I parted, and in 1968 I married June Carter, who is still my wife... My work life has been simple: cotton as a youth and music as an adult... I'm still a Christian, as I have been all my life." And then, a left turn. "Beyond that I get complicated. I endorse Kris Kristofferson's line about me: 'He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction'... I do believe what I say. There are levels of honesty, though."

If there was a key to the complicated life of Johnny Cash, this was it. He always sought directness and simplicity, not just in his stark, austerely elegant music--from "I Walk the Line" in 1956 to his 1990s "American Recordings," with just his worn voice and acoustic guitar--but in his obsessively forthright self-presentation and chronic self-examination. Yet the closer you looked--the closer he looked--the more remote he seemed: there was level after level to his honesty. Take that business about his simple work life. Was this true humility, or were you supposed to recall that in 1969 he was outselling the Beatles--and think what a humble guy he was? In his autobiography he named his various personas, from "Cash" ("the star, the egomaniac") to "Johnny" (June's "playmate"). So when he introduced himself with such apparent simplicity onstage--"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash"--there were even levels to that.

If it was hard to get a handle on who he was, it was just as hard to specify what he did. Like Elvis Presley, Cash started out with Sam Phillips's Sun Records, yet he never fit the Memphis rockabilly mold. He played something like country with no twang, and his rhythm had no blues. His sound was instantly identifiable--muted electric guitar, bass, Cash's acoustic guitar (with a dollar bill in the strings for that scratchy rhythm) and his somber baritone--but it remains uncategorizable. His 1963 "Ring of Fire," written by June about their sometimes scary romance, was a Nashville Sound hit that crossed over into pop. And his best-selling 1956 single "Folsom Prison Blues" walked the line between good-time honky-tonk and edgy violence--"I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die"--straight into the roiling American mainstream. Meanwhile, Cash's collaborations with the likes of Bob Dylan (as well as his drug busts and meltdowns) had given him countercultural credibility.

Cash's eventual sobriety, even his friendship with Billy Graham, never undercut his status as an icon of American cussedness. So no one should have been surprised when post-punks whose parents weren't born when "I Walk the Line" came out took to heart his bare-bones 1990s records and his covers of songs by Beck and Soundgarden. Last month the video for his version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" won at the VMAs. He'd wanted to go--and we'd have liked to see him hanging out with 50 Cent--but he was too sick. He had a diabetes-related nerve disease, and June, who'd saved his life when drugs took him to the bottom, had died back in May. At 71, he just couldn't go on: he'd come at last to that deepest level of honesty, and to whatever lay beyond. A few years before, he'd made a sort of prayer about it. "I'll tell you how the sun set," he wrote in the notes for his unbearably lovely 1996 album "Cash." "The hills put on their blankets. The hawk and crow were done. And as I said softly in twilight, See you tomorrow, sun, I sat out in the darkness. And I... watched the moon rise in its place. I heard the night birds call. God's world, in perfect order... May I be in accordance. On my last setting sun." --David Gates

WARREN ZEVON, 56

A Grin at the Grim Reaper

Warren Zevon, who died last week at 56, had a lifelong thing about death. Long before he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer a year ago, the singer-songwriter had taken mortality as a main theme in such songs as "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," "My Ride's Here" (about a hearse) and "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," about a mercenary who goes on killing after he's dead. Zevon's consummately crafted songs earned the admiration of fans as disparate as journalist Hunter S. Thompson and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon. In his best work, notably "Werewolves of London," he blended lyrical inventiveness ("Little old lady got mutilated late last night") with an antic refusal ever to completely wipe the smile off his face, no matter how dire the subject. Covering Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" on his final album, "The Wind," he finished by shouting, "Open up! Open up!" --Malcolm Jones

EDWARD TELLER, 95

Architect of the H-Bomb

The chief proponent of first the hydrogen bomb during the cold war and then the Star Wars missile defense system during the Reagan era, Edward Teller was one of the most polarizing physicists of the modern era. Nobel laureate Isidor I. Rabi, who worked with Teller on the Manhattan Project, once said that "it would have been a better world without Teller." But another Nobelist, Eugene Wigner, called Teller "the most imaginative person I ever met." Born in Hungary in 1908, Teller lobbied all his life for nuclear power, both in weaponry and as a peacetime energy source. But there were hints that he was ambivalent about his legacy: his rhyming alphabet for children included the verse "H has become a most ominous letter/It means something bigger, if not something better." --Malcolm Jones

LENI RIEFENSTAHL, 101

A Self-Deluded Genius

If sheer cinematic technique were all, Leni Riefenstahl would have been remembered simply as one of the great figures of filmmaking. But she used her genius in the service of a murderous regime, which both destroyed her career and granted her a tainted immortality. "Triumph of the Will," her monumental piece of Nazi propaganda, filmed at a 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, and "Olympiad," her epic document of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, ensured her place in cinematic history and forever linked her name with Hitler's. Though she was cleared in war-crimes investigations in 1952, she completed only one more film, "Tiefland," before she was driven out of filmmaking. Riefenstahl turned to still photography, spending years shooting the Nuba tribesman in Sudan, and in the 1980s became fascinated by scuba diving and underwater filming. To the end--which came at the age of 101--this proud, imperious and deluded artist insisted that "Triumph of the Will" was merely a documentary of a historical event, with no propagandistic agenda. Every heroic camera angle, stirring cut and masterful composition proves her wrong. --David Ansen

JOHN RITTER, 54

The Art of Transparency

It was easy to underestimate an actor as seemingly effortless as John Ritter, the bachelor pretending to be gay on "Three's Company." After that series ended in '84, Ritter, son of cowboy star Tex Ritter, appeared in more than 25 TV movies, starred in the series "Hooperman" and was shooting his latest, "8 Simple Rules... for Dating My Teenage Daughter," last week when he suffered a tear in his aorta. His success as Jack Tripper may have obscured his subtlety and versatility. But after his almost unrecognizable turn as a small-town homosexual in "Sling Blade," indie directors got wise. In the upcoming "Manhood" he's funny and terrifying as a dangerously unstable jilted husband. Even in this disturbing role, he made it look easy. --David Ansen