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Famous Faces of Diabetes

by Legacy Staff

Over the last 20 years, the number of American adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than doubled. Currently nearly 35 million Americans have diabetes — a leading cause of death — yet 20% of them don’t even know it. To help raise awareness, we’re looking back at American celebrities who lived and died with diabetes. Many died from diabetes itself or complications of the disease. A few dedicated themselves to diabetes awareness and prevention. All remind us that diabetes can affect young and old, male and female, Black and white. These are the famous faces of diabetes.

Wilford Brimley (1934–2020)

Wilford Brimley
Getty Images / NBC / Frank Carroll

The character actor was known for his gruff and grumpy persona in movies and TV shows including “Cocoon” and “Our House.” He also appeared in TV commercials for Quaker Oats and Liberty Medical, touting their supplies for diabetics. Brimley himself was diagnosed with diabetes in 1979 and worked for decades to raise awareness of the disease. He was honored by the American Diabetes Association for his work on behalf of those with diabetes.

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Clarence Fountain (1929–2018)

AP Photo

Fountain was a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama. They began performing together in 1939, and Fountain continued recording with them all his life. He was 88 when he died of diabetes.

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Penny Marshall (1943–2018)

Actor and director Penny Marshall
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The star of popular sitcom “Laverne and Shirley” later moved behind the camera, becoming an acclaimed director of hits such as “Big,” “Awakenings,” and “A League of Their Own.” She died at 75 due to heart problems and diabetes mellitis type 1.

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Stephen Furst (1955–2017)

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The actor was best known for playing awkward Delta Tau Chi pledge Flounder in the classic 1978 comedy “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” He went on to roles in series including “St. Elsewhere” and “Babylon 5.” Having lived with Type 2 diabetes since he was 17, Furst died at 63.

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Mary Tyler Moore (1936–2017)

Mary Tyler Moore
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Moore was one of the most beloved actresses of the 1960s and ’70s. The star of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” she delighted audiences with her bright smile and gift for comedy. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 33, Moore was international chairwoman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and a strong advocate in favor of embryonic stem cell research, which she believed would lead to a cure.

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Attrell Cordes (1970–2016)

R&B singer Attrell Cordes
Getty Images / Steve Eichner

Cordes was the lead singer of the R&B group P.M. Dawn, which had a hit with 1991’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.” The singer had lived with diabetes for more than 20 years. He was just 46 when he died from renal failure, a complication of diabetes.

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Phife Dawg (1970–2016)

A Tribe Called Quest rapper Phife Dawg
Getty Images / Tribeca Film Festival / Andrew H. Walker

Phife Dawg was a rapper in the influential hip-hop trio A Tribe Called Quest, considered pioneers of the alternative hip-hop sound. He was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 1990 and was just 45 when he died as a result of the disease.

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Dick Van Patten (1928–2015)

Actor Dick Van Patten
Wikimedia Commons

The actor was known best for his role as the patriarch Tom Bradford on the sitcom “Eight Is Enough.” An animal welfare advocate, Van Patten founded Natural Balance Pet Foods. He died at 86 of complications from diabetes.

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B.B. King (1925–2015)

Blues musician B.B. King
AP Photo / Dan Steinberg

The 15-time Grammy winner was the greatest upholder of a tradition that inspired everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Robert Cray to the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. The blues great will be remembered for his legendary performances with his guitar Lucille. After being diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, King became a high-profile spokesman in the fight against the disease.

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Ron Santo (1940–2010)

Baseball player Ron Santo
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The Cubs great was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2012, two years after his death from diabetes. The third baseman was a nine-time All-Star who played with the Cubbies for 14 years and later became an announcer for the Cubs on WGN radio. Santos, who battled diabetes from the time he was a teenager, helped raise millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

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Dom DeLuise (1933–2009)

Actor and comedian Dom DeLuise
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Actor and comedian starred in many movies, often appearing alongside his good friend Burt Reynolds. At the time of his death, DeLuise was hospitalized for kidney failure and respiratory problems brought on by diabetes and high blood pressure.

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Bo Diddley (1928–2008)

Blues and rock musician Bo Diddley
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The blues singer and guitarist was one of the innovators of rock ‘n’ roll, influencing Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and many other musicians. He’s famous for his “Bo Diddley Beat,” a syncopated five-accent rhythm that is used often in rock and pop music. He had a history of diabetes and high blood pressure when he had a stroke, and then a heart attack, in 2007. He died of heart failure the following year.

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Evel Knievel (1938–2007)

Daredevil Evel Knievel
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Knievel leaped to superstardom New Year’s Eve in 1967 when he jumped his motorcycle 141 feet over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. A problem with the bike caused him to crash when he landed, crushing his pelvis and femur and putting him into a coma for 29 days. He recovered and went on to perform many more death-defying jumps. In the end, diabetes and pulmonary disease were two obstacles he couldn’t get over.

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Shirley Horn (1934–2005)

Jazz singer Shirley Horn
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The jazz singer and pianist worked with many greats including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wynton Marsalis. With her incredible ability to sing and accompany herself on the piano, she was known for her smoky ballads and could swing as intently as anyone in the business. She died of complications from diabetes at 71.

Rick James (1948–2004)

Musician Rick James
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James started out singing in R&B groups as a teenager in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. In 1977, he signed with Gordy Records and soon became known as the King of Punk Funk for his mix of funk, soul, and underground rock. He had huge hits with the songs “Give It to Me Baby” and “Super Freak.” Diabetes contributed to his death of pulmonary and cardiac failure at 56.

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Nell Carter (1948–2003)

Actor and singer Nell Carter
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The multitalented actor and singer won a Tony Award for her performance in the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and an Emmy Award for reprising the role on television. She also was nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes for her work on the NBC sitcom “Gimme a Break!” Carter died of heart disease complicated by diabetes. She was 54.

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Suzy Parker (1932–2003)

Model Suzy Parker
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Parker was signed to Ford Models, sight unseen, as part of the contract to land her sister, Dorian Leigh. Parker turned into a wise investment for Ford, as she went on to become the first model to earn $100,000 in a single year. Parker spent the last five years of her life in and out of hospitals, suffering from multiple health issues including diabetes. She died of kidney failure at age 70.

Johnny Cash (1932–2003)

Country singer songwriter Johnny Cash
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Cash was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Known first and foremost as a country singer, Cash crossed over into rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, and even gospel music. Cash died of complications from diabetes at 71, just four months after the death of his wife, June Carter Cash.

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Buddy Hackett (1924–2003)

Comic actor Buddy Hackett
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The comedian and actor had memorable character roles in the movies “The Love Bug” and “The Music Man.” He died at 78, a few days after suffering a stroke and after years of living with diabetes.

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Waylon Jennings (1937–2002)

Country musician Waylon Jennings
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Jennings was known as a member of the “outlaw” country music movement in the 1970s alongside Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. Jennings’ first big break came in the 1950s when Buddy Holly hired him to play bass. Jennings was touring with Holly when Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash in 1959. Jennings gave his seat on the plane to the Big Bopper, who had the flu. Jennings died of complications from diabetes at 64.

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Carroll O’Connor (1924–2001)

Actor Carroll O'Connor
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O’Connor will be remembered for his signature role as the lovable bigot Archie Bunker on the classic 1970s sitcom “All in the Family,” as well as his starring role on the television crime drama series “In the Heat of the Night.” O’Connor died at 76 of a heart attack brought on by diabetic complications.

Peggy Lee (1920–2001)

Singer songwriter Peggy Lee
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As a singer, Lee is known best for her version of the song “Fever.” But Lee was also a prolific songwriter, penning the lyrics to “It’s a Good Day,” “So What’s New?”, and many more songs, including “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” from the Disney classic “Lady and the Tramp.” Lee was an accomplished actress as well, voicing four different characters in “Lady and the Tramp” and being nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as an alcoholic blues singer in the movie “Pete Kelly’s Blues.” She died of complications from diabetes and a heart attack after years of poor health.

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Curtis Mayfield (1942–1999)

Singer songwriter Curtis Mayfield
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The Chicago native was one of the first musicians to incorporate social awareness into soul music. His song “People Get Ready” was ranked No. 24 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 songs that shaped rock ‘n’ roll. In 1998, Mayfield, who had become paralyzed in a 1990 accident, lost his leg to diabetes. He died the following year of complications from the disease.

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Esther Rolle (1920–1998)

Actor Esther Rolle
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The actress was known best for her role as Florida Evans on the 1970s sitcom “Good Times,” a character she originated on the sitcom “Maude.” Rolle and actor John Amos, who played her husband on the show, both eventually quit the series because they felt the show no longer was focusing on important issues and was becoming more frivolous with the success of Jimmie Walker’s character, J.J. Rolle died of complications from diabetes at age 78.

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Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996)

Ella Fitzgerald
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The “First Lady of Song” is considered one of the greatest singers of all time. In 1993, Fitzgerald had both of her legs amputated below the knee because of the effects of diabetes. She spent her final days in the backyard of her Beverly Hills mansion with her son and granddaughter, Alice. “I just want to smell the air, listen to the birds, and hear Alice laugh,” she reportedly said.

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Dana Hill (1964–1996)

Actor Dana Hill
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The actress known for playing Audrey Griswold in the movie “European Vacation” got her start in TV commercials and later starred on the CBS series “The Two of Us.” Diagnosed as a child with Type 1 diabetes, she died of a stroke caused by her diabetes. She was just 32.

Jerry Garcia (1942–1995)

Grateful Dead musician Jerry Garcia
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Garcia was a founding member of the Grateful Dead and a symbol of the counterculture psychedelic era of the 1960s. An incredible guitar player who blended country, bluegrass, blues, jazz, and early rock ‘n’ roll to create his sound, Garcia saw his health suffer from diabetes and years of drug abuse. He recovered from a diabetic coma in 1986 but died of a heart attack in 1995 while staying in a rehab clinic.

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Sugar Ray Robinson (1921–1989)

Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson
AP Photo

Pound for pound, he is perhaps the greatest boxer in history. Robinson, who held the welterweight championship from 1946 until 1951 and later won the middleweight championship, was diagnosed with diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease before his death at 67.

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James Cagney (1899–1986)

Actor James Cagney
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Known best for playing tough guys in movies such as “The Public Enemy,” the actor got his start as a dancer in vaudeville and on Broadway. Cagney was diagnosed with diabetes after developing vision problems.

Kate Smith (1907–1986)

Singer Kate Smith
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The “First Lady of Radio” was known best for her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Later, the Philadelphia Flyers would play Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” before some of the team’s games, with many believing they won games whenever the song was played. On the few occasions Smith performed the song live before a Flyers game, she received a tremendous reception. Smith had diabetes in her later years, losing a leg to the disease and incurring brain damage as a result of a diabetic coma.

Mary Ford (1924–1977)

Musician Mary Ford
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Ford had 16 top-10 hits between 1950 and 1954 with her husband, Les Paul. Recorded in their apartment, the duo’s “How High the Moon” — one of the first songs to feature multitracking — spent nine weeks at No. 1 in 1951. Ford died of complications from diabetes at 53, after spending eight weeks in a diabetic coma.

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Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972)

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson
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Known as the Queen of Gospel for her powerful singing voice, Jackson was also a civil rights activist. Despite receiving death threats, Jackson performed at a concert in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 to raise money for a boycott protesting bus segregation. Jackson died of heart failure and diabetes complications. She was 60.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867–1957)

Author Laura Ingalls Wilder
Wikimedia Commons

Wilder is well-known for her “Little House on the Prairie” series of children’s novels, based on her childhood experiences with a pioneer family. Diabetes ran in the Ingalls family, and Laura and her sisters all succumbed to complications from the disease. Laura was the longest-lived Ingalls daughter by far, outliving Mary by 29, Carrie by 11, and Grace by 16 years.

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Mildred Bailey (1907–1951)

Jazz singer Mildred Bailey
Wikimedia Commons

Known as the Queen of Swing, the jazz singer had numerous hits including “Please Be Kind” and “Rockin’ Chair.” She died of heart failure as a result of diabetes at 44.

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Thomas Edison (1847–1931)

Inventor Thomas Edison
Wikimedia Commons

Described as “America’s greatest inventor,” Edison began his career as a telegraph operator. He went on to invent and innovate the phonograph, motion picture camera, and electric light bulb. Edison died at 84 of complications from diabetes.

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