20 years ago, World Diabetes Day was introduced by the International Diabetes Federation and the World Health Organization “in response to growing concerns about the escalating health threat that diabetes now poses.” It is held every November 14, the birthday of Sir Frederick Banting, one of the men credited with discovering insulin.
8.3% of the U.S. population has diabetes, and it’s the seventh leading cause of death here, with more than 200,000 people dying from complications of the disease each year. Many famous people suffer from some form of diabetes, including George Lucas, Halle Berry, Mary Tyler Moore and Wilford Brimley. And many others have died as a result, usually through its effects, such as James Cagney, Mae West, Johnny Cash, Syd Barrett and Thomas Edison.
Even though this is a very serious matter and I primarily want us to remember those who’ve lost their life to diabetes, I also want to recognize some movie characters who suffered because they were diabetic, mostly those who succumbed to the disease. Films often get us to think about things we ignore in real life, so you might be more familiar with the following people, some fiction and some nonfiction, than any diabetics actually around you on a daily basis. The following list is just for fun, but don’t let that take away from the gravity of the cause or my greater sincerity towards it.
MICHAEL CORLEONE – “The Godfather Part III”
Mario Puzo, who wrote the original “Godfather” novel and co-wrote the screenplays to all three of the films, was himself a diabetic. Perhaps this was the reason he had Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) suffer from the disease in the final installment. While he seems to ultimately die of natural causes, throughout this film he is seen with diabetic symptoms. He needs to have juice and cookies at one point, claiming it’s to calm his stress, his eyesight declines and of course he does get insulin injections. And then there’s the scene where he apparently has a diabetic stroke after uttering a certain famous line:
MRS. JANKIS – “Memento”
One of the characters on this list who actually dies because of diabetes, Mrs. Jankis (Harriet Sansom Harris), is a very tragic example. Her husband, Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky), has anterograde amnesia, and this causes him to forget very recent actions. This includes giving Mrs. Jankis her insulin shots. But she couldn’t accept Sammy’s affliction, and so she tested him in the hopes that he’d snap out of it. She repeatedly asks for her insulin shot, and he continues to forget and therefore give her the injection over and over again until she slips into a coma and dies. The sad scene, which ends up being a key to the bigger picture, is in the video below, a little before the 8 minute mark.
ROBBIE – “Species”
It’s true that Robbie (Anthony Guidera) is a horrible guy, very likely a date rapist at the very least. But this asshole is mostly murdered because he’s a diabetic, which is the reason Sil (Natasha Henstridge) changes her mind about mating with him. Of course, she would have killed him anyway, even if he’d been healthy and therefore had acceptable seed. Still, it’s unfortunate that he had to be denied in the first place for his imperfection.
SAM – “Scarecrow Gone Wild”
Another horrible crime against a diabetic occurs in this super low-budget horror film. Despite its cheap genre hokiness, the movie brings awareness to the disease while also commenting on the cruel act of hazing rituals. Sam (Caleb Roehrig) goes into diabetic shock during the college prank and then comes back to life as the title monster, which takes revenge on his killers. The trailer:
LEE HAYS – “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!”
One of the two documentary characters on this list, Hays was one of the blacklisted members of the folk group The Weavers and famously co-writer of the song “If I Had a Hammer.” He also had diabetes and died in 1981 from directly related causes. In Jim Brown’s documentary on the group’s reunion, which was released the year following Hays’ death, you can see the bass vocalist confined to a wheelchair, because both of his legs had been amputated as an effect of his diabetes. Hays also wrote and narrates the film, which is credited with inspiring Christopher Guest’s folk mockumentary, “A Mighty Wind.” Here’s a clip:
ALMA THORPE – “Alma”
Although the eccentric title character of Ruth Leitman’s 1999 film died years after the film’s release, she did succumb to complications from diabetes. Earlier, yet still after appearing as the subject of the doc, she lost a leg to the disease. In the film, though, diabetes might have seemed a minimal issue compared to Alma’s schizophrenia and other psychoses, the effects of sexual and mental abuses from her childhood. Obviously it was still a big deal. Here’s a clip that has nothing to do with diabetes, but it’s the only one I can find of the film:
JOSEPHINE JOSEPH, aka MOTHER JOE, aka BIG MAMA – “Soul Food”
The matriarch of the Joseph clan, Mother Joe (Irma P. Hall) was the force that kept the family together before she suffered a diabetic stroke, fell into a coma and died following a minor awakening. Such a strong, wise woman deserves a great clip all her own. Unfortunately, I can’t find any. But as proof of her significance and legacy, here is the Boyz II Men song written in her honor, the video of which spotlights some of her scenes:
ARMANDE VOIZIN – “Chocolat”
You could say the old woman experienced “death by chocolate,” but really it was death by diabetes, a disease Armande (Judi Dench) conceals while indulging in the sweet concoctions of the new Chocolatier (Juliette Binoche). Of course, diabetics can indulge in sweets of the kind. They just can’t go as far as this grandmother does. It’s a symbolically defiant overindulgence in the context of the film’s setting and themes. But the greater function of the plot point doesn’t make the character’s demise any sadder. Here she is in the chocolate shop, telling her grandson to “live a little”:
MAX BASNER – “Nothing in Common”
The proud older generation is also represented by Max Basner, the final role of real-life diabetic Jackie Gleason. The “Honeymooners” legend officially succumbed to cancer, which could be what his last character would die from after the credits rolled. We can’t know, but Basner’s condition as a result of the disease was also more severe. And although he survives his gangrene and subsequent operation to remove some of his toes, I presume he didn’t live much longer. The serious moments aren’t online, so here’s a simple scene between Gleason and Tom Hanks, who plays his son:
SHELBY EATENTON LATCHERIE – “Steel Magnolias”
Some of you might tear up just remembering the death of Shelby (Julia Roberts), one of the most famous tearjerking moments in cinema. Her official cause of death is kidney failure, but I think that is caused by the character’s diabetes, which also figures into another memorable moment from the film.
Other diabetic film characters to remember today, including real people and fictional characters presumed still “alive,” include Sara Altman (Kristen Stewart) of “Panic Room,” Kassandra (Lori Singer) of “Warlock,” Phife Dawg of “Beat, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” and Mike ‘Baby-O’ O’Dell (Mykelti Williams) of “Con Air.”
And finally, here’s a bonus non-human character who died as a result of his diabetes:
BUTTERCUP – “Half Baked”
Yes, this is a very silly film and scene to include, but even if it is an absurd moment in a stoner comedy, let’s not forget that pets and other animals can also have diabetes. And whether it’s a horse or a human, we need to be mindful of diabetic dietary issues. Poor Buttercup.