The cast of Airwolf. Jan-Michael Vincent on the right.

Actor Jan-Michael Vincent has died. On Saturday morning, March 9th (Australia time), news outlets reported that the former television and film star had passed away at the age of 73. Twitter commentary and news stories wrote as if the former star had just passed away, but in reality, Jan-Michael Vincent died a month prior, on February 10th in a hospital in North Carolina.

TMZ uncovered that he had died in February but had only found the death certificate. It is a sad end to a once bright star, extinguished long ago by health troubles and issues with drugs and alcohol. For many who had seen Vincent on the big screen through the late 60s and 70s, they knew him as a star on the rise. His calling came with small television roles before garnering significant success with films like 1972’s The Mechanic with Charles Bronson. He became a Golden surf hero with the likes of Gary Busey in 1978’s Big Wednesday. But for many, like myself, whose nascent viewing habits came about in the 1980s, Jan-Michael Vincent was Stringfellow Hawke. The mysterious helicopter pilot who got to fly the single coolest helicopter in television history, Airwolf.

The show lasted only 4 seasons but for 3 of those, Jan-Michael Vincent was one of the coolest people on television. The show, punctuated by its synth-laden theme song (the best), had everything a little kid like me could want in a TV show; amazing machines, spies, explosions and exotic women. Airwolf, along with Knight Rider, were two of my favorite shows as a kid, both followed a similar formula of redemption, futuristic tech and mystery.

I couldn’t quite understand why by the end of Season 3, Vincent had been unceremoniously written off and replaced for its final season (along with the rest of the cast). His character’s brother, St. John (who had been a mystery all three seasons and presumed missing and dead), became the show’s primary character for its final run. But in reality, Jan-Michael Vincent had been having drug problems throughout the show and when his run on it ended, it didn’t get much better.

He almost died in a car accident in 1996 that caused permanent injuries and in 2012, had to have his right leg amputated below the knee because of complications from peripheral artery disease. In an interview with Australian television in 2016, he looked frail and had difficulty answering questions from the set of a Big Wednesday reunion. It was well and truly a sad sight for someone who had been a tremendous athlete and a global star a few decades ago.

With the recent death of Luke Perry, we saw how the passing of a television star can ultimately reflect the love we have for them and their characters. Perry’s sudden death was a shock, but the outpouring of grief from his co-stars and fans showed how his off-screen persona didn’t match the stand-offish, self-centered bad boy he portrayed early in his career. He was loved and adored, respected and cherished.

The saddest thing about the death of Jan-Michael Vincent wasn’t that he may or may not have died alone. But that for an entire month, no one even knew.

He was once the highest paid actor on TV who got to play the coolest part. The light faded away far too soon, but I will choose to remember him at his brightest, a small but important part of my childhood.

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