Sonny Bono, a son of poor Sicilian immigrants who transformed himself into an unpretentious politician after his goofy act as Cher’s singing sidekick wore thin, died from head injuries when he crashed into a tree while skiing at a resort, officials said Tuesday.
Bono, 62, veered off a wide-open, well-groomed intermediate run at Heavenly Ski Resort to navigate through a narrow grove and smashed face-first into a lodgepole pine Monday afternoon, authorities said.
“His death was immediate--right when he hit the tree,” said Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini, calling the crash in sunny, calm conditions an accident with no witnesses.
Although toxicology tests will not be complete for weeks, Pierini said there was no evidence that drugs or alcohol were involved. Friends said Bono did not drink.
An autopsy showed the cause of death was blunt trauma to the head.
A Republican congressman from Palm Springs since 1994, Bono is the second political celebrity in less than a week to die in a skiing accident. Michael Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and a campaign manager for other family members, was killed after striking a tree on the slopes of Aspen, Colo., on New Year’s Eve.
Bono’s fatal crash comes two years after he collided with another skier at Snow Summit in the San Bernardino Mountains, suffering a gash to the chin that required 11 stitches. In typical fashion, Bono made light of that collision, which occurred when his skis became tangled with those of a friend: “I hit somebody or they hit me, so it was their fault,” he joked.
In Washington on Tuesday, Bono’s spokesman, Frank Cullen, said the congressman was “a very proficient skier . . . not someone who took chances. My belief is that this is just one of those one-in-a-million fluke accidents that, of course, had tragic consequences.”
Bono is the second of California’s 52 House representatives to die recently. Rep. Walter Capps of Santa Barbara died Oct. 28 of a heart attack. As with Capps, a special election will be called to fill Bono’s seat.
News of Bono’s death triggered an outpouring of accolades and remembrances from the two worlds he frequented with equal ease--entertainment and politics.
Producer Dick Clark called Bono “a survivor” who “built his career out of his own hands” with the help of “bulldog determination.”
“You see him on the television shows with the animal skins and the bell bottoms and think, ‘This guy went through the halls of Congress?’ There’s a moral in there somewhere,” Clark said.
In Palm Springs, where Bono was mayor from 1988 to 1992, calls of sympathy flooded City Hall and mourners left flowers and other mementos on Bono’s sidewalk star downtown.
His longtime agent, Tony Fantozzi, recalled Bono as a “dear friend” and sharp businessman with an amazing ability to reinvent himself.
Fantozzi was to have met Bono and his family in the desert city for a social visit later this week. Now, he said, “I’m helping with funeral arrangements.”
On the opposite coast, flags at the House office building flew at half-staff in memory of the man who entered national politics as a curiosity dubbed “Sonny Bonehead” and left as a lawmaker beloved by colleagues for his self-deprecating humor and prowess as a fund-raiser.
Bono was “a kind soul with a rare ability to make people laugh,” said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who said he considered Bono a close friend.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Torrance), whose Capitol Hill office is across the hall from Bono’s, summed up her feeling with a reference to one of Sonny and Cher’s most popular songs: “We’ll miss you, babe,” she said.
Congressional aides said the Bonos--Sonny, his fourth wife, Mary, and their children, Chesare, 9, and Chianna, 6,--began their ski vacation Dec. 26. Officials at Heavenly, Tahoe’s largest resort located 55 miles south of Reno, said the congressman had been skiing there for more than 20 years.
Pierini said the Bonos were skiing on the Upper Orion run Monday afternoon when Chianna took a fall and Mary stopped to assist her. Sonny continued ahead, leaving the main trail to ski through a thin band of trees that separate Orion from a parallel run called Aries, Pierini said.
By 4:30, Bono had not rejoined his family and his wife contacted authorities. At 6 p.m., a search of the mountain was launched, and Bono’s body was found about 45 minutes later at the base of a 40-foot pine.
Skiers routinely leave primary slopes to test their skills in virgin powder amid the trees, Pierini said, but Bono’s choice “probably wasn’t the best of judgment.”
Some other skiers understood what motivated the congressman to head into the woods. As he watched reports of Bono’s death on a television in Heavenly’s lodge Tuesday, Rob Roy, 17, of Richmond, Va., said skiing through trees is irresistible because “you’re forging your own trail” away from the masses who crowd the main slopes.
Born Salvatore Bono to an impoverished family in Detroit, Bono began his career as a singer and songwriter in the 1960s, supporting himself as a butcher’s helper, truck driver and waiter as he peddled songs to recording companies.
In 1964, he borrowed $175 to record “Baby Don’t Go” with then-girlfriend Cherilyn LaPiere Sarkisian. Calling themselves Sonny and Cher, the duo later married and went on to record a series of big hits, the most famous being “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On.”
The couple peaked as a team with “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” which ran on CBS from 1971 to 1974. Chris Bearde, one of the show’s original producers, called the pair “the Generation X couple of the ‘70s” and said the show “really touched a nerve” with its music and the comedic chemistry between its stars.
One of its key ingredients was the opening monologue, in which the tall, exotic Cher would batter her mustachioed, bell-bottomed husband--who once called his own character a “dufus"--with insults.
“Sonny allowed himself to be the butt of every joke,” said Bearde. “He was this accomplished guy who learned to be like the little guy.”
When Sonny and Cher’s marriage ended in 1974, so did the show. Divorced, the pair revived their TV act with another program during the 1976-77 season, and later each tried individual shows (“The Sonny Comedy Revue” and “Cher”), but all three flopped.
After his entertainment career and marriage to Cher ended, Bono remade himself--twice, first as a restaurateur and then as a politician.
Despite his open admission that he never voted until age 53, Bono was easily elected mayor of Palm Springs in 1988--outpolling all the other candidates combined. The achievement meant a lot--even for a onetime Hollywood star, said Ann Erdman, Bono’s assistant at City Hall, who recalled that Bono wept as he took the oath of office.
Some city officials were appalled by Bono’s inexperience and suggested that the city hire a coach to help him speak more articulately. Bono would have none of it, but--like any seasoned actor--did ask the city clerk to supply him with a script to guide him through weekly council meetings.
In terms of the city’s welfare, Bono’s election was an important turning point, putting a tourist destination that had been dying on the vine back in the spotlight.
“I traveled to East Africa and people would say, ‘Oh, Sonny Bono’s your mayor!’ ” recalled Lloyd Maryanov, who succeeded Bono as mayor and called him “a tough act to follow.”
Closer to home, tourists and residents gobbled up T-shirts bearing his likeness--$100,000 worth--and frequently came by City Hall, hoping for an autograph or photo with the famous mayor. If Bono was in, he’d oblige, Erdman recalled.
Bono’s legacy as mayor is substantial and includes luring an international film festival to town and changing Palm Springs’ annual spring break bacchanal into a more wholesome affair.
But he soon coveted a grander political stage, and decided to seek his party’s nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1992--which he lost. That campaign exposed his weaknesses.
At one appearance he was asked about his feelings on foreign trade. He answered, “That’s a tricky one,” and promised to study it.
Upon his election to Congress two years later, Bono suffered endless barbs and roasts by everyone from political staffers to David Letterman. But he persevered, and his self-deprecating, nice-guy manner won him many friends on both sides of the aisle.
Colleagues also appreciated his potent fund-raising abilities, and noted that he was the second-most requested speaker in the Republican Party after Gingrich.
Despite his obvious enjoyment of the political life, Bono still had entertainment in his blood. Bearde, the producer of the first variety show, said the congressman had recently contacted him about launching a stage musical based on the life of Sonny and Cher.
Cher, who cut short a trip to London to return to the United States, issued no comment.
Their daughter, Chastity--the blond tot seen weekly by viewers of their TV show and now a lesbian activist in New York--said in a statement that her father was “very supportive of my personal life and career and was a loving father. I will miss him greatly.”
Bono is also survived by a daughter, Christy, from his first marriage.
Morain reported from South Lake Tahoe, Warren from Sacramento and Gorman from Riverside. Also contributing were Times staff writers Jodi Wilgoren in Washington and Greg Braxton in Los Angeles, and special correspondent Diana Marcum in Palm Springs.
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A Varied Career
The 62-year-old Congressman led a multifaceted life:
* In the 1960s: With wife Cher, the “hippie” couple has a string of hits like “Baby Don’t Go” and “I Got You Babe.”
* Early 1970s: Highly rated “Sonny and Cher Show” features Sonny as straight man to Cher’s acerbic put-downs. They divorce in 1974.
* The 1980s: Attains success as a restaurateur with Bono’s, an Italian eatery.
* 1988-92: Mayor of Palm Springs.
* 1994 to present: Republican U.S. representative from Palm Springs.
* The reaction in Washington, where Bono was once viewed as a laughingstock but eventually made his mark on Capitol Hill. A13
* A chronology of his life and career. A13