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Skiing accident kills rising star Sonny Bono

SHARE Skiing accident kills rising star Sonny Bono

Rep. Sonny Bono, the mustachioed, self-deprecating half of the Sonny and Cher duo who moved on to city hall and then Capitol Hill, died in a skiing accident. He was 62.

Bono, an avid skier, had been reported missing two hours before his body was found Monday evening at Heavenly Ski Resort on the Nevada-California state line, some 55 miles south of Reno. He died of head injuries after hitting a tree after he left the main trail.His death came less than a week after Michael Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, was killed in a similar accident in Aspen, Colo.

Bono had just started to ski down an intermediate slope, Upper Orion, when he hit a tree, resort officials said. Bono - who had skied at the huge resort for more than 20 years - was alone at the time.

"This is a terrible shock," House Speaker Newt Gingrich told CNN. "He had really begun to develop - both as mayor and then as a member of Congress - just a wonderful public service career as somebody who really brought a unique sense of talents and understanding from his celebrity days.

"I think the entire house of the Republican conference will be in mourning today," Gingrich said Tuesday. "We all will feel that we've lost a very, very dear friend."

Cher, his ex-wife and ex-singing partner, had no comment, said a London spokeswoman for Cher's record company, WEA. "Of course, she is upset by the news," spokeswoman Barbara Charone said. Cher cut short a trip to London to return to the United States, looking tearful as she awaited her flight at Heathrow Airport.

A Bono spokesman, Frank Cullen Jr., said the California congressman was at the resort with his wife, Mary Whitaker, and their two children, 6-year-old Chianna and 9-year-old Chesare.

"They were enjoying a family vacation," Cullen said. "He was a very proficient skier. He skied frequently with his family and, yes, he was an athletic guy - he skied and played tennis." He had skied on ahead of other family members when the accident happened, Cullen said. He had skiied into a wooded area just off the main trail. Such "tree skiing" is popular with expert skiers who like the fresh powder available off the beaten path. The area is not officially out of bounds but is more hazardous. The weather was described as perfect. A search began after he didn't emerge from the wooded area.

Born in Detroit on Feb. 16, 1935, Salvatore Bono moved to California with his family when he was 7, and turned to songwriting after high school. He drove a meat delivery truck, squeezing in trips to record companies to drop off songs.

As a songwriter and singer, he worked with Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers. His first hit as a writer was "Needles and Pins," which he co-wrote with Jack Nitzsche. It became a top 20 single for the British group the Searchers in 1964.

But it was with Cherilyn Sarkisian, whom he married in 1964, that things took off. That same year their song "Baby Don't Go" got Sonny and Cher a contract with record giant Atco-Atlantic.

Their first hit, "I Got You, Babe," went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in August 1965. "Baby Don't Go" was re-released and got to the top 20, and other hits followed - "The Beat Goes On," "It's the Little Things," "It's a Beautiful Story" and "Laugh at Me."

Sonny and Cher turned to television, with a hit variety show, "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," on CBS from 1971-74.

The show, with on-stage bickering between the husband-wife team as much of a show as the music, proved to be a hit. Bono was well-known for his droopy mustache, bell-bottoms and playing the fall guy to his taller, sharp-tongued wife with the spectacular sequined outfits.

After they were divorced in 1974, their solo TV efforts lagged, as did an attempt to revive their partnership with a new TV show in 1976-77. Bono all but dropped out of show business, other than a few guest spot on shows such as "Fantasy Island" and "The Love Boat." He went into the restaurant business in Palm Springs.

Angry at City Hall bureaucrats for stopping his building plans at his Italian restaurant, he plunged into politics. He was elected mayor of the resort town in 1988 and served until 1992. He claimed responsibility for erasing a $2.5 million deficit without raising taxes and starting a local film festival.

He ran for the Senate in 1992, finishing a weak third in the Republican primary - and again became the butt of jokes.

But in 1994, Bono won the GOP primary easily in California's 44th District and rode the Republican tide with a 56 percent vs. 38 percent win over Democrat Steve Clute. He won re-election in 1996.

"The last thing in the world I thought I would be is a U.S. congressman, given all the bobcat vests and Eskimo boots I used to wear," Bono said in an appearance at the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner shortly after taking office in January 1995.

"I love this game," Bono joked to the group. "I am so pleased that we are all so dedicated to mankind - unlike show business where there you have egomaniacs and you have power mongers and you have elitists."

His speaking skills made him the second-most requested draw at House members' events during the 1996 campaign season.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, who worked with Bono on two House subcommittees released this statement Tuesday: "Sonny was a dedicated representative and a very hard worker. He believed in what he was doing and strived to make a difference in America. I join my colleagues in sending most heartfelt condolences to his family."

Bono announced last June that he would not run for Senate this year, saying he didn't want to take that much time from his family.

Bono married Whitaker in 1986. He had one child with Cher - lesbian activist Chastity Bono.