by ALY ANDERSON
Gary Gilmore was the first person executed in the United States after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a new series of death penalty statutes in 1976. He committed two murders in Utah, one on July 19, 1976, and another one the next night. He was found to be guilty and sentenced to the death penalty after the recent Gregg v. Georgia (1976) case overturned the prior Furman v. Georgia (1972) case that deemed the death penalty unconstitutional. Gilmore became an instant celebrity when he demanded that his death sentence be carried out.
Before he was sentenced to death, he tried to take his own life two times and great efforts were made to save him so he could be executed. When the day finally came for him to be executed, he was killed by a firing squad in Draper, Utah. Some of his famous last words before his death were, “Let’s do it.” Before Gilmore was executed he chose to donate his corneas for transplant purposes and shortly after his death two people received them. It was now January 17, 1977, he was finally gone, but his story would be told again in many mediums in pop culture in the future. He has shaped many genres of American culture with his unique character, controversial murders and trial, and most of all his execution and eye donation. (“Gary Gilmore”)
On January 31, 1977, TIME described the setting of Gilmore’s execution: “It was an old mahogany office chair with a black vinyl seat and back. There, in an old tannery known as the Slaughterhouse in the southwest corner of the Utah State Prison, sat Gary Mark Gilmore, 36, freshly shaven and wearing a black T shirt, crumpled white trousers and red, white, and blue sneakers. His neck, waist, wrists and feet were loosely bound to the chair. Twenty-six feet away hung a sailcloth partition with five slits. Hidden behind the curtain stood five riflemen armed with .30-.30 deer rifles, four loaded with steel-jacketed shells, the fifth with a blank.” As this describes, Gary Gilmore’s death itself became well known to society, and it was also the aftermath of his death that had an effect on pop culture.
One of the most influential and well known things that came from Gilmore’s execution was the current Nike slogan. Before Gilmore was executed, he was asked if he had any last words. He replied with, “Let’s do it.” This later inspired Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy, one of the largest independently owned advertising agencies, to come up with the idea for the Nike slogan, “Just Do It.” Wieden, the agency’s cofounder, said he wanted to appeal to women who had just started walking and also to world-class athletes. For some reason, when he was brainstorming he thought of Gary Gilmore and his last few words. He remembered how at a hard time like Gilmore’s execution he still had it in him to push through, hence the origin of the “Just Do It” slogan. (Wieden)
On top of inspiring a well-known slogan, Gilmore’s execution also became part of TV pop culture. References were seen on Roseanne and Saturday Night Live following the execution. During the December 11, 1976, episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, host Candice Bergen and the cast sang a Christmas-themed melody titled, “Let’s Kill Gary Gilmore for Christmas.” Set to the tune of “Winter Wonderland,” a few lyrics went like this, “In the meadow we can build a snowman / One with Gary Gilmore packed inside / We’ll ask him, ‘Are you dead yet?’ He’ll say, ‘No, man’ / But we’ll wait out the frostbite till he dies.”
Then, during an episode of Roseanne titled, “The Wedding,” that aired on May 7, 1996, Roseanne’s daughter Darlene is asked if she is ready to get married. Darlene responds, “Well, in the words of Gary Gilmore, ‘Let’s do it!’” The references on these popular TV shows illustrate that Gary Gilmore’s story continued to be told — even twenty years later — and the phrase that both of the shows used were his famous last words of “Let’s do it.”
The same year that Gilmore was executed, 1977, a popular English punk band, The Adverts, debuted a song titled, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.” This song was about how Gilmore’s corneas had been donated when he was executed and what it was like to have just received them in the hospital. The lyrics go as follows: “I’m lying in a hospital / I’m pinned against the bed / A stethoscope upon my heart / A hand against my head / They’re peeling off the bandages / I’m wincing in the light / The nurse is looking anxious / And she’s quivering in fright, I’m looking through Gary Gilmore’s eyes.”
As impressive as it seems to have one popular band write a song about you, it is even more impressive to have two popular bands write songs about you. In addition to The Adverts’ song, The Police released an album that included a track titled, “Bring on the Night,” which is an ode to Gary Gilmore’s ultimate death wish. (“About this album”) These are a few of the lyrics: “The afternoon has gently passed me by / The evening spreads its sail against the sky / Waiting for tomorrow, just another day / God bid yesterday good-bye.” This demonstrates how Gilmore’s story and execution had an impressive effect on music and society in general.
Larry Schiller interviewed Gary Gilmore for an article in Playboy magazine on April 1977. Since this was during the time Gilmore was in the spotlight for his trial, this article made his story even more of a mainstream topic than it already was and one that would be read for leisure on top of being read in hard-news mediums. It is unusual that hard-news stories appear in leisure publications, too, but since this story was so interesting and intriguing, people who took a variety of media were reading about Gilmore’s story. This interview had many controversial questions and after reading it, one might feel more strongly about Gilmore being sentenced to death.
Along with the songs and TV references, there were also books that were written about Gilmore’s execution and his life. Two years after Gilmore’s death, The Executioner’s Song, written in 1979, depicted the events surrounding the execution. It is also notable for speaking about the debate about capital punishment, in which this book takes a central position. This book by Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980 and in 1982 it was made in to a TV movie titled, The Executioner’s Song, that starred Tommy Lee Jones. Jones won an Emmy award for outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or a special in 1983 for this role. Then in 1995, Gary’s brother, Mikal Gilmore, wrote a memoir, Shot in the Heart, which detailed his relationship with Gary and their troubled family. The book traced the family’s genealogy starting with the original Mormon settlers and then continued to Gary’s execution and its aftermath.
Gary Gilmore was the first person to be executed since the re-installment of the death penalty in 1976. He became an instant celebrity for events surrounding his execution and death including his famous last words and the many effects he had on pop culture that would last for decades to come.
This event highlighted the death penalty, which is still a hot topic today. Back then it placed the death penalty on the main stage in Utah and whenever people might see the re-runs of Roseanne or Saturday Night Live with Gilmore references they will be brought back to that time and think about how Utah was the first place to execute Gilmore after the statutes were changed. Still today this could leave a bad taste in people’s mouths and they might think that Utah is a police state that is pro-gun and pro-death penalty even though that happened several decades ago and not all people who live in Utah share those beliefs.
Recently, a judge approved the request of an inmate to be sentenced to death by firing squad in Utah in April 2010. This will be Utah’s first execution since 1999 and only the third man to be killed by a firing squad in Utah since the U.S. Supreme court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 when Gilmore was executed.
Aly Anderson graduated in May 2010 from the University of Utah with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication.
“After Gilmore, Who’s next to Die,” TIME, January 31, 1977.
“Firing Squad Executes Killer,” The New York Times, January 27, 1996.
“Dan Wieden on Just Do It.” YouTube.
“Gary Gilmore.” Wikipedia.
The Adverts. “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.” Anchor Records, 1977.
Mikal Gilmore. Shot in the Heart. New York: Doubleday, 1994
Norman Mailer. The Executioner’s Song. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.
Michael O’Donoghue. “Candice Bergen/Frank Zappa.” Saturday Night Live. December 11, 1977.
Jeremy Peters, “The Birth of ‘Just Do It’ and Other Magic Words,” The New York Times, August 19, 2009.
“Playboy Interview.” Interview by Larry Schiller. Playboy (April 1977): 181.
“The Wedding.” Roseanne. May 7, 1996.
Sting/The Police. “Bring on the Night.” A&M Records, 1986.
“About this Album.” The Police, “Regatta De Blanc.”