Will Lee was an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life. Until recently I knew nothing about Lee, other than the fact he had played Mr Hooper, an extraordinary character on an extraordinary TV show, Sesame Street. Mr Hooper was a part of my childhood and as real a character as has existed in children’s television, so it is a strange thing to learn of his ‘other life’ as Will Lee, an actor, a teacher, and in essence a humanist.
Will Lee would have had the fullest of lives even if he had never once appeared on Sesame Street. Lee got his start in theatre during the Depression, and was drawn to theatre groups which were at the edge of experimental and socio-politcial theatre. Lee was firmly leftist in his political leanings, and by the time of the McCarthy era had begun to receive some unwelcome attention when he was called to testify before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee. To his credit he refused to be bullied into confessing any communist affiliation. He and other members of his theatre group, The Actor’s Laboratory, were consequently blacklisted. Opportunities for Lee in the theatre and film industry were now severely limited.
By this time Lee had already served in World War II, stationed as far as Australia and the Philippines, where he helped stage shows to entertain the troops. Lee continued to act but got little work due to his blacklisting, so began teaching acting while picking up roles where he could. He appeared in the first season of the soap “As the World Turns” and began to build a reputation as a superb character actor during the late 1950s and 1960s. Lee continued to teach even while working on Sesame Street, primarily at the American Theater Wing, where he taught amongst others a young James Earl Jones. Lee had been part of the Group Theater in the 1930s, which was an early proponent of naturalistic acting. This theory would later become popularised by Lee Strasberg’s Method school of acting.
It is, however, as Mr Hooper that Will Lee will be remembered. Lee played store owner Harold Hooper from Sesame Street’s inception in 1969 until his death in 1982. My memories of Sesame Street (like a lot of my generation) are of the shows produced in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember some of the skits and stories that were played out, but for the most part it is the characters that I loved and remembered.
One of Sesame Street’s greatest strengths was to always treat its audience with respect. The show’s creators knew how smart children were and how discerning they could be. If something didn’t ring true, kids wouldn’t watch it. As a consequence, the characters were written as a reflection of the viewers. As in life, the characters (particularly the Muppets) weren’t perfect. At times they could be silly, angry, stupid and even thoughtless. They were, however, always well meaning, and in learning from their mistakes they taught us how to do the same.
The adults on the show were primarily there to play the parent/teacher role, and Will Lee was perfect for this. Mr Hooper was a brilliantly conceived role. In order for the street to have the right feel and balance, it needed a centre, a heart. This was Hooper’s Store, and at its heart was Mr Hooper. Mr Hooper represented the best aspects of age and experience. Will Lee brought to the role wisdom from a life lived to the full and from battles both won and lost. He would listen to everyone’s problems, and if he couldn’t find a solution would set them on the path to finding it themselves.
Lee and Hooper became so entwined that children would approach him in public and ask how he got out of the television set, or simply whisper “I love you”. One of the long running jokes on the show was Big Bird’s constant mangling of Mr Hooper’s name. It was always Mr Cooper or Mr Looper, or even once, an ad-libbed ‘Mr Cunningham’. The whole set-up was telegraphed, but it was funny and always played beautifully by Lee and Carroll Spinney as Big Bird.
The most memorable moment on Sesame Street was also the hardest to watch. When Will Lee died in December 1982, the show’s producers and writers made a tough but incredibly brave decision. Rather than have Mr Hooper simply ‘move away’, they paid children the ultimate mark of respect – they told them the truth. The following November an episode aired dealing with Mr Hooper’s death. The episode centres on Big Bird wanting to share pictures that he has drawn of his friends. Big Bird finally comes to Mr Hooper’s picture, but can’t find him. He asks the other adults where Mr Hooper is, and what follows is probably as raw and real as any television you will ever see.
If you saw it at the time (it screened once in the US and precious few times elsewhere including here in New Zealand) then you will already know what happens. If you haven’t seen it, I have included a link below. My description could never do it justice. When I saw the episode I would have been older than the target audience, and at that point only occasionally watched Sesame Street, almost like catching up with old friends – which is exactly what the characters had become. I remember being shocked and saddened by Mr Hooper’s death, but it was the reaction of the actors that really affected me. It was clear to me that this wasn’t a performance. These people were not just dealing with the loss of Mr Hooper, they were grieving at the death of their friend, Will Lee.
This was my first real contact with the concepts of death and grief, but I didn’t realise it at the time. I just remember feeling so sad for these brave people who had lost their friend.
If Jim Henson can be called the father of Sesame Street, then I think Will Lee could be considered its honorary grandfather, as Mr Hooper was to so many children. I was lucky enough to grow up with a Sesame Street with Mr Hooper, and I feel sorry for younger generations who missed out on the wonderful episodes from those years. I know a lot of these classic episodes have been released on DVD – I do hope they find a new audience, they deserve to be more than just a wonderful memory.
And yes, I know I got the title wrong for this post – “it’s Hooper of course, Big Bird, not Looper”. I just prefer it that way.
Thanks to Muppet Wiki for most of the information on Will Lee. There is also a wonderful website featuring interviews with key members of the Sesame Street team remembering Mr Hooper and Will Lee:
Big Bird’s friends explain Mr Hooper’s death:
If anyone has more information on Will Lee or Mr Hooper or simply personal memories, do let me know. I would love to hear from you.