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August 6, 1908
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Died||December 7, 1982
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
|Cause of death||Heart attack|
|Years active||1930 - 1982|
William "Will" Lee (August 6, 1908 – December 7, 1982) was an American actor and comedian who appeared in numerous television and film roles but was best known for playing Mr. Hooper, the original store proprietor of the eponymous Hoopers Store, he was one of the four original human characters on Sesame Street, from the show's debut in November 1969 until his death in 1982.
Lee was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York and began his career as a character actor on stage. He was a member of the Group Theater in the 1930s and appeared in Johnny Johnson, Night Music, Boy Meets Girl, The Time of Your Life (as Willie the pinball machine addict) and other Broadway plays. He succeeded John Garfield as the lead in Golden Boy.
Lee was co-founder of the Theater of Action and a member of the Federal Theatre Project. During World War II, he served in Army Special Services in Australia and Manila and was cited twice for directing and staging shows for troops overseas, as well as teaching acting classes. After the war, he appeared Off Broadway in Norman Mailer's The Deer Park (as movie mogul Teppis) and on Broadway in The Shrike, Once Upon a Mattress, Carnival!, Incident At Vichy and The World of Sholom Aleichem.
Blacklist and teaching
Lee also began appearing in movies, including bit parts in Casbah, A Song Is Born, Little Fugitive, and Saboteur. He was blacklisted as an alleged communist and barred from movies and on TV for five years during the Red Scare, according to members of his family. He had been active in the Actor's Workshop and had been an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1950 investigating show business. At the end of that period, in 1956, he landed the role of Grandpa Hughes in As the World Turns; however, the role was recast with Santos Ortega on the show's second episode.
He taught at the American Theatre Wing for nine years (including among his students James Earl Jones), as well as at the New School for Social Research, Boston University, and the Uta Hagen-Herbert Bergh of Studio. In addition, he conducted his own acting classes. Outside of Sesame Street, later roles included TV movies and a supporting role as the judge in the 1983 movie Daniel. Lee also worked in commercials, including a spot for Atari, as a grandfather learning to play Pac-Man from his granddaughter and spots for Ocean Spray juice.
Impact of Mr. Hooper
In 1969, he pursued the role of Mr. Hooper on the popular children's show Sesame Street. "He gave millions of children the message that the old and the young have a lot to say to each other," said Joan Ganz Cooney, president of the Children's Television Workshop. The New York Times reported that on Sesame Street, Lee's Mr. Hooper ranked ahead of all live cast members in recognition by young audiences, according to a survey. His bowtie and hornrimmed reading glasses became his trademark.
In a November 1970 TIME article, following the show's first season, Lee recalled his feelings about the show:
I was delighted to take the role of Mr. Hooper, the gruff grocer with the warm heart. It's a big part, and it allows a lot of latitude. But the show has something extra, that sense you sometimes get from great theater, the feeling that its influence never stops.
In addition to being a staple of Sesame Street for more than 10 years, Lee played Mr. Hooper in TV specials (Christmas Eve on Sesame Street and A Special Sesame Street Christmas), guest appearances (Evening at Pops: 1971), stage appearances, countless record albums, and parades, including the 1982 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was revealed in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street that Mr. Hooper is Jewish, as was Lee himself. Lee taped his final segments as Mr. Hooper in November 1982, just one month prior to his death, which would become the focal point of Episode 1839, in which Mr. Hooper's death is explained to Big Bird by the adults.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, as he became known on Sesame Street, children would approach him on the street and ask, "How did you get out of the television set?" or whisper, "I love you." "Apart from the joy of knowing that you are helping so many kids, the recognition is heartwarming," Lee was quoted as saying in 1981.
Death of Mr. Hooper
Lee died on December 7, 1982 at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan from a heart attack at the age of 74. His death left the producers of Sesame Street with questions about how to acknowledge the death of one of the series' most visible actors. After considering a number of options, including recasting the role, explaining his departure by saying he had moved out of state, or he could retire, CTW decided to have the character (Mr. Hooper) die and create an episode to teach their young audience about the difficult topic of death.
Episode 1839, now known to children and fans as "Farewell, Mr. Hooper," aired on November 24, 1983 (Thanksgiving Day), and was quickly selected by the Daytime Emmys as being one of the 10 most influential moments in daytime television. Before the show/broadcast ended they showed a live-picture of Will Lee, the dates of his birth and death and the writing "In Loving Memory of Will Lee" before fading out.
His friends who worked with him on the show were saddened by Lee's death because over the time Lee played as his signature character on TV, he befriended most of the cast of the show. The cast said their characters' sad faces were real but they went through their performance when remembering they were doing it for a good outcome. Caroll Spinney (Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch) said that the last time he saw Will Lee alive was during the taping of the last episode involving Mr. Hooper in November, 1982. Lee felt ill that day and barely spoke to the cast. Spinney (who was wearing Big Bird's feet at the time) placed his arm around Lee's shoulder and said (in Big Bird's voice): "I love you, Mr. Hooper." Lee replied, "And I love you, Caroll." Lee died a few days later.
In an interview a few years later, Loretta Long, who played Susan, said of the episode's legacy: "People come up to us and say 'Thank you. Now we can explain what happened to Grandma, what happened to Grandpa.'"
Lee died from a heart attack at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City on December 7, 1982 at the age of 74. Lee was never married and had no children and according to his obituary he was survived by his sister Sophie Lee Lubov who lived in Florida. The Sesame Street episode, "Farewell, Mr. Hooper", or episode 1839, which was released 11 months later, is dedicated to Lee.
|1941||Whistling in the Dark||Herman|
|1941||Melody Lane||Mr. Russo|
|1941||Babes on Broadway||Shorty||Uncredited|
|1941||Ball of Fire||Benny "the Creep"|
|1947||Brute Force||Convict in Chow Line||Uncredited|
|1948||They Live by Night||Jeweler|
|1948||A Song Is Born||Waiter at the Dixieland Club||Uncredited|
|1948||Force of Evil||Waiter||Uncredited|
|1949||The Life of Riley||Waiter||Uncredited|
|1949||The Lone Wolf and His Lady||The Waiter||Uncredited|
|1963||An Affair of the Skin||Waiter|
|1983||Hit and Run||Joseph Kahn|
|1983||Daniel||The Judge||(final film role)|
|1950||Dick Tracy||Reg Prof||Episode: "The Mole: Part 1"|
|1950||The Philco Television Playhouse||Episode: "Decoy"|
|1956||As the World Turns||Grandpa Hughes #1 (1956)
|1964||East Side/West Side||Nat (Grocer)
|1965||For the People||Kurawicz||Episode: "The Influence of Fear"|
|1969–1982||Sesame Street||Mr. Hooper||Series Regular|
|1974||Great Performances||Kon||Episode: "Enemies"|
|1978||Christmas Eve on Sesame Street||Mr. Hooper||Christmas special|
|1978||A Special Sesame Street Christmas||Mr. Hooper||Christmas special|
|1979||A Walking Tour of Sesame Street||Mr. Hooper||Television special|
|1980||Playing for Time||Shmuel||Television movie|
- Jewish United Fund (accessed October 14, 2008). The Christmas special can be seen on YouTube, and in Part 4, Bob wishes Mr. Hooper a Happy Hanukkah.
- Borgenicht, David (1998). Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs. New York: Children's Television Workshop (CTW). p. 43. ISBN 0-7868-6460-5.
- "WILL LEE, 74, WAS MR. HOOPER ON TELEVISION 'SESAME STREET'". New York Times. December 9, 1982.
- "Will Lee, 74, Was Mr. Hooper on Television 'Sesame Street'", The New York Times, December 9, 1982
- "Death and Sesame Street", The New York Times, November 27, 1983