Film and TV director James Frawley passed away on Tuesday at the age of 82. Between directing the original Muppet Movie (1979) and half of the episodes of The Monkees, Frawley had a huge formative impact on my life and I’ll wager most comic aspirants of my generation. Most sources are mentioning just those credits and little to nothing else, but Frawley did a lot more. Other stuff included 5 episodes of That Girl; the crazy 1976 TV movie The Big Bus which I wrote about here; 3 episodes of Columbo late in the original run; episodes of The Texas Wheelers and Paper Moon; the Dennis Hopper western Kid Blue (1974); the 80s sex comedy Fraternity Vacation (1985) and the 2000 Three Stooges bio-pic. Other later stuff included multiple episodes of Magnum P.I., Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Cagney and Lacey, The Father Dowling Mysteries, Law and Order, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Judging Amy and Grey’s Anatomy. He directed no less than ten TV pilots that made it to greenlit series, including Ally McBeal.
Many sources, such as Variety, are reporting that he was the “youngest son” of show biz legend William Frawley, of I Love Lucy, My Three Sons, and a zillion movies. While I would love that to be true, at this stage I remain skeptical and haven’t confirmed the truth of it. William Frawley was from Iowa, and was living and working in Hollywood (and divorced) during the 1930s when James Frawley was born a thousand miles away in Houston, Texas. Things do happen, but if James was the progeny of the character actor, it appears to have been by way of a deep, dark, dirty secret. It is tempting to want to believe it though. For one thing, Monkees’ creator Bob Rafelson was the cousin of playwright/screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, best known for The Jazz Singer. It’s likely the fathers knew each other. (Among other things, Frawley had introduced the song “My Mammy” on the vaudeville stage in 1919).
James Frawley started out as an actor. He studied at Carnegie-Melon and then at the Actor’s Studio, and was with an improv comedy troupe called The Premise with Buck Henry, George Segal and others, experience that he credited with influencing The Monkees. He also had small roles in the original Broadway production of Becket with Laurence Olivier and Arthur Kennedy, as well as other Broadway shows, films and television work before breaking into directing. He’d been retired for the past dozen years. A terrific interview with him here lays out why, and much more.