Well, maybe the origins of Will Lee (1908-1982) won’t strike you as all that surprising. I’m not sure what I thought they should be, but probably something a bit more show bizzy, since Sesame Street mastermind Jim Henson was such a creature of show business, and so many of his creations (e.g. Bert and Ernie) drew from old vaudeville tropes.
But Lee, who played kind-hearted storekeeper Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street from its inception in 1969 through his death in 1982, had quite a different background. He was a stone cold serious thespian who started out with the Group Theatre and the Federal Theatre Project. He replaced John Garfield in the original production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (1937) and was in the original production of Odets’ Night Music. He played the pinball addict in the original production of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (1939-40). Later he was in the original production of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy (1964-65).
Meanwhile he was a supporting player in films, often gritty or dark ones, including Whistling in the Dark (1941) with Red Skelton, Ball of Fire (1941), Babes on Broadway (1942), Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), They Live By Night (1948), The Life of Riley (1949), and the Coney Island classic Little Fugitive (1953). He’s also in the first episode of the Dick Tracy TV series (1950).
Once Sesame Street came along that was Lee’s main gig ’til the end of his life and even afterward. The producers continued to use Mr. Hooper segments on the show for up to two years after he passed away. And then the show famously broke new television ground, by dealing with the character’s death on the series, helping small children process loss. It had never been done before.
With a little reflection, Lee’s origins actually aren’t that surprising. You can see the tough, young Brooklynite underneath the old man in the apron. You can see that Group Theatre training in his open, present manner, even as he is having conversations with giant yellow talking birds and green monsters in garbage cans. But now when I watch him in old clips, as I undoubtedly will at some point, I will be be actively looking for those elements and appreciating him all the more.
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