Happy Hundredth, Mr. Hooper
August 6, 2008 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Will Lee was born on this date in 1908, and died December 7, 1982. Nearly a year later, Big Bird was informed of his death.

Before he became "the gruff grocer with the warm heart" on Sesame Street, Lee worked with Elia Kazan and Paul Robeson, had small roles on Broadway and in film, was blacklisted during the Red Scare, and taught James Earl Jones to act. His big break came in 1969, when he was cast as Harold Hooper—Sesame Street's birdseed-milkshake peddler. The landmark episode dealing with his character's death taught a generation of children an important lesson about the finality of death (a lesson undermined in some PBS markets, IIRC, by Mr. Hooper's resurrection in reruns).

YouTube highlights: He sings, he dances, he confuses his customers, he plays Pac-Man.
posted by Knappster (45 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, I remember that episode, and I remember how distraught Big Bird was. Bawww :'(
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:49 PM on August 6, 2008

I remember this episode like it was yesterday. I was older, not really into SS anymore but my brother watched so it was always on in our house. I cried like a baby for days. Mr. Hooper had a large part in raising me. I loved him and was really crushed to learn of his death. Thanks for this post, I haven't thought of him in a while. Happy Birthday Mr. Hooper, I wish my kids could know you like I did.
posted by pearlybob at 6:52 PM on August 6, 2008

Mr. Looper?
posted by Miko at 6:55 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I remember this episode of Sesame Street. I was, for some unfathomable reason, thinking about it the other day. I would've been eleven years old (and still enjoy Sesame Street with my kid now). I had no illusions about Sesame Street being anything but a really entertaining kids' show; it wasn't just Big Bird's dealing with Mr. Hooper's death that I remember, but a recognition that the real man who played Hooper had died that I recall being so striking.

I had lost three of my own four grandparents by that age, and number of other elderly relatives. For all the kindly, well-intentioned things my parents said and did to help me to understand death and loss of a loved one, Big Bird's dealing with Mr. Hooper's passing was - no joke - a really important moment in my burgeoning understanding of what missing someone - mourning someone - who had died really felt like.

Thanks for this post.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:59 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Damn, that was a weepie. I didn't see it before.

What a good job they did. How incredibly difficult it is to explain to a child what death is and how they did it without mincing words. When Big Bird doesn't give up and asks again, "Why?" I was really looking for an answer and I was a little disappointed with "Because."

But then a few moments later it struck me: this is the best possible answer, which is no answer at all. There is no good answer to the question and "Because." represents this.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:00 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hells yeah, Mr. Hooper.

That episode came too early for me but was replayed at a time where I needed it. It's amazing to think that was public television then, I have a hard time seeing that happen now without an uproar about how death was presented...
posted by rollbiz at 7:04 PM on August 6, 2008

I also remember seeing this as a child. At the time I absorbed the information, a flat fact, no doubt had a banana and peanut butter sandwich for lunch, maybe ran around outside in the afternoon chasing those big nasty locust that would show up once every summer, went to bed and dreamed in muppet vision. What I don't remeber where the tears that are in my eyes as I write this now, I guess as a child you don't really understand what never again means.
posted by nola at 7:06 PM on August 6, 2008

Okay, I made it until Big Bird said "Ever?" before I had to shut it off, lest my wife catch me weeping at old Sesame Street episodes.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 7:07 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd never seen this episode before either, kinda wish I didn't watch those clips. Fuck you YouTube. The internet isn't as wonderful as you want us to believe it is.
posted by Science! at 7:11 PM on August 6, 2008

What a good job they did. How incredibly difficult it is to explain to a child what death is and how they did it without mincing words.

Agreed, Lupus. Even with the good descriptions in that last muppetwiki link, it's hard for me to imagine the sorts of meetings the production staff must have had in order to set up this little skit. It took them a whole year to decide what to do! The writing is so economical. Big Bird goes through different phases of grief in a very short, child-comprehensible time frame. It's nice to see creative work for kids done so lovingly.
posted by HeroZero at 7:26 PM on August 6, 2008

Man, I totally remember when Mr. Hooper died. Even my mother remembers it. We still talk about it to this day. I was 3 years old, and it is one of the earliest and most vivid memories I have. My mom can quote the Big Bird scene from memory because I would ask her about it all the time. Like BB, I didn't understand death either. My mom would say Mr. Hooper's never coming back "just because."

I miss Sesame Street; I learned so much from that show about friendship and helping other people. My sister and I would bond over watching old reruns of it even in high school. Even now, whenever I go to certain neighborhoods in NYC I feel like I'm totally on Sesame Street; it's such a strong and familiar place for me. Great post.
posted by bluefly at 7:29 PM on August 6, 2008

Every time I read about Sesame Street, I am so impressed by the thinking and child psychology that went into creating the show. Thanks for posting this.
posted by cadge at 7:32 PM on August 6, 2008

I remember Mr Hooper fondly, but was 12 when that episode aired, and so I suppose his death passed me by, but sheesh, it was pretty sad to watch this clip now, at age 37.

And now I'm going to research the cast of Sesame Street - I haven't seen those faces in years, and wonder if any of them still work with Sesame Street...
posted by newfers at 7:32 PM on August 6, 2008

posted by Bookhouse at 7:34 PM on August 6, 2008

Like newfers, I now want to know more about the cast members and characters. I remember and recognized Gordon, but I thought there was a different Bob when I was watching the show in the mid-70's with my kid sisters.
posted by yhbc at 7:39 PM on August 6, 2008

This clip, from earlier in the episode, gives context to the "Just because" line.
posted by Knappster at 7:42 PM on August 6, 2008

Well, apparently not. Bob McGrath has played "Bob" since the very first show, and is still on the show today.
posted by yhbc at 7:44 PM on August 6, 2008

lupus_yonderboy: "When Big Bird doesn't give up and asks again, 'Why?' I was really looking for an answer and I was a little disappointed with 'Because'."

I was no more than four when I met Mr. Hooper. I was fourteen when he died. I'm forty now. When I was four, I remember being kinda scared of Mr. Hooper at first, and then as I'd witness Big Bird interract with him, and the mutual fondness they shared, Hooper became my favorite nonmuppet character on Sesame Street. Now at forty, I still aspire to be an old crotchety man like that. Not quite there yet. Still working on it.

By the time he passed away, I was fourteen and I'd long since stopped regularly watching Sesame Street, of course. I'd tune in every now and then, and I'd tell myself it was "research." I looked up to Jim Henson, and back when I was fourteen, I wanted to be a great puppeteer and actor. I've always been fascinated with all things theatrical. I made a point to find out when the 'big goodbye scene' with Big Bird was gonna be shown in my area, and saw it when it originally broadcast, so I too could say goodbye in my own way.

Lee was a teacher, and at least in the performance, Hooper was too. He seemed very heartfelt in his reactions with other players and the kids at home. At the age of four, the line between reality and television is very blurry. I felt close to Mr. Hooper when I was four, and his passing was more emotional to me when I was fourteen than I wanted it to be. Now I'm forty. I guess that particular scar is still there.

I told myself when I was fourteen that the reason I grieved was because of my maturing interests of acting and puppetry. That the world is poorer for losing Mr. Lee. He was a great, talented actor who could also convey ideas to young minds and was instrumental in my early stages of learning as well as so many countless others out there, if only in some very small yet always significant way. I told myself I wasn't grieving for Mr. Hooper, but for the man who presented him so well, and the others like myself who owe him a debt of gratitude.

There's still that four year old in me, chanting along with Big Bird. "Why?" I don't think the four year old in me ever really stopped asking that question. "Because" never cut it. Hooper still lives, so long as we remember him. That doesn't satisfy the four year old in me, but he's just gonna have to suck it up.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:50 PM on August 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

I was secretly glad to see BB upset, because he had made Poco Loco cry, and I was mad at him. (Hey, I was only 3!)
posted by Liosliath at 7:52 PM on August 6, 2008

yep. 25 years later, still makes me cry.
posted by fuzzypantalones at 7:56 PM on August 6, 2008

Watching this also reminded me that Sesame Street was the most consistent exposure I had to people of color, growing up.

My white, working class parents raised me to be racist--not the KKK kind of racist; the behind closed doors, "don't ever marry one, they're not like you" scared suburbanite kind.

Sesame Street (and the fact that Kaiser randomly assigned me to a black pediatrician for my first 5 years) foiled their plan. (And taught me to count to ten in Spanish!) When they started to tell me that black folks were "different than us", it just didn't make sense to my elementary school brain...I knew Gordon and Maria and everyone seemed perfectly normal to me....and my doctor was as much an authority figure to me as my father, with the same gentle voice and strong hands.

Rock on, Sesame Street. And thank you.
posted by availablelight at 8:08 PM on August 6, 2008 [20 favorites]

Damn you for making me cry, Knappster.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:13 PM on August 6, 2008

Sad stuff. I wasn't old enough to remember the older shows, when Mr Hooper was still a regular character, but I do remember what a big deal his death was.
posted by paisley henosis at 8:14 PM on August 6, 2008

I now want to know more about the cast members and characters.

It is still a moment of cognitive dissonance for me when, like the good NYC based actors they are, Sonia Manzano (Maria) and Emilio Delgado (Luis) show up on Law & Order. (Criminal Intent for Emilio. He gave Vincent D'Onofrio as good as he got, it was stellar.)
posted by Dreama at 8:25 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Dying is what makes us people. If we didn't die, it wouldn't be the same. Life ends, and that's called death. We don't stay forever. Some day you will be a big person like me, and then you will get old, like Mr. Hooper was, and then you will die. Everybody dies."
posted by Meatbomb at 8:28 PM on August 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

A really amazing moment. I got misty eyed just remembering it, and watching it again, I got as far as "Ever?" before crying. If you can watch it and not cry, you're made of stone.
posted by DecemberBoy at 9:04 PM on August 6, 2008

I was 17 in 1983 and had never seen this. Seeing Bob McGrath tear up was heart wrenching. The last episode of MASH was the same year and was hard to watch.
posted by mecran01 at 9:41 PM on August 6, 2008

I loved Mr. Hooper so much. I remember when he died. I remember how sad it made me as a child. I was seven.

I remember seeing that scene again as an adult just five or six years ago and being just as sad.

But now?

Now that I know that he survived the blacklist to become Mr. Hooper?

Now I'm even sadder that he's gone.

It may sound goofy to say this about someone I only knew through television, but I love you, Mr. Lee, just like I love Fred Rogers.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:43 PM on August 6, 2008

Incidentally, if you ever catch the A&E "Biography" of Sesame Street, there's a curious fact: there's only one episode they never aired, the episode they filmed about divorce. These shows were (and, one presumes, still are) tested before child audiences before they aired to be sure they covered all the major questions kids would have about the subjects discussed on the show that day.

Evidently their focus group for that particular show was so distraught over the possibility that Mommy and Daddy might leave each other, no matter how positively the topic was framed, that they were inconsolable, so the episode was pulled and has never been televised.

I call that curious because I find it interesting that you can tell a child that sometimes people you love leave this place and never come back and you can never see them again, and they can deal with that idea well enough, but if you tell them that Mommy and Daddy don't love each other anymore and are going to live in different houses, but they still love you and will see you all the time, they're so upset that we're afraid to discuss it on TV.
posted by middleclasstool at 10:01 PM on August 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

posted by ambulance blues at 10:04 PM on August 6, 2008


posted by stenseng at 10:09 PM on August 6, 2008

I probably hadn't seen an episode of Sesame Street for 25 years until last month when my daughter turned two and we started letting her watch a little TV. The very first thing we turned to was Sesame Street. I had a lot of mixed feeling watching it. I'm definitely not sold on the new arrangement of the theme. I still don't get the whole Elmo phenomenon. (Kermit not good enough anymore?) But then I was glad to see how much continuity there was. Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, the Count, Grover, Oscar--and several humans, now much older, that I remembered.

But the moment that caught me off guard was when they showed Hooper's Store. I had no idea that they retained the name. I remembered how much I liked Mr. Hooper as a kid, and it was really touching that so many years later his life was memorialized in that way. It was also a little weird thinking that there's the history to the show that my daughter can't really understand. It might not even occur to her to ever ask "Why is it called Hooper's?" Another thing that used to mean something to me is gone--has been for a long time--and she'll never know the difference.

Which makes watching Sesame Street just a little more like our real life.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:43 PM on August 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

I remember this day almost like it was yesterday.

This was one of the first things our new fancy VCR was used to capture.

I would have been 12 at the time. I was outside of the target demographic, but Sesame Street was really, really important to me as a child, and even though I had "outgrown" it, I still watched from time to time just for simple entertainment. We only had 10 or 12 channels in my home town, and TWO of those were PBS stations, so I probably watched it more than you would think.

I had that tape until the mid 90's.

I also had the episode where the adults found out Mr. Snuffleupagus was real.

middleclasstool: That's very interesting. I need to track that down. I always wondered why they never did a show on divorce, being a product of divorce myself.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:47 PM on August 6, 2008

WHY are you reopening these wounds?!?!??! *gnashes teeth, rends clothing*
Thank you so much for this.
posted by mynameisluka at 11:39 PM on August 6, 2008

Will Lee? Damn, I always loved his bass playing.
posted by sourwookie at 12:11 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

God, can you imagine if today's Sesame Street ran a scene that had the grownups talking enthusiastically about a candidate running against big business and for social programs? Hannity would have a coronary.
posted by EarBucket at 8:10 AM on August 7, 2008

Mr. Hooper played Atari 2600 Pac-Man? The real Mr. Hooper would never have put up with that crap. Screw you Atari, you truly taught me the meaning of death and grieving with your lousy arcade adaptations.
posted by Nelson at 8:18 AM on August 7, 2008

I also had the episode where the adults found out Mr. Snuffleupagus was real.

I really wish they hadn't done that. That was part of the fun.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:45 AM on August 7, 2008

Note that IMDb lists a number of Will Lee's early film roles under the wrong actor. It was fun catching him in They Live By Night.
posted by gubo at 9:05 AM on August 7, 2008

Thanks, gubo. I was wondering where they were. The Muppet Wiki has a screencap of Lee from Hitchcock's Saboteur.
posted by Knappster at 9:21 AM on August 7, 2008

This short film immediately followed the "I'll Miss You, Mr. Hooper" sketch.
posted by evilcolonel at 1:21 PM on August 7, 2008

I had the death talk with my mom when I was five. She took it one step further and explained that she would die someday and that I would die someday. I thought about it for a moment and freaked the fuck out and started blubbering that I didn't want to die with tears, and probably drool, running down my face. It ended poorly. Thank you, Sesame Street, for forming one of my earliest memories.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:37 AM on August 8, 2008

When I was a kid, Maria and Luis ran a toaster repair shop. I never questioned this.

I love that show.
posted by nushustu at 10:38 AM on August 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

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