74 (passed away Dec. 7th, 1982)
Aug. 6th, 1908
New York City, New York, USA
Will Lee's Main TV Roles
Main Movie Roles
Guest TV Roles[none found]
Will Lee (August 6, 1908 – December 7, 1982) was an American actor best known for playing the store proprietor Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street, from the show's debut in 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 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 films, including bit parts in Casbah, A Song Is Born, Little Fugitive, and Saboteur. Will Lee was blacklisted as an alleged communist and barred from films and on television for five years during the Red Scare, according to members of his family. He had been active in the Actors 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 the soap opera As The World Turns, before finally being cast as Mr. Hooper.
He taught at the American Theatre Wing for nine years (where his students included James Earl Jones) as well as at the New School for Social Research, Boston University and the Uta Hagen-Herbert Berghof Studio. In addition, he conducted his own acting classes. Outside of Sesame Street, later roles included television movies and a supporting role as the judge in Sidney Lumet's 1983 film Daniel (with Mandy Patinkin, Ed Asner, and Peter Friedman). He 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 began acting the part of Mr. Hooper on the 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, Will 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 over ten years, Lee portrayed Mr. Hooper in television specials (Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, 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 the Christmas Eve on Sesame Street special in 1978 that the character of Mr. Hooper is Jewish, as was Lee. Lee taped his final segments as Mr. Hooper in November 1982, but his death would become the focal point of Episode 1839, in which Mr. Hooper's death is explained to Big Bird.
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
Will Lee died on December 7, 1982 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City from a heart attack at the age of 74. Lee was never married nor had children and was survived by his sister Sophia Lee-Lubov who lived in Florida. Lee's death left the producers of Sesame Street, the Children's Television Workshop, with questions about how to acknowledge the death of one of the series' most visible actors. After considering a number of options, CTW decided to have the character of Mr. Hooper die as well, and use the episode to teach its young viewers about death as a natural part of life.
- After Will Lee's death in late 1982, the producers of "Sesame Street" decided to kill off Mr. Hooper, instead of hiring another actor to take over the part of the Street's amiable storekeeper. In a special "Sesame Street" episode that aired in November 1983 (nearly a year after Lee's death), Big Bird learned to cope with and grieve the death of his dear friend.
- Was blacklisted in the early fifties, primarily for his involvement with the Federal Theatre Project, the West Coast Actor's Lab, and other stage groups "identified" as Communist fronts. He worked through the fifties and sixties as an acting teacher, with James Earl Jones being one his students.
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