Fans of the early seasons of Sesame Street will never forget the character Mr. Hooper. Played by Will Lee, the role of the town’s kind shopkeeper debuted in 1969 and ended when Lee passed away 13 years later.
Ahead of his role on Sesame Street, the Brooklyn-born actor had a long stage and movie career dating back to the 1930s. Lee appeared in 156 episodes of Sesame Street as well as several TV specials based on the beloved children’s series, per IMDB. But in 1983, Lee was suddenly gone from Sesame Street, and the loss left producers in an unprecedented situation as they tried to explain his absence to their young audience.
Will Lee Died of a Heart Attack in 1982
Thirteen years after making his debut as the bow-tie-wearing proprietor of Hooper’s Store on Sesame Street, Lee passed away suddenly of a heart attack. According to his New York Times obituary, Lee died on December 7, 1982, at Lenox Hill Hospital at age 74 years old.
At the time, then Children’s Television Workshop president Joan Ganz Cooney said of Lee, ”He gave millions of children the message that the old and the young have a lot to say to each other.”
Lee had taped new Sesame Street segments and had also participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with other cast members and characters less than two weeks before he died.
‘Sesame Street’ Writers Incorporated Lee’s Death Into the Show
Lee’s absence wasn’t addressed right away, as he had taped a backlog of episodes that aired well into 1983. But when the time came, nearly a year after the actor’s death, Sesame Street did not shy away from explaining Mr. Harold Hooper’s disappearance from the neighborhood.
On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1983, the historic “Farewell to Mr. Hooper” episode aired on PBS. Sesame Street legend Caroll Spinney, who was the voice behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, said the poignant episode that explained Mr. Hooper’s death was “one of the best things” the show ever did, according to The AV Club. In the episode, the human Sesame Street residents tried to explain Mr. Hooper’s death to Big Bird as he struggled to understand why he would never see his friend again.
The decision to air the episode came after producers spoke with child psychologists on how to handle the death of the beloved character. The landmark episode aired on Thanksgiving so whole families would be gathered together to watch it, according to the Television Academy, and it was aired only once and never as a rerun. Spinney and the writers of Sesame Street were awarded the Peabody Award for the episode, and Sesame Street also won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing the following year.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television more than 20 years after “Farewell to Mr. Hooper” aired, Loretta Long, aka Susan Robinson on Sesame Street, revealed that people still were still coming up to her to talk about how much the episode affected them.
“People still come up to me on the street telling me what it meant to them to be able to talk to their children about death,” she said in 2004.
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