Fran Brill (b. September 30, 1946) is an actress and puppeteer who worked on Sesame Street beginning in 1970. She was the first female puppeteer hired by Jim Henson, outside of wife Jane Henson. She is best known for performing Prairie Dawn and Zoe.
Brill retired from performing in September 2014. She made a special return appearance in the show's 50th anniversary special. A few years prior to her retirement, Brill participated in the film Muppet Guys Talking, which was released in 2018.
A native of Pennsylvania, Brill began her performing career in community theater, and in 1968, while in Atlanta, she joined the cast of the play Red, White and Maddox, which ridiculed segregationist governor Lester Maddox. The show proved somewhat controversial due to its political subject matter, but transferred to Broadway in 1969, and Brill moved to New York City to join her fellow cast members, who included a young Christopher Lloyd. The show closed in less than three months, after only 41 performances. Out of a job, Brill was seeking work as a voice-over actress and in radio commercials, when she answered an ad from Muppets Inc., auditioning performers for what she initially assumed was a voice-over assignment. As the puppeteer recalled, "In those days, 1970, it was a small operation and if you called, you could get Jim directly on the phone.... They were training people to do a Christmas special for The Ed Sullivan Show." The special was The Great Santa Claus Switch, and after a two week puppetry workshop with Henson, she was subsequently asked to join Sesame Street.
Sesame Street Girls
For Sesame Street, Brill initially played a variety of minor roles, usually supplying little girl voices, but quickly established her first notable character, Prairie Dawn:
“They had a little pink puppet, they put on a blond wig, a party dress and asked me to create a character - a very feminine, girly-girl in the '70s. I came up with an innocent, pretty sound. I developed the character by working with her.”
Brill also coined the character's name: "I heard of an actress with a similar name [Prairie Dorn] and Jim loves unusual names." Other characters followed, but it wasn't until 1993 that Brill established her next major role, as Zoe. Brill observed children, male and female, when developing her performance, picking up the basis for the character's laugh as well as the initial catch phrase "Don't joke me." Though Brill was initially uncertain of the character's longevity, Zoe was the only new character introduced that season who has endured and thrived. Later, Brill added Kami — the HIV-positive Muppet from Takalani Sesame — to her resume, performing her in most public appearances in the U.S. She also voiced a reporter interviewing Original Jay in an animated insert. (First: Episode 3280) Outside of Sesame Street, Brill has worked on The Muppet Show pilot The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, Saturday Night Live, and Dog City, amongst many other Muppet projects.
While puppeteering kept her busy, Brill continued to pursue an acting career on stage and screen. On stage, concurrent with her Muppet work, Brill won two Drama Desk Awards, for What Every Woman Knows (1976) and Knuckles (1981). She received considerable acclaim for her role as Fran Bachman on the soap opera How to Survive a Marriage (1974-1975), in particular for her dramatic scenes following the death of the character's husband. Her notable film credits include Being There (1979), Midnight Run (1988, as Charles Grodin's wife), and What About Bob? (1991, directed by Frank Oz). TV work includes recurring stints on such soap operas as All My Children and As the World Turns as featured supporting characters and guest spots on Law & Order, Kate & Allie, and Third Watch. She has also made several cameos in Muppet productions.
Brill's voice work includes the animated series Doug and Doug's First Movie, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and several radio and television commercials. As she noted in 1987, "I can pinch myself and say, 'I may not be a major motion picture star, but that's OK. I've done all right."
- Sesame Street: Alice, Anne Phibian, Arlene Frantic, Baa Baa Walters, Betty Lou (occasionally, such as in "Amigo"), Birthday Cake, Carol the Baker, The Countess, Det. Olivia Benson, "Dinner Theatre" mother, Fran, Frannie, Frieda, Helena, Howie, I. C. DeForrest, Imogene, Lavender J Friend, June Moon, Lady Schmanthum, Lady Two, Little Bird, Little Bo Peep (often), Little Jerry (in "Monotones Walk"), Little Red Riding Hood, Lovely Lady Linda, Marylou, Miss Vicki, Mrs. Crustworthy (2006-2015), Ms. Carpenter, Nora Nicks, Omagrossa, Pipe Organ, Polly Darton, Prairie Dawn (1971-2015), Princess Cutie, Princess Geraldine, Queen Olivia, Rita Rucci, Roxie Marie, Sadie Schwartzbaum, Sandy, Sleeping Beauty, the Small Bird, Snow Grouch, one of the String Beans, Summer Squall, The Sun (from Elmo's World: Sky), Ursula, Vertigo, Vivian, Wanda Cousteau, Zoe (1993-2015)
- The Great Santa Claus Switch
- Muppet Meeting Films: Janice
- Saturday Night Live: Vazh
- The Muppet Show: Mary Louise (Paul Williams episode), Whatnot woman (Charles Aznavour episode)
- The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence: Janice, Doris, Receptionist, Leafy Green Vegetables, Pink Stalk, Whatnot
- Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting
- The Jim Henson Hour: Vicki, Merlin's Assistant, Solid Foam Drummer, Zondra, Colleen Barker ("Dog City"), Maxine ("Power")
- Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake
- Sing, Hoot & Howl with the Sesame Street Animals: Chicken
- Elmo's Sing-Along Guessing Game: Mary
- Billy Bunny's Animal Songs: The Porcupine, Frog
- Sesame Street Jam: A Musical Celebration
- Sesame Street Stays Up Late
- Sing-Along Earth Songs: Flo
- A New Baby in My House
- Dog City: Colleen Barker, Terri Springer
- Stars and Street Forever
- The Best of Elmo
- Do the Alphabet
- Learning to Share
- Imagine That!
- Elmo Saves Christmas: Elf
- Quiet Time
- The Alphabet Jungle Game
- The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland: Pesties, Grouches
- Kids' Favorite Songs
- Elmo's World: Wild Wild West!
- Elmo's Musical Adventure: Peter and the Wolf
- Kids' Favorite Songs 2
- Bert & Ernie's Word Play: The Frosty Four
- Elmo's World: Happy Holidays!
- Zoe's Dance Moves
- Play with Me Sesame
- Sesame Street 4-D Movie Magic
- A Magical Halloween Adventure
- A Celebration of Me, Grover
- The Producers: Pigeons
- Happy Healthy Monsters
- Sesame Beginnings: Baby Prairie Dawn
- Elmo's Potty Time
- Talk, Listen, Connect: Mae
- Panwapa: Athena the Owl (puppetry only)
- Learning is Everywhere: Miss Fran
- Abby in Wonderland
- Elmo's Christmas Countdown
- Love the Earth!
- Kinect Sesame Street TV
- Little Children, Big Challenges: Ms. Betancourt
- Monster Manners
- The Cookie Thief
- Sesame Street - assorted animated segments
- Elmo the Musical: Stadium Announcer ("Athlete the Musical")
- Three Sesame Street Stories: Little Bird, Rodeo Rosie, Mrs. Washington, Squirmy, Saloon showgirl, Half-Baked Gazette reporter
- Five Sesame Street Stories: Prairie Dawn, Betty Lou, Narrator ("Big Bird Brings Spring to Sesame Street"), Dolores
- The Great Cookie Thief app: various saloon patrons
- The Jim Henson Legacy - Fran Brill: A Job Well Done.
- "Viewers Praise Actress for Role in TV Serial." TV-Entertainment Review. Nov. 23-24, 1974.
- Vadeboncouer, Joan E. "Voice of Prairie Dawn gives Fran Brill the freedom to choose her roles." Syracuse Herald American Stars Magazine. January 4, 1987.
- Perera, Srianthi. "Street cred: Kids' reaction rewarding to Muppet creator." The Arizona Republic. December 27, 2007.
- Eckholm, Eric. "On the Set with Zoe: The Monster Is a Girl." The New York Times. August 9, 1993.