Will Lee was born in Brooklyn, New York, and began his career as an actor on stage during the height of the Great Depression. The son of a bookbinder, who had lost his job due to the economic changes, Lee worked odd jobs in the city, and absorbed the intellectual and artistic atmospheres of Union Square and Greenwich Village. It was there that he became aware of the developing Worker's Laboratory Theater, a collective which performed experimental works, often with Communist or other political overtones. Lee recalled his initiation into both the WLT and the acting profession:
“I was in the Cooperative Restaurant one night. One of the regulars there asked me if I wanted to join a theatre group... I went with him up to a room... We sat on the floor and I was very quiet and reticent. This was a whole new world for me.... We were doing improvisations, although I don't think we called them that then. Hymie [Shapiro, the director] said to me, 'It's raining, you're hungry, you're cold, you're walking on Third Avenue and you pass by a bakery. Well... go do it.' I was broke. The weather was part of my struggle to live through. I was always hungry. I did it. They were shocked. They said, 'Is this the first time you ever did anything like this?' I said, 'Yes.' I sat down... As my ass hit the floor, I said to myself, 'This is the work I want to do.'”
He became a full-fledged member in 1930, and established himself as a character performer with several other high-profile, equally controversial theater groups, working with such notable figures as pioneering African-American performer/activist Paul Robeson, actor Franchot Tone (later to receive an Oscar nomination), and playwright Elia Kazan.
Lee subsequently became one of the founders of the Theater of Action, and a member of the Federal Theater Project, a government-funded group sponsored by the WPA (Works Progress Administration), conceived during the Roosevelt administration both for employment relief and to stimulate theater in the United States. Lee performed in their 1935 "Living Newspaper" play Triple-A Plowed Under, an attempt to create a series of dramatic sketches based on news reports, and starred as the stingy, grotesquely comic Harpagon in the WPA version of Moliere's The Miser.
Around 1936, Lee became a member of the Group Theater, a New York collective of actors and dramatists which pushed for naturalism and a new style of acting, based in part on the teachings of Stanislavsky, and later leading to Lee Strasberg’s Method associated with Marlon Brando and his contemporaries. With the Group, he appeared in such Broadway shows as Johnny Johnson (a mildly anti-war musical, playing a private and a photographer) and two of Clifford Odets' plays, Night Music (in a bit part as a waiter) and in Golden Boy, replacing John Garfield as the earnest cab driver Siggie. Outside of the Group Theater, he played Willie, a pinball machine addict, in the comedy The Time of Your Life (with Gene Kelly). Lee also appeared in the occasional film shot in New York, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's 1942 thriller Saboteur, about a man framed for espionage. Lee had a small role as injured plant worker Rogers, testifying about the events and helping to set the plot gears in motion.
On the war front itself, during World War II, Lee fought as a G.I. but also served in Army Special Services in Australia and Manila, where he received two citations for directing and staging shows for troops overseas. He also began teaching during this time.
After the war, Lee returned to the stage and also taught acting. He began appearing in more Hollywood films, usually in uncredited bits as waiters or cab drivers in such films as A Song is Born (with Danny Kaye), They Live By Night (directed by Theater of Action veteran Nicholas Ray) and The Life of Riley (based on an old-time radio sitcom). He also joined the Actor's Laboratory, a West Coast off-shoot of the Group, which was more directly leftist in its political content. This proved problematic when the Actor's Lab was formally accused of being a Communist front. In February 1948, as the investigations of Joseph McCarthy and the concurrent tribunals of the House Un-American Activities Committee were gaining speed, Lee was one of four Actor's Lab members called to testify before the HUAC. All refused to answer whether they had ever been members of the Communist Party, and all were blacklisted. The Actor's Lab began to collapse as a result, but Lee, described by founder Joseph Papp as a stalwart and elder, remained with the group until 1950, when he returned to New York.
Back on the East Coast, Lee appeared off-Broadway in The Shrike (1952) (as Jewish neighbor Tager) and in The World of Sholom Alecheim, staged by fellow blacklist victims including Howard DaSilva, Jack Gilford, and Herschel Bernardi, as well as up and coming performers Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. The actor still remained largely unemployable by most major studios, networks, and commercial theater groups for several years.
However, Lee did appear in the 1953 independent film Little Fugitive. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story, the movie focused on a small boy who runs away to Coney Island, with Lee in one of his more prominent cinema roles, as a kindly boardwalk photographer trying to cheer the boy up. Director Morris Engel, in audio commentary for the more recent DVD release, praised the actor's naturalism and improvisation of action, with minimal direction from the filmmakers.
Resurgence and Teaching
As the decade progressed, Lee's prospects improved, appearing in 1956 as Grandpa Hughes in the first season of the soap opera As the World Turns. While TV and film work was otherwise minimal, he received a new lease as a character actor on stage, playing lecherous concessionaire Grobert in the puppet-centered musical Carnival! (1961). He displayed his pantomime skills as the cursed mute King Sextimus in Once Upon a Mattress (1959-1960), buoyantly chasing after young girls, and in Incident at Vichy (1964-1965) as the wordless "Old Jew," a refugee clinging to the feather-bed which is his last possession. For his portrayal of hypocritical film mogul Herman Teppis in Norman Mailer's biting off-Broadway play Deer Park, Lee won the Drama Desk Award in 1967. In 1969, he was cast as Mr. Hooper, becoming a television fixture, but continued to appear on-stage, in such works as Enemies (portraying Russian orderly Kon).
Continuing as an acting teacher, Lee led classes at the New School for Social Research, Boston University, and Uta Hagen's Herbert Berghof Studio (the latter concurrently with his Sesame work). He taught for nine years at the American Theater Wing, where his students included James Earl Jones. Jones spoke of Lee as one of his three greatest acting teachers:
“Will had worked with Elia Kazan and Morris Carnovsky, and he believed that acting comes out of your own life experiences... Sometimes my speech would accelerate with emotion, and my words would race with each other, rapid as heartbeats in a footrace. Will taught me to confront the reality of that emotional overload and to begin to harness the emotions to the voice... He was giving me a sense of proportion, an some valuable experience in working with rather than against the emotion and passion I brought to a characterization.”
Outside of Sesame Street, Lee's later work included television movies, including the Arthur Miller scripted Playing for Time (1980, with Vanessa Redgrave and Marisa Berenson) as Auschwitz prisoner/electrician Schmuel. He had a supporting role in Sidney Lumet's film Daniel (with Mandy Patinkin, Edward Asner, and Peter Friedman), released posthumously in 1983. Lumet cast Lee as a judge presiding over a case loosely based on the Rosenbergs; ironically, considering the actor's own past, Lee's character rules that even tenuous Communist affiliations should be explored as potential motives for any crime. Lee 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
CTW president Joan Ganz Cooney, in The New York Times obituary for the actor, recalled that Lee "gave millions of children the message that the old and the young have a lot to say to each other." On Sesame Street, Will Lee's Mr. Hooper ranked ahead of all live cast members in recognition by young audiences, according to a then recent survey cited by the newspaper. His bowtie and horn-rimmed reading glasses became his trademark. In 1970, following the show's successful first season, Lee expressed 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, Will Lee portrayed Mr. Hooper in television specials (Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, A Special Sesame Street Christmas), guest appearances (Evening at Pops in 1971), stage appearances, countless record albums, and parades. Lee's Sesame Street co-stars have often spoken of him fondly. Roscoe Orman discussed him in depth in his 2006 memoir:
“Will was a man of extraordinary experience and generosity of spirit... an actor and a teacher with an infectious passion for both the craft and politics of theater. I first met him in the mid-sixties at a Queens College seminar on political theater... I was immediately struck by the animated and fiery conviction of this diminutive figure. A decade later, when I joined him as a member of the Sesame Street family, I found him to be no less energetic in his commitment to art and society, and, to my delight, we instantly developed a mutual respect and friendship... Beginning with The Last Street Play until his passing, he witnessed nearly everything that I did on stage and I always looked forward to his candid and knowledgeable assessments of both the play and my performance, whether critical or complimentary.”
“He was a fine gentleman and actor, and I considered it a privilege to work with him. During the twelfth season of Sesame Street, we could tell Will's health was suffering... While we were standing around waiting for the set to be ready, I sat on the wall with him in front of Gordon's house. I was wearing the Bird's legs but not the puppet. I put my arm around his shoulder and said in the Bird's voice, "I love you, Mr. Looper."
He looked at me and said, 'And I love you, Caroll.' He went home soon after that, and I never saw him again.”
Halfway through Season 14, Lee taped his final segments as Mr. Hooper in November 1982, and appeared with the rest of the cast in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. He died of a heart attack on December 7, 1982, at a hospital in New York City, at the age of 74. Lee was never married and had no children. He was survived by his sister, Sophie Lee-Lubov, who lived in Florida. Mr. Hooper's absence went unremarked upon for the remainder of that season, with pre-taped segments airing. However, a decision had to be made over how to deal with the loss of a major cast member. The writers initially toyed with the idea of having Mr. Hooper move to Florida. However, they decided to just tell the viewers the painful truth and have Mr. Hooper die as well. The following Thanksgiving, in episode 1839, Mr. Hooper's death is explained to Big Bird, and to the child viewers at home.
Several cast members were emotionally affected by the episode. In the documentary Sesame Street Unpaved, host Sonia Manzano stated that the episode was one of her proudest moments on the show because it did not try to sugarcoat the issue and it was completely honest. In the same documentary, Bob McGrath remarked that for a long time after the episode aired, it was hard for him to enter Hooper's Store. Meanwhile, in an interview on The Tavis Smiley Show, Loretta Long said that because of the episode, it was now easier for families to teach their children about death. The subsequent book adaptation, I'll Miss You, Mr. Hooper, was "dedicated to the memory of Will Lee."
As he became known on Sesame Street, children would approach Will Lee on the street and ask, "How did you get out of the television set?" or whisper, "I love you." The actor's response to that, in a 1981 interview: "Apart from the joy of knowing that you are helping so many kids, the recognition is heartwarming."
- Williams, Jay. Stage Left. New York: Scribner, 1974. p. 39.
- Epstein, Helen. Joe Papp: An American Life. Da Capo Press, 1996.
- Jones, James Earl and Penelope Niven. James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences. New York: Macmillan, 1993. p. 101-102.
- Associated Press, "Death and Sesame Street," The New York Times, November 27, 1983.
- "Who's Afraid of Big Bad TV?" TIME. November 23, 1970
- Orman, Roscoe. Sesame Street Dad: Evolution of an Actor. p. 118-119.
- Spinney, Caroll. The Wisdom of Big Bird. p. 120
- "Will Lee, 74, Was Mr. Hooper on Television 'Sesame Street'," The New York Times, December 9, 1982.