In continuation of my series on Sesame Street helping children understand important moments in life from divorce to incarceration, perhaps the most challenging topic was presented on Thanksgiving in 1983, when the show addressed the concept of death. On December 7, 1982, actor Will Lee, best known for his role as Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street passed away from a heart attack at the age of 74. Lee was one of four original human cast members on the show, alongside Matt Robinson (the original Gordon), Loretta Long (Susan) and Bob McGrath (Bob). Mr. Hooper had become a staple of the show, originally described by Children’s Television Workshop advisor Gerald S. Lesser as “slightly mean and abrasive but with a poorly hidden nice streak.” Over time he became a much more mellow storekeeper who developed a friendship with Big Bird, who often visited to buy a birdseed milkshake, and who had trouble saying his friend’s name (often referring to him as “Mr. Looper”).
With the passing of Will Lee, producers were left with the problem of broadcasting Mr. Hooper’s departure. The show’s executive producer Dulcy Singer believed that, “if we left it unsaid, kids would notice.” Producers considered having the character move away, with Carroll Spinney being quoted as saying, “We thought perhaps he could just retire, move to Florida or something, but then the producers thought that the best thing to do would be to actually deal with death.” After research and discussion, it was agreed upon that the best way to deal with Mr. Hooper’s departure would be to have the character pass away as well, and to create an episode to teach young children about death being a natural part of life, and how it’s OK to feel sad when a loved one dies.
The landmark Sesame Street episode dealing with Mr. Hooper’s death aired on Thanksgiving in 1983, during the show’s 15th season. Norman Stiles, the show’s head writer, consulted with numerous child psychologists to create a script designed to help explain losing a loved one to children. The script avoided “sugar-coating” the topic, choosing not to use words children might not understand like “passed away” and instead using a direct and honest approach. Mr. Hooper’s cause of death was not discussed, nor was the process of growing old. The producers instead directed the message as, “Mr. Hooper died, he won’t be coming back, and we are all going to miss him.” Flashbacks were also rejected as it was believed kids would be confused by seeing Mr. Hooper still on their screen again. It was also important for producers that Mr. Hooper not be said to have died in a hospital, for fear it would make children afraid to go to the hospital, despite the fact that was in fact where Will Lee passed away.
Big Bird was once again utilized as representative of the majority of the childlike audience, reacting to the news of death. The other adult characters explained to Big Bird that he would still be cared for even if Mr. Hooper won’t be around to do so. The landmark segment began as Big Bird passed out hand-drawn pictures of all of the adult characters he’d made (drawn in reality by Bird’s performer Carroll Spinney) and he’s curious when he can’t find Mr. Hooper, to give him his drawing. Big Bird thinks Mr. Hooper has just gone away on vacation and will return later, unable to comprehend the concept of death initially, despite having been already told Mr. Hooper died. Big Bird grows troubled even as the adults tell him everything will be okay and he’ll be taken care of, saying, “It won’t be the same,” until Bob reassures Big Bird. He says, “You’re right, Big Bird. It’ll never be the same without him. But you know something? We can all be very happy that we had a chance to be with him and to know him and to love him a lot, when he was here.” The episode also explains that David will fill in at Hooper’s Store, and the episode ends on a touching moment as Big Bird hangs the drawing of Mr. Hooper he made by his nest.
The episode’s airing on Thanksgiving was no mistake, according to actress Loretta Long, who noted during an interview on The Tavis Smiley Show, “We were very careful to do it over the Thanksgiving holiday, where there would be a lot of adults in the house to help the children.” Filming the episode was emotional for the cast and crew, all who had grown close to Will Lee during his 14 years on the show. Norman Stiles also adapted the episode into a book, “I’ll Miss You, Mr. Hooper.” Hooper’s Store has continued to serve as a landmark location on Sesame Street, with ownership changing through the years to its present owner and operator, Alan. Mr. Hooper’s death came up two other times after the episode, once in a Season 16 episode in which Big Bird and Maria reminisce about Mr. Hooper, and again in Season 28 when famous bird art collector Leo Birdelli wants to buy Big Bird’s drawing of Mr. Hooper, in exchange for birdseed. In that episode, Big Bird goes on to explain the meaning of the picture. The Daytime Emmys would go on to recognize the episode as one of the 10 most influential moments in daytime television. In a 2006 interview, Carroll Spinney recognized it as a proud achievement for Sesame Street, “The best episode we ever did was Mr. Hooper’s death. Those were real tears. Will was the sweetest man.”