One of the most recognizable figures of the first thirteen years (1969-1982) of PBS’s Sesame Street was Mr. Hooper the grocer, played by veteran actor Will Lee. He was one of the four original human characters on the show.
Before appearing in Sesame Street, Lee had a long career in theater and movies, although his career was interrupted during the 1950s because of being blacklisted during the “Red Scare” of that time. So, why would this innocuous grocer be blacklisted?
Let’s start from the beginning. In 1908, William Lubovsky was born in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants. His father, a bookbinder, lost his job due to economic changes. Will Lee came to adulthood during the Great Depression. He worked odd jobs in New York City and absorbed the intellectual atmosphere of Greenwich Village, an enclave of avant-garde culture where small presses, art galleries, and experimental theater thrived.
It was a chance event that led Will Lee to become an actor. He recalled eating in a New York restaurant when a regular invited him upstairs to join a theater company. Intrigued, but not serious, he sat down with the group. He was asked to improvise, “It’s raining, you’re hungry, you’re cold, you’re walking on Third Avenue and you pass by a bakery.” Since he was always broke and hungry, the part came easy to him. “I did it,” Lee remembered. “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.’”
By 1930 he was a full-fledged member of the Worker’s Laboratory Theater, a collective that performed experimental works, often with communist or other political overtones. Later in the 1930s, Lee co-founded the “Theatre of Action,” a socially-conscious mobile theater that performed in every conceivable type of arena, indoor or outdoor.
Why this attraction to communism? During the Depression, it appeared that capitalism had failed. Some in the U.S. began looking elsewhere to ease the economic misery. The Communist party took on fights not just for better wages and working conditions but also in social justice issues. For example, in the Deep South, the battle for freedom for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape in 1931, was led by the International Labor Defense, a legal arm of the Communist Party U.S.A. The Communist party was seen by some Americans as defenders of the working-class and the downtrodden.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration established the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration, Will Lee signed up, excitedly declaring the program as a “national theatre renascence in America.” The FTP employed out-of-work artists, writers, directors, and theater workers. Lee was part of its most well-known program, Living Newspaper, which were plays based on current events, often hot button issues like farm policy, syphilis testing, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. FTP ended in 1939 when Congress canceled its funding due to the left-wing political tone of some of its productions.
Around 1936, Lee also became a member of the Group Theater, a New York collective of actors and dramatists who pushed for naturalism in acting. With the onset of World War II, the Group ended and, like many of the young men of his day, Lee served in the war. He was a “non-com” (non-combatant) assigned to the Army Special Services Section in Australia and the Philippines, for which he directed and staged shows for troops overseas. Although he held an anti-war philosophy, he proudly kept the flyers from his productions, as well as the commendations received for his work.
After the war, Lee taught at the Hollywood-based Actors’ Laboratory Theatre, a racially diverse, politically active theater company and acting school founded in 1941 that was influenced by the Group Theatre.
The company’s left-leaning productions led to accusations of it being a communist front. In early 1948, as the investigations of U.S. Senator Joseph M. McCarthy and the tribunals of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were gaining speed, Will Lee was one of four Actor’s Lab members called to testify before the HUAC. All refused to say whether they had ever been Communist party members, and all were blacklisted.
Lee now found himself unemployable by most major studios, networks, and commercial theater groups. He returned to New York and took off-Broadway work as it became available. By 1956 America’s Red Scare had subsided and Lee resumed his career, this time in television, with a role on the soap opera As the World Turns, and then received film roles as well.
In 1969, he was offered the part of Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street. In a November 1970 Time magazine article, Lee recalled, “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.”
Outside of Sesame Street, Lee’s later work included television movies, including a supporting role in Sidney Lumet’s film Daniel. Lumet cast Lee as a judge presiding over a case loosely based on alleged communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; 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’s work in television and magazine ads was also during this period. The fires of anti-capitalism had apparently cooled at this stage in his life.
By 1982, Will Lee began showing signs of ill health on the set of Sesame Street. Caroll Spinney, who as Big Bird worked very closely with Lee, remembered, “We could tell Will’s health was suffering…While we were standing around waiting for the set to be ready…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.”
Will Lee died on December 7, 1982, from a heart attack at age 74. The show’s writers struggled with how to approach the loss of a major cast member. They initially toyed with the idea of having Mr. Hooper move to Florida. In the end, they decided to 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 children watching at home. The famous episode was remarkable in its direct treatment of death and helped shape the way its young viewers could cope with a delicate, painful topic.
The Will Lee papers contain a fascinating set of materials, including scripts written for the Workers Laboratory Theatre and Theatre of Action; film and theater stills; files related to his Army productions and military service; newspaper clippings; biographical materials; contracts; and playbills.
The American Heritage Center has the papers of a number of blacklisted actors, screenwriters, playwrights, and producers, including Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Larry Adler, Lester Cole, John Randolph, Hugo Butler, and Herman Waldman. The Nancy Schwartz papers include audio cassettes of interviews with blacklisted Hollywood writers.