Monday, November 23, 2009

The Death of Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street

With November 2009 being the 40th Anniversary of Sesame Street, I wanted to feature one of the shows which dealt with the death of a major character, which I had only learned about after listening to a segment on "C is for Controversy" about Sesame Street on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

Episode 1839, titled 'Farewell, Mr. Hooper,' aired Thanksgiving Day in 1983.  The actor, Will Lee, who had played Mr. Hooper had died almost a year earlier in December of 1982, but the cast had already shot many of the episodes for the upcoming year so while the producers deliberated on how to address this issue, many episodes ran with Mr. Hooper.  Numerous options were considered: Mr. Hooper moved to Florida and retired, maybe get another actor, or simply not mention it.   Ultimately the show decided to allow the character Mr. Hooper to die as well and to discuss the topic directly on the show.  From a 1983 NY Times article:
But Dulcy Singer, the program's executive producer, said, ''we felt we ought to deal with it head-on.''
''If we left it unsaid, kids would notice,'' she said. ''Our instincts told us to be honest and straightforward.''
Child psychologists, religious leaders and other experts were consulted to help decide how to best present the death of Mr. Hooper.  This 'curriculum bath' was devised to let the writers soak in multiple different viewpoints from experts.  The staff worked with focus groups to see if the right message would resonate with children.  The whole process to write this episode and perfect it took months.  Parents were encouraged to watch the episode with their children.  It was aired Thanksgiving Day which would help ensure adults would be watching too.

Valeria Lovelace discusses her work as director of research on the show:
"Children sometimes have to face death in their own lives. They should be aware that death is permanent," Lovelace says. "We showed that life on Sesame Street would go on, that Mr. Hooper would be missed but someone else would take care of the store and look after Big Bird.
"We did not specify how Mr. Hooper died," Lovelace says. "The terms old and sick were not used."  The staff considered, then rejected, the use of film flashbacks of scenes with Mr. Hooper. "This would have confused the youngest children," Lovelace says. "For them, if something moves, it's alive."
The decision to deal with death independent of religious overtones fit with the secular educational philosophy of Sesame Street.  The main focus was to highlight that Mr. Hooper would be remembered fondly in all of the characters memories as opposed to discussing complex and family specific spiritual issues such as the existence of an afterlife.  The allowance of sadness and grief and anger as normal reactions to loss was also underscored.  The cause of death was not mentioned and thankfully they actually used the words 'died' and 'dead' instead of potentially confusing euphemisms such as 'passed away.'

The whole episode dealt with issues around coping with loss.  In one of the opening scenes a character Forgetful Jones starts hollering and forgets why he was getting so excited in the first place.  Gordon then starts asking him questions about how he is feeling which leads him to remember why he was happy.  This is then mirrored later in the show when Gordon asks Big Bird why he is feeling sad.  Later in the episode Big Bird decides to 'listen to the adults talk' while playing around them.  When they quiz Big Bird about what they were talking about he remembers many facts very well highlighting that children can pick up on things even when they seem to be inattentive.

Here is the most prominent video clip from the show demonstrating how Big Bird's friends tell him about Mr. Hooper's death.  This scene was done in one take and the actors later declined to try and go over the material again because the first take was so difficult despite his death nearly one year earlier.  Grief and sadness of losing a loved one can still come back quite strongly despite the passage of time.

Here is a transcript of some of the key parts of the above clip where Mr. Hooper's death is explained.

The actor who played Big Bird, Carroll Spinney, discusses his relationship with Mr. Hooper/Will Lee and how the show approached death and dying.  There are some real touching moments in this clip.

At the end of the show to highlight the continuity of life, as Big Bird hangs his own drawing of Mr. Hooper* all the other cast members begin fawning over a newborn baby that has come to Sesame Street.  Big Bird cheers up some and exclaims, ''You know what's amazing about new babies,'' he says. ''One day they're not here and then there they are!''

* The drawing was made by Caroll Spinney who played Big Bird and still hangs in the nest til this day.

Some other interesting trivia I found while researching this topic:
Ms. FRAN BRILL (Actor): (as Kami) This is a memory box that my mom made for me
Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Yeah.
Ms. BRILL: (as Kami) before she died of AIDS.
Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Oh, yeah. I see. And what do you do with the memory box?
Ms. BRILL: (as Kami) Well, I look at all the beautiful things
Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Mm-hmm.
Ms. BRILL: (as Kami) inside my memory box when I want to remember all the good times I had with my mother.
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5 Responses to “The Death of Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street”

Frances Shani Parker said...
November 23, 2009 at 3:18 AM

This is a wonderful post, Christian. Children are left out of positive death discussions too often. This lays the foundation for fear and avoidance of death conversations later in life. "Sesame Street" handled Mr. Hooper's death in a sensitive and caring manner. Thank you for adding this information to my memory box.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
November 23, 2009 at 11:17 AM

I was 5 when this aired and I still remember it vividly. Funny how that sticks with you. Still makes me teary eyed. Probably more so now. Thanks for posting it.

Christian Sinclair said...
November 24, 2009 at 7:56 PM

I had a lot of fun researching this post. It was a little hard to keep track of all the links and the video clips, but now I have a ton of trivia embedded in my head about this episode. I was 8 when this aired. I don't think I was watching Sesame Street at the time so no memories for me. I was just surprised it was the first time I had heard about this since I started my palliative care training 6 years ago.

Dr. Pam said...
November 25, 2009 at 7:36 PM

I was about to graduate from college when this aired (OK, I am officially old), but I well remember the big news of Sesame Street actually talking about someone dying--good for them to be real with kids!

Unknown said...
December 8, 2009 at 5:41 AM

I was 22 when this show played probably in nursing school - year before my own children watched Sesame Street. I watched the clip of the scene - and am awe by the emotions showed by the actors - and the great way that Sesame Street handled this topic. Thank you for posting about this topic.