Television

The Death of Mr. Hooper

Sesame Street writer Norman Stiles on using a real-life tragedy to teach children about death.

TV displaying a still from Sesame Street of Big Bird touching a drawing of Mr. Hooper
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sesame Workshop and Getty Images Plus.

This interview is part of a series about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: When the actor Will Lee died, did you all know immediately that you wanted to treat Mr. Hooper’s death in a straightforward way? Or were there other possible ways of handling it in the works?

Norman Stiles (screenwriter): There were two choices from a television standpoint. You either just replace him—and it’s kids, so, you know, who cares, right? But that wasn’t Sesame Street. That was not a choice we were willing to consider. So the other choice is to address it. It was an opportunity to deal with something that children experience in their lives. But we didn’t know for sure how to do it.

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How did you start to figure it out?

People on our research staff, like Valeria Lovelace, who was the head of research at the time. Kids who are preschoolers, zero to 5, don’t have the same emotional reaction that grown-ups have. Because they’re very self-centered, their world is themselves, and the whole concept is something that would be very difficult to explain.

The first thing we heard was a don’t: Don’t say that Mr. Hooper went on vacation. Don’t say he got sick and went to the hospital. Preschoolers are very literal! They hear that, then they hear their mother’s going to the hospital—auuugh, she’s gonna die like Mr. Hooper.

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You just say, “He died, and he’s not gonna be here anymore. That’s what dying means.”

What kids will immediately think about is themselves. So you see that in Big Bird: “Who will make my birdseed milkshakes?” But really it’s “Who’s going to take care of me?”

I’ve seen the scene where they explain it to Big Bird before, but I didn’t remember the rest of the sequence, where a baby visits Big Bird’s nest, and there’s his drawing of Mr. Hooper.

Caroll [Spinney, who played Big Bird] was an artist, and so I had him draw those pictures of Will. In the final scene, Big Bird is hanging Mr. Hooper’s picture in his nest area. And I wrote it in the script, “I would love if this picture would hang in the nest area as long as the show’s on the air.” And as far as I know, it has.

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Read more about the 50 greatest fictional deaths of all time, including Norman Stiles’ own pick for the greatest.

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