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James Frawley, a veteran Hollywood director of TV and film projects like The Monkees and The Muppet Movie, has died. He was 82.
Frawley died Tuesday at his home in Indian Wells, California, The Desert Sun reported. His wife, Cynthia Frawley, told the newspaper that he had fallen and had a heart attack. He also was secretive about having a serious lung condition after many years of smoking.
Born on Sept. 29, 1936, in Houston, Frawley started out as an actor, initially in New York City and on Broadway. His early TV credits included The Seasons of Youth in 1961 and appearances on Gunsmoke, The Outer Limits and Perry Mason.
But Frawley made a name for himself behind the camera, starting in 1966 when he helmed The Monkees. He was chosen by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to direct the series that was set around a pop rock group (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) amid Beatlemania.
“I picked up a 16mm camera, and I shot two short films and edited them myself. They won a lot of awards and attracted the attention of Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, two young producers in Hollywood at that time. Because I had been an improvisational actor and done a lot of comedy, they thought I’d be a perfect combination to direct The Monkees,” Frawley recalled in a 2007 interview with SFGate.
Said Dolenz in a statement: “He not only coached us in the art of improvisation but brought to the party a brilliant sense of humor, a dazzling intellect and the patience of a saint when it came to dealing with the completely off-the-wall antics of the improvisational, spontaneous monster that they had created … “they” being Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Jim Frawley.”
Frawley then directed episodes of That Girl, with Marlo Thomas starring and Ethel Merman in a memorable cameo; Columbo; Paper Moon; and Cagney and Lacey. He also became a trusted hand with TV pilots. “The great thing about doing a pilot is you have an opportunity to come in at the beginning and create the look. You contribute the same kind of directorial point of view as you would in a feature,” Frawley told The Desert Sun in 2011.
Muppets creator Jim Henson, after seeing Frawley’s work on The Monkees, hired him in 1979 to direct The Muppet Movie, where Kermit the frog and his friends travel across America to find success in Hollywood. “He knew that I had been an actor and thought that I was the right combination for The Muppets. He flew me to London, where they made The Muppet Show. We met and we had an immediate connection,” Frawley said.
Working with puppets — on a road trip in a car and getting Kermit to ride a bike — offered its own challenges on set, Frawley recalled. “You have to figure that you had four grown men under the dashboard of that Studebaker. Fozzie Bear was operated by two people, Kermit was operated by somebody else and then Miss Piggy by somebody else. They had to have video imaging of what they were doing so they could watch their own performance as it happened. And then we had a little person in the back of the car steering and driving. We had a video camera on the nose of the car so he could see where he was going,” he recounted.
The veteran film and TV director — whose trademark cry on set was “Cut, print, yes!” — in 2009 moved with his wife from Los Angeles to Indian Wells to find desert tranquillity.
“My wife, Cynthia, and I have always loved it here. There is no other place we want to be. To wake up and see the dawn coming over the mountains. And at night, to see the moon and the stars — this is the place,” Frawley told Palm Springs Life in 2013.
Details on a planned private memorial have not been announced.
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