James Frawley, a director of dozens of TV series and movies, died Tuesday at his home in Indian Wells, California. He was 82.
Frawley's wife, Cynthia Frawley, told the Palm Springs Desert Sun he fell and had a heart attack. Many of his friends did not know he had a serious lung condition after many years of smoking cigarettes.
Known best for projects like The Monkees and The Muppet Movie, Frawley began his career as an actor. He made his Broadway debut with Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn in the Tony-nominated Becket, followed by Anyone Can Whistle with Angela Lansbury in 1960.
He also found success as a producer, from the critically acclaimed The Big Easy TV series of the 1990s to Judging Amy in the early aughts.
Frawley's work as the director the groundbreaking TV series The Monkees earned him an Emmy nomination for outstanding director in the show's first season, as well as a nomination for the show's second season. It was a groundbreaking series that was intended to exploit Beatlemania with Marx Bros.-type spontaneous comedy. Fans will remember the theme song, written by Bobby Hart and Tommy Boyce: "Here we come, walking down the street... Hey, hey, we're the Monkees!"
He told The Desert Sun that he got the job because he had been performing with an improv group in New York called The Premise and was also taking classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, which led to him meeting with Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who were developing The Monkees.
“How it happened was circumstance and blind luck,” Frawley said. “A couple young producers (Schneider and Rafelson) were in Hollywood when I was out there as an actor. They came to see me in an improvisational comedy group and thought I was a funny guy. We met socially and they said, ‘Listen, we’re creating a show and you’ve done improvisational theater and been an acting teacher, and gone to the Actors Studio. You might be a great guy to work with these four guys.”
Two singing actors, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, and two musicians, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, portrayed the rock band starring on their own show.
“I came in after they were cast (and) it was the most fun I ever had,” Frawley said. “I had no reservations. Something clicked and I felt like I was home. I understood the four boys. They got me. We hung out together. We did an improvisational workshops to develop our banter. I loved the comedy – I loved the Marx Bros., I loved the Three Stooges – so I was really comfortable with that form of comedy.
“There were similarities between the Monkees and the Beatles, but we never made that part of our ambition. We were very American. The Beatles were much more subtle, much more English. Our stuff was more slapstick and we acknowledged the camera a lot, so we included the audience in the joke.”
Frawley's best-known feature film, 1979's The Muppet Movie, included Oscar-nominated music by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. Frank Oz and producer Jim Henson voiced their famous TV characters, including Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog, respectively.
“When I did ‘The Muppet Movie’ – I know this is going to sound weird – I ‘talked’ to Miss Piggy and Kermit in method terms,” Frawley said. “I talked about what they were experiencing, what the scene was about and what they were feeling, and that came up through the Muppet performers. Jim Henson was underneath the camera, but he knew what I wanted. If I could touch him in terms of an emotional moment, it would translate into how he would manipulate Kermit.”
Frawley married his wife, Cynthia, in 1984. The two spent Frawley's later years leading a more private life in Indian Wells in the Coachella Valley, where Hollywood friends would occasionally come to visit. He celebrated his 80th birthday at Le Vallauris in Palm Spring without any stars in attendance.
Frawley is survived by his wife; a memorial service will be private.
Photo credit: M. Phillips / Staff / Getty