2019-01-24 16:41:48 UTC
'Monkees' TV director and Indian Wells resident James Frawley dies in desert he loved
Bruce Fessier, Palm Springs Desert Sun
Published 5:30 p.m. PT Jan. 23, 2019 | Updated 7:44 p.m. PT Jan. 23, 2019
James Frawley, a director of scores of TV and film projects – from “The Monkees” to “The Muppet Movie” – died Tuesday at his home in Indian Wells, where he had found tranquility outside of the Hollywood spotlight.
He was 82. His wife, Cynthia Frawley, said he fell and had a heart attack. But he hadn’t told friends he had a serious lung condition after many years of smoking cigarettes.
Turner Classic Movies described Frawley as “a prolific director for television for over four decades … behind the camera for countless series.” His email name was derived from the saying he became famous for in Hollywood, “Cut, print, yes!”
Frawley started his career as an actor, making his Broadway debut with Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn in the Tony-nominated “Becket” followed by “Anyone Can Whistle” with Angela Lansbury, both in 1960. He also had a successful career as a producer, from the critically acclaimed “The Big Easy” TV series of the late 1990s to “Judging Amy” from 2002 to 2005.
But Frawley made his biggest mark as the director of a groundbreaking TV series intended to exploit Beatlemania with a little Marx Bros.-type spontaneous comedy. The top pop-rock songwriters in America were asked to write music for the show and Bobby Hart and Tommy Boyce came up with the theme song, starting with the lyrics, “Here we come, walking down the street… Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!”
Frawley won an Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy for the debut season of “The Monkees” and the show won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. Frawley also was nominated as outstanding director for its second season.
Frawley told The Desert Sun he got the job because he had been performing with an improv group in New York, called The Premise, featuring “Get Smart” co-creator Buck Henry and actor George Segal. They had become friends with the influential Lenny Bruce, but Frawley also was taking classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse under director Sydney Pollack and making small, independent short films. That led to a 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.”
It was the late ‘60s and young, groundbreaking show biz people from Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” to Rafelson and his close friends, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, used to come to the desert and experiment with psychedelics, such as magic mushrooms. Frawley said he “nibbled on a few of those in my day.”
He brought that sense of multi-dimensional freedom to “The Monkees.” Two singing actors, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, and two musicians Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, portrayed a rock band starring in their own television 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.”
While directing 32 episodes of “The Monkees,” he also shot five episodes of “That Girl,” including one classic episode featuring a guest appearance by Ethel Merman as herself. Marlo Thomas, now best known as a spokesperson for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis and the daughter of comic Danny Thomas, was the star. It started a string of TV shows in which he worked with actresses playing strong lead characters.
In 2011, Frawley was honored by the Palm Springs Women in Film and Television for his contributions while working with women in film and TV.
“Women like Calista Flockhart in ‘Ally McBeal,’ Tyne Daly in ‘Cagney and Lacey,’ and Amy Brenneman in ‘Judging Amy,’” Frawley said. “It came very naturally to me. I understand women, I think. I understand their challenges, I understand their problems. I was an early feminist and I encouraged young female directors. I hired them on ‘Judging Amy.’”
Frawley became known as “a pilots director” and said, “at a certain point, I had a very lucky run doing 10 pilots in a row that got on the air."
His best-known feature film was 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” with 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.
Frawley said he actually used the training he received from Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg and fellow “method acting” coach Sanford Meisner to direct the animated film.
“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.”
Possibly his favorite feature film was a 1972 indie with a cast of of “crazos,” as Frawley called them, including Hopper, Warren Oates, Peter Boyle, Ben Johnson and Ralph Waite. Actor Ted Markland, who hosted Timothy Leary’s LSD-fueled wedding in the high desert, visited the set in Mexico and Frawley said Waite was one of the few that didn’t ingest hallucinogenics because he was in the throes of alcoholism.
“I’m a follower of Baba Ram Dass,” Frawley said. “He and Leary went to school together – in more ways than one."
Frawley gave a screening of “Kid Blue” at the Rancho Mirage Public Library, and Waite was in the audience and reminisced with Frawley afterwards.
"Dennis Hopper was challenging, but always in a good way," Frawley said. "I have a reputation as a director who works well with problem actors, and I never considered the actors I worked with problems. They were difficult and demanding because they wanted to do great work.”
Frawley married his wife, Cynthia, in 1984, and they bought a home in Old Las Palmas, near houses formerly occupied by actress Elizabeth Taylor and director George Cukor. He said they were attracted by “the stars, the air, the silence, and that kind of magic.” When television began to change with the advent of reality TV and more domineering producers in the 2000s, the Frawleys decided to return, this time to Indian Wells.
Frawley gave a master class for the Coachella Valley Repertory, and he and Cynthia made a short film for the Indian Wells Historical Society interviewing Lucie Arnaz on Desi Arnaz’s involvement with the city of Indian Wells. They also donated to ACT For MS at a holiday-themed auction by purchasing a Christmas tree with a real, antique typewriter in the middle of it.
But the Frawleys cut many of their show biz ties to live a more private life in Indian Wells. Hollywood friends would occasionally come to visit, but Frawley celebrated his 80th birthday at Le Vallauris in Palm Springs without any stars in attendance.
“Part of the reason Cynthia and I moved to this desert is because we both respect the power of these mountains, the majesty of the sky,” Frawley once said. “It’s very special. So, when it came time for us to decide where the last chapter would be written, this was the natural answer.”
Frawley is survived by his wife and, in keeping with their way of life, a memorial service will be private.