As reported by Palm Springs-area news organization Desert Sun, prolific director James Frawley—the man behind The Muppet Movie and dozens of episodes of The Monkees—has died. His wife, Cynthia Frawley, told Desert Sun that he recently fell and had a heart attack, but she says he also had a “serious lung condition” from years of smoking cigarettes that he hadn’t told anyone about. Frawley was 82.
Born in Texas in 1936, Frawley actually started his show business career as an actor, appearing alongside Laurence Olivier on Broadway in Becket in 1960 and then popping up in a few small roles over the next few years. At some point, while performing with an improv group in New York that also included Get Smart co-creator Buck Henry and actor George Segal (now on The Goldbergs), Frawley met comedian Lenny Bruce, who introduced him to a pair of producers named Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson who were developing a show that would capitalize on the popularity of British rock bands like The Beatles.
That show was The Monkees, and since Frawley had experience working with a comedy group and had been an acting teacher, the producers believed he’d be able to wrangle in the two singing actors and two musicians—Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork—who had been hired to portray the semi-fake band. Frawley got along with the group and appreciated the slapstick comedy that the show was going for, and he went on to direct half of the show’s 58 episodes. He even won an Emmy for the 1967 episode “Royal Flush,” establishing him as a go-to director for TV comedies.
Frawley went on to direct episodes of That Girl, Paper Moon, Columbo, and (in more recent years) Law & Order, Melrose Place, Judging Amy and Grey’s Anatomy. After his star-making work on The Monkees, though, Frawley was also approached to direct a handful of feature films, most famously The Muppet Movie in 1979. Frawley told Desert Sun that he took a “method” approach to directing the puppet movie, saying he would talk to Miss Piggy and Kermit in between takes about what they were feeling and experiencing as if they were the actual actors and not Frank Oz and Jim Henson.
Later on, after temporarily returning to being an acting teacher, Frawley and his wife Cynthia cut their Hollywood ties and moved out to the California desert to live a “more private life.”