As reported by The Washington Post, actor and musician Peter Tork—best known as the goofy, fun-loving bass player for The Monkees—has died. Tork’s sister, Anne Thorkelson, confirmed his death but did not give a specific cause, though The Washington Post notes that he was diagnosed with a rare from of cancer in 2009. Tork was 77.
Tork was born in Washington, DC in 1942, though some Monkees promotional material fudged that to 1944 (possibly to hide the fact that he was the oldest member of the group). He learned how to play the piano as a young boy and quickly picked up multiple other instruments, taking his musical talents to New York in the early ‘60s where he joined up with the Greenwich Village folk scene. There, he developed what he called a “dummy” persona, with The Washington Post saying he would offer a “confused smile whenever his stage banter fell flat.” That shtick presumably came as a boon when he was asked to audition for an upcoming TV show about a group of musicians—a blatant and unapologetic attempt to cash in on the success of the Beatles movies—with an ad in Variety reportedly requesting “4 insane boys, ages 17-21.”
That show was The Monkees, and under the guidance of director and acting teacher James Frawley (who went on to direct The Muppet Movie), the team of actors and musicians that had been assembled by the network—including Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, and Tork—were able to gel into a proper slapstick comedy troupe. Tork acted as the Ringo Starr of the group, a.k.a. “the funny one,” playing up the dummy persona how used onstage. The show was a reasonably big hit, with Frawley winning an Emmy and the group becoming legitimate pop stars… though just how “legitimate” they were was a point of contention for Tork in particular.
As it turned out, the original batch of Monkees music was actually written and performed by other musicians, which frustrated Tork since he had actually studied music and knew how to play multiple instruments. After two albums of pre-made songs for the pre-made band, The Monkees were able to take control of their own careers and began writing and performing their own music, even going on tour and—shocker of all shockers—playing their own instruments (which had previously not been allowed). Given his own musical aspirations, Tork eventually drifted away from the rest of the group and tried to develop his own solo career, but nothing every really took off for him like The Monkees did.
In his time apart, though, Tork eventually came to realize how much he enjoyed playing with The Monkees, saying in interviews that there was a “magic” to the band despite the fact that it was assembled by a TV show. He also regularly reunited with the group—sans Nesmith, who mostly retired after inheriting his mother’s Liquid Paper fortune—for new tours. After Davy Jones’ death in 2012, Nesmith rejoined the surviving Monkees for a tour and new album.
Tork is survived by his wife, daughters, and son.