Despite being a puppet show for kids, Sesame Street has always done its best to push boundaries in the pursuit of children's education. One of the earliest examples of this was when they attempted to teach kids about death after the passing of Will Lee, the actor who portrayed Mr. Hooper.
A veteran actor throughout the 1930s and '40s, Will Lee was among the blacklisted actors during the McCarthy Era. His acting career made a small resurgence in the 1960s, but he mostly made his living by teaching. (Among his most famous students was James Earl Jones, who later repaid the favor by appearing on the debut episode of Sesame Street.) Lee appeared as Mr. Hooper in the first episode of Sesame Street in 1969, and he remained a core member of the cast until his death in 1982.
Since most children's programs don't last as long as Sesame Street, it's rare that a show would have to deal with the death of a cast member. The producers considered explaining his absence with a retirement to Florida, but opted to take the challenge of honoring Lee's death by turning it into an educational experience.
The 1,839th episode of Sesame Street aired on Thanksgiving Day, 1983. The reasoning behind the date was because families were more likely to be together to help the kids in the audience in case they had questions or needed emotional support.
Balancing out the "Street Scenes" were the usual Sesame Street songs and cartoons to keep the air from becoming too serious or too alien to the kids. Among the other content seen in this episode was a Sesame Street pageant about feelings, Bert and Ernie at the movies, a cartoon about a "jive" #5, a song by Grover and Madeline Kahn, a "Muppet/kid moment" with Bert and everyone's favorite Sesame kid John-John, and more.
Below, you'll see the rest of the episode, in which Sesame Street's writers, producers, actors, and puppeteers brilliantly construct their lesson in a tender and patient way, as well as offer a proper farewell to Will Lee and Mr. Hooper.
Forgetful Jones and Bertram — er, Gordon — begin our episode with a cute discussion about the simple things that can make you happy. It will be an important thing to keep in mind by the end of the hour.
Big Bird is walking around with his head between his legs. Why is he doing it. "Just because." Which is a good enough reason for a lot of things.
Big Bird overhears all the grownups having a conversation, which starts out confusing, but ends up being shown in a way he can understand. That is, until the conversation turns to politics.
In the most famous scene from the episode, the adults reveal to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper has died, and he's not coming back. According to the actors, all of their tears were real. This scene was released on the Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days retrospective DVD.
Big Bird honors Mr. Hooper by hanging his picture (actually drawn by Big Bird's performer Caroll Spinney) over his nest, where it still hangs today. He's also introduced to a new baby, thus completing the circle of life and death according to Sesame Street.