I was sad to hear of the recent passing of James Frawley, director of 28 of the 58 Monkees episodes. Born in 1936 in Houston Texas, he died of a heart attack on January 22 at the age of 82, in Indian Wells California. He is survived by his wife Cynthia. Frawley was an important figure in the history of The Monkees television series. I’ve frequently thought of him as a “fifth Monkee” and after writing the recaps of all the episodes, I came to appreciate how grand his contribution was to the creativity and spirit of The Monkees.
Frawley started out his career as an actor, trained by renowned teachers Strasberg and Meisner. He was a member of the Actors Studio and made his Broadway debut in a Tony-nominated production of Becket, which starred Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn. He also performed in New York with an improv group known as The Premise.
A year or so ago when I was on a 1960’s television kick, I stumbled across a couple of his supporting roles. Thanks to MeTV, I caught him in two episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: once as Lieutenant Manuera in “The Giuoco Piano Affair” and again as Max in “The Dippy Blonde Affair.” (Fellow cast member of “The Dippy Blonde Affair” Robert Strauss appeared in Monkees episode “Alias Micky Dolenz.”) Frawley’s performance in both episodes of U.N.C.L.E. was top-notch, though I was especially fond of his portrayal of the angry young crook, betrayed by his father-figure in “The Dippy Blonde Affair.” I also enjoyed seeing Frawley in The Outer Limits episodes, “The Inheritors Part I” and “Part II” in which he gave a moving performance as Private Robert Renaldo, a soldier who gets shot in the head with a meteorite fragment and consequently develops a beyond-genius level of intelligence.
Of course what I’m actually here to talk about is Frawley and The Monkees. A little history I learned on how Frawley got the job: Frawley shot and edited two short 16mm films that attracted the attention of Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson. They were further interested in him because of a his experience with comedy and improv and thought that he would be a good fit to direct The Monkees. Frawley helped create the spontaneous comedy and the unique way the performers related to the viewers. Before the show started filming, he worked with the four Monkees for a few months in their own improvisational workshop, where they developed the humor influenced by classic comedy teams such as the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. Like many directors of The Monkees episodes, Frawley had no previous television directing experience, and he gave the producers credit for allowing him room to experiment. The first episode he directed, “Royal Flush” (also the debut of the series) won an Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy Series, 1966-67. Not too shabby for a first-time director. He was also nominated in the 1967-68 season for the episode, “The Devil and Peter Tork.”
Frawley directed some of the strongest episodes in the run of the show. One first season favorite, “One Man Shy” in particular captured the essence of The Monkees for me. It’s a “slobs vs. snobs” story in which Peter Tork competes with rich guy Ronnie for the attention of Valerie, a young woman who Peter fears is out of his league. The Monkees friendship is undeniable and touching as the other three rally around an underdog of their own ranks. The story is good, but the Frawley-directed performances make it awesome. A particular example of Frawley-directed chaos is the party at the end of the episode. Mike, Micky, and Peter rush in with one of their patented, disguise-and-funny voice cons, each playing a different “employee” of Peter. They are both zany and transparent in their attempts to convince Valerie that Peter is rich and successful. Of course the performance of the guest cast is important as well, and Frawley got a perfect arrogant-but-insecure characterization of Ronnie from George Furth.
Another memorable Frawley-directed first season episode was “Captain Crocodile.” This classic Monkees vs. showbiz story pitted the boys against a maniacal children’s television host. There’s plenty of witty dialogue (Micky: “So this is the world of television.” Peter: “Funny, it doesn’t look like a vast wasteland”). But the truly outstanding moment is the parody sketch of television programs of the time, complete with comic book heroes, game shows, and a special-effects-enhanced weather report. Each Monkees steps up and nails their part with enthusiasm. This fantasy sequence is a riot, whether you remember the shows they’re imitating or not. It’s their comedic chemistry that makes it so much fun. Of course, the Monkees would be nothing without their foils, and Joey Forman’s performance as the paranoid, crazy-eyed Captain Crocodile is brilliant.
The Monkees was at the top of its game when it came to spoofing Hollywood genres. Frawley directed the Western-themed “It’s a Nice Place to Visit,” a dynamic second season opener. The episode starts off as a typical Davy-in-Love story, but really heats up when Mike, Micky, and Davy, try to pass themselves off as bandits in order to rescue Davy from the terrifying El Diablo (Peter Whitney). Their swaggering bluff as they pretend to be cold-blooded killers is top-notch. Frawley also gets a great performance from Dolenz in the climax of the story, as Micky becomes the traditional Western hero in white. (Mickey: “That’s right. I showed up for the showdown.”) Everything worked together to make “It’s a Nice Place to Visit” one of the funniest episodes: The production values, the sight gags, the dialogue, and of course the performances.
Frawley also performed to one degree or another in multiple episodes. He loaned his voice as Mr. Schneider, characters calling on the telephone, and other odd talking objects. He often pulled double duty as an actor and a director. You can catch a glimpse him as the Dragon of the Moat in “Fairy Tale,” a Yugoslavian guest in “Son of a Gypsy,” and Dr. Schwartzkov in “Monkees Marooned.” In a meta-moment, he played the frustrated director in “Monkees in Paris” (directed by Bob Rafelson.) The biggest chunk of camera time he had came from the episode “The Monkees Blow Their Minds,” directed by David Winters, in which he played dim sidekick, Rudy Bayshore. All of those performances were uncredited.
Of course, Frawley directed numerous projects after The Monkees. One that’s close to my heart is The Muppet Movie (for which he also made a cameo appearance). Jim Henson hired Frawley on the basis of his work on The Monkees and because of his experience as an actor. I always thought that the humor on The Muppets television show had certain similarities to The Monkees. It was also a weekly musical comedy that did showbiz parodies and had humor to appeal to both kids and adults. Going to see the Muppets on the big screen was a huge deal for me. I played the soundtrack as often as possible on my dad’s car stereo.
Frawley also directed films such as The Christian Licorice Store, Kid Blue, and The Big Bus. Most of his work was for television, including the pilot for Ally McBeal, episodes of That Girl, Chicago Hope, Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, American Gothic, Columbo, Magnum, P.I., and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. That’s just to name a few. He retired around 2009.
All of the above is my humble attempt to pay tribute to a talented director who knew how to get the best from his performers. I’d say he’s an unsung hero of The Monkees. When I watched the show as a kid, I never gave a thought to the artists behind the scenes. I tended to credit the actors themselves as just being naturally funny, but ultimately a director can make or break a film, television episode, etc. It’s the unique comedy and the lively performances that made The Monkees a joy to watch again and again. James Frawley will always have a place in my heart and mind.
Full list of episodes directed by Frawley.
Some Like It Lukewarm (1968)
Monkees Race Again (1968)
The Devil and Peter Tork (1968)
The Monkee’s Paw (1968)
Monstrous Monkee Mash (1968)
Fairy Tale (1968)
Monkees in Texas (1967)
Hitting the High Seas (1967)
The Card Carrying Red Shoes (1967)
Monkees Marooned (1967)
Hillbilly Honeymoon (1967)
The Picture Frame (1967)
A Nice Place to Visit (1967)
Monkees on the Line (1967)
Monkee Mother (1967)
Monkees Chow Mein (1967)
Captain Crocodile (1967)
Monkees in the Ring (1967)
Son of a Gypsy (1966)
Too Many Girls (1966)
Dance, Monkee, Dance (1966)
One Man Shy (1966)
Monkees à la Carte (1966)
Monkees in a Ghost Town (1966)
Success Story (1966)
Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers (1966)
Monkee See, Monkee Die (1966)
Royal Flush (1966)
by Bronwyn Knox
Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examined the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.