Happy Birthday, Richard Hunt! In honor of this special day, here’s a new excerpt from Hunt’s biography, about his first major Muppet character, the “exquisitely sensitive” construction worker Sully on Sesame Street.
The ironic story of Hunt’s first major Muppet character has become legend – in large part because Hunt loved to tell it. Hunt couldn’t wait to get a character of his own. Yet when he finally got a part, to his great disappointment the role of construction worker Sully was not a speaking part! “That was an amazing thing, to see Richard not talk,” Hunt joked years later. “But it happened.” Hunt claimed that Sully was designed to be silent because the show was hesitant to elevate Hunt to a speaking performer, as his change in status would necessitate a raise. “Initially the reason he didn’t talk is because they wouldn’t pay me,” Hunt said. “They said, ‘You can’t talk cause it costs us extra money.’ So I didn’t.”
Rather than being deterred, Hunt was determined to make the most of what he had been given, to find the silver lining of the limitation. “I developed this character who is quite sensitive,” Hunt recalled. The puppet itself helped with that, expertly built by Don Sahlin to show feeling even without talking. “This puppet had a twist in its mouth and an ability just to look and say a thousand words,” said Hunt, who decided to model his silent character after the silent film stars, maximizing facial and physical expression. Certainly slapstick was already in the Muppet repertoire. “It was very Chaplinesque,” Hunt recalled.
Jerry Nelson, playing Sully’s fellow hard-hat Biff, also helped Hunt make the most of the role. In their first regular pairing, Hunt and Nelson played off each other beautifully: Biff and Sully are a duo on a par with Bert and Ernie, another Odd Couple, Biff round and garrulous while Sully is gangly and reserved. The running gag is that Biff never lets Sully get a word in. Yet as Biff prattles on, Sully subtly steals the audience’s attention, revealing hidden character depths. For example, as Biff lectures Sully that he ought to express his anger, Biff doesn’t notice as Sully nods, grimaces, shakes his fist and even bangs his (thankfully hard-hatted) head against the wall. Sully’s nonverbal communication is so advanced, he even speaks American Sign Language with deaf Sesame resident Linda (Linda Bove) – no small feat given that the puppet can only move one arm and none of its fingers. This communication is all the more extraordinary as the puppet’s bushy eyebrows cover his eyes, so they, too, can’t be used for expression.
Hunt likened the pair to comedy couple George Burns and Gracie Allen: “It was based on Burns and Allen – ‘Yeah, hey, Sully, know what I mean? Huh, huh?’” But Hunt also found inspiration closer to home. “They were based on a couple of buddies of mine I grew up with,” Hunt recalled. “Local bar in New Jersey where we would hang out. Charlie was Biff, always talking. And Harvey was this tall guy who never said a word. He’d just stand there, Biff going ‘Yeah, me and Harvey were gonna dididididduh. Right, Harvey?’ And Harvey wouldn’t say anything, but there was a lot going on in his head.”
As Hunt developed the character, he came to realize that Sully had the potential to show an “enormous sensitivity” that many kids might relate to – and which they didn’t often see reflected on television. “That was a great character because there are lots of little kids like that, who don’t talk, who are shy,” said Hunt. “It was important for kids who didn’t talk to have someone to identify with.” Hunt was especially proud of one such sketch he came up with. “There’s a bit that I once wrote where they were pushing in a piano and Biff forgot the receipt and he said, ‘Sully, I’ll go over and get it, you wait here.’ He goes out and Sully plays a Chopin etude. Biff walks in saying, ‘Whuddaya doing, playin Chopsticks, heh-heh-heh? Sully, you’re too much.’ Just this enormous sensitivity that no one was aware of.” Hunt emphasized, however, that this sensitivity was integral to not just him but all of the Muppets. “Frank certainly brought that through in Grover and Jim through Kermit,” said Hunt. “There was this sensitivity that drew people, even unconsciously.”
As Sesame’s fortunes rose, Sully’s gag order was lifted. “The year after, they said, ‘Okay, Sully can talk this year. We have more money.’” But by then, Hunt was pleased with the character as is. “I said, ‘No, Sully doesn’t talk.’”