Carole Hart, Producer and Writer of Children’s TV, Dies at 74
Posted January 11, 2018 7:44 p.m. EST
Carole Hart, a writer and television producer who was part of the startup of “Sesame Street” before having an instrumental role in Marlo Thomas’ groundbreaking children’s project, “Free to Be ... You and Me,” died Friday in Manhattan. She was 74.
Her sister Laura Englander said the cause was cancer.
In addition to programs for children, Hart was also interested in spirituality and alternative medicine, both in her filmmaking and in her own life.
On learning she had cancer in 1994, she was given a discouraging prognosis, but an Indian healing ceremony left her cancer free for the next two decades, she said.
In 2009, the same interest that took her to that ceremony led her to make “For the Next 7 Generations,” a documentary about 13 women, all grandmothers, from indigenous peoples who came together to promote planetary healing.
The best known of Hart’s projects was “Free to Be … You and Me,” which started as a record and book in 1972 and, fueled by their runaway success, was turned into an ABC television special in 1974. Hart was involved with all phases of the project.
The album and TV special featured Thomas, a familiar star from her ABC series “That Girl,” and other celebrities in songs and skits that offered children alternatives to the entrenched roles society urged upon them. It was all right for a girl to want to be an astronaut, “Free to Be” said, or for a boy to want a doll.
“I interviewed a lot of good people to co-produce ‘Free to Be’ with me,” Thomas said by email, “but Carole instantly understood that we could change the world one 5-year-old at a time. It was love at first sight.”
Carole Ruth Strickler was born on April 30, 1943, in Paterson, New Jersey. Her father, Abraham, was an accountant; her mother, the former Florence Schatzberg, was a homemaker.
She graduated from Barnard College with a degree in philosophy. Not long afterward, she and her husband, Bruce Hart, whom she had married in 1963 while still in college, attended a party in New York at which they ended up talking to a producer who was working on a new TV show for children.
“It didn’t have a title,” Hart said in a 2013 interview. “All they knew is that they wanted to teach skills like reading and writing and spatial relations.”
The producer asked her and her husband, a budding comedy writer and lyricist, to come up with sample material for the show, which would eventually be named “Sesame Street” and make its debut in 1969.
“We wrote a few pieces, and he said ‘perfect’ and hired us,” she said.
Bruce Hart was credited with writing the lyrics for the “Sesame Street” theme song, and Carole Hart had a writing credit on an early episode whose guest stars included Burt Lancaster and James Earl Jones.
But the two stayed with “Sesame Street” only a short time, moving on to other projects, including a 1972 Harry Reasoner documentary on pets, which they wrote. By then, they were also working on “Free to Be,” with Bruce Hart writing lyrics and Carole Hart producing.
Thomas and Carole Hart initially had trouble selling a record company on their ideas. “All the big labels turned it down,” Hart said.
A small label, Bell, eventually bit, and the ensuing album earned a Grammy nomination for best recording for children. The TV special, too, was a hit, although the network had resisted some of the content. One number that ABC wanted to take out, Hart said, featured former professional football player Rosey Grier singing “It’s All Right to Cry.”
“They wanted us to take that out because they thought we would be creating a bunch of sissies and homosexuals, that it was encouraging that,” Hart said. “We refused.”
The program won an Emmy for outstanding children’s special.
In the 2013 interview, Hart talked about the coincidences in her life that she said were not really coincidences at all.
“What I realize now is that there were always these synchronicities,” she said, adding, “Things would come together that would seem to be coincidences that would take us to certain places.” A prime example came in the 1980s. She, Thomas and another producer, Kathie Berlin, had formed a production company and were looking for projects. Debby Franke Ogg brought them her story: She had been given a Stage 4 lymphoma diagnosis, she said, and had beaten the disease with alternative therapies.
“Carole Hart was an activist,” Ogg said by email. “By that I mean she was able to see the impossible as possible, and was dedicated to showing people through story, word and image a direction to ponder.”
Hart became the point person for turning Ogg’s story into a TV movie, with Bruce Hart writing the script. Again she met resistance: The legal department at CBS, which was to broadcast the film, was concerned that the movie would cause others to forgo mainstream cancer treatments. But after delays, revisions and a push by Thomas, the movie, “Leap of Faith,” which starred Anne Archer and Sam Neill, was broadcast in October 1988.
Six years later Hart had her own reason to look into alternative healing when she received her cancer diagnosis. She availed herself of some standard medical treatments, her sister said, but also pursued other paths, including a 13-hour Native American healing ceremony.
“When I emerged from that tepee,” Hart said, “I felt a profound change in my body, like every one of my cells had been realigned. I don’t know how else to describe it. I felt whole in a way I had never felt in my life.”
The cancer receded over the next year, she said, and she was eventually certified cancer free.
Only two or three years ago did the disease reappear, Englander said.
Hart’s other projects included “Hot Hero Sandwich,” a TV series, aimed at teenagers, that she created with her husband in 1979, and “Sooner or Later,” a 1979 TV movie she wrote with Bruce Hart that starred the heartthrob singer Rex Smith.
Bruce Hart died in 2006. In addition to Englander, Hart, who died at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, is survived by another sister, Joyce Strickler. She lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
At her death Hart was still exploring ways to expand on entrenched lines of thought as a producer of “Shirah of Bethlehem,” an animated musical that seeks to add a female figure to the male-heavy imagery surrounding Christmas.
As the project’s website says, “This girl-empowered take on the traditional Christmas story asks, ‘What if the one who guided the shepherds to the manger was a girl?'”