Hey, Hey, It’s the Monkees: Behind the Scenes Stories

It was a wacky sitcom riding on the coattails of the Beatles, and no one would have guessed that decades after it aired on NBC, people would still be talking about The Monkees. Starring Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith, the lighthearted high jinks mixed with chart-topping tunes made the show The Monkees so loveable.

The Monkees / The Monkees / The Monkees / The Monkees.
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Although it only lasted for two seasons, the series gained a new generation of fans through rerun airings on MTV and Nickelodeon. Although their new fans were not part of the “young generation” that the Monkees sang about in the opening credits, they still made everyone’s hearts soar. Queue up some of their hit tunes and find out all the behind-the-scenes facts about The Monkees.

The Show’s Pilot Set a Record

The Monkees premiered in 1966 on NBC, but it didn’t get off to a great start. The show set a new record for the lowest-rated pilot at the time. However, that didn’t stop these shaggy-haired boys from making their way onto our screens. Producers had to fix the pilot to bring up the ratings.

A photo of The Monkees on set.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After going through the original pilot, it was re-edited to win over test audiences. One significant change was adding Davy Jones and Michael Nesmith’s audition footage to the end of the episode. Davy made everyone laugh when he was asked about his height. He said, “I’m 5’3” in boots.”

Micky Wore Two Different Shoes to His Audition

It might not have been included in an episode like Davy and Mike’s auditions, but Micky Dolenz showed up wearing two different shoes to his audition. He charmed the producers as he dodged questions about his former child star days on the series Circus Boy, but he was incredibly nervous.

A photo of the casting call.
Source: Reddit

Despite having prior experience as an actor, Micky was so worried about his audition and his mismatched shoes, but it made the producers love him. Peter Tork joked about his shaggy hair and told producers that he drove his old car across the country to get to California for the audition.

Some Assembly Required

Some bands start in garages or in a parent’s basement, but The Monkees were formed at Raybert Productions. Producers Bob Rafelson and Burt Schneider had a deal with Screen Gems to develop a sitcom about a pop-rock band inspired by the Beatles’ movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

A photo of The Monkees on set.
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They wanted to recreate the Beatles’ success, and their idea formed The Monkees. The comedic sitcom mixed humor and music, which sparked the interest of NBC. Rafelson and Schneider enlisted Colgems Records executive Don Kirschner to oversee the musical aspects of the show. The only thing they were missing was a band.

Calling All “Insane Boys”

When creating the band, Rafelson and Schneider knew exactly what kind of guys they wanted. They put out an ad with plenty of hippie-ish references in Variety to attract the generation’s youths. The ad said they were looking for “four insane boys, age 17-21. The Ben Frank’s-types who have courage to work.”

Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith on the television show set.
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Ben Frank’s was a popular restaurant on the Sunset Strip where “mods mused over burgers and fries,” according to the book Monkee Business: The Revolutionary Made-for-TV Band. Davy called Ben Frank’s people “long-haired weirdos.” The ad also said, “Must come down for interview,” which was Rafelson’s sly reference to being high.

Not the First Choice

During the height of their popularity, The Monkees were criticized for being a non-organically created rock band. However, they were not Rafelson and Schneider’s initial choice. In the mid-‘60s, The Lovin’ Spoonful became one of the most famous rock bands in America.

A photo of The Monkees performing.
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With hits like “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Daydream,” and “Summer in the City,” Rafelson and Schneider approached them to star in the silly sitcom, but they turned down the offer. Instead, the producers created The Monkees. It will take many auditions to find the right guys for the band.

Not Today, Charlie Manson

It took precisely 437 auditions to find who they were looking for. Some of the notable names that tried out were folk singer Stephen Stills, Danny Hutton (just before he joined Three Dog Night), and Paul Williams, who went on to act in Smokey and the Bandit and write award-winning songs.

A portrait of Charles Manson.
Charles Manson. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Contrary to the rumors, cult leader Charles Manson did not audition. Micky takes credit for starting the rumor. He said, “I just made a joke, ‘Everybody auditioned for The Monkees, Stephen Stills, Paul Williams, and Charlie Manson’ and everybody took it as gospel.”

Only One Monkee Played on the First Album

The Monkees always had to defend themselves against critics claiming they didn’t actually play the instruments for the hit songs. They were just as unhappy about the situation because they struggled to get creative control due to their limited roles in the recording studio.

A headshot of Peter Tork on the set of the television show.
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All four contributed lead vocals, but Peter was the only one actually playing his guitar for the song “Papa Gene’s Blues” on their first album. Mike composed and produced some of the songs from the beginning and insisted that Peter was on the record.

Too Much Foul Language

The show got in trouble early on for using too much foul language. In the Season 1 episode “The Devil and Peter Tork,” Peter sells his soul to the devil, Mr. Zero, in exchange for the ability to play the harp. The episode was almost banned from TV.

The Monkees in a promo shot for the show.
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The show used the word “H*ll,” causing issues with TV censors. The Monkees poked fun by discussing how scary the idea of H*ll is, with the word bleeped out. In the scene, Micky said, “You know what’s even scarier? You can’t say ‘H*ll’ on television.”

Outselling the Best of the Best

It might be hard to believe but during the year of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Between the Buttons, and Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Monkees outsold both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined. It might have been because they had a hit TV show.

A studio portrait of The Monkees.
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By the end of ’66, The Beatles stopped touring, giving space for other bands to succeed. The Monkees had released “Last Train to Clarksville,” and it was a hit. It’s pretty impressive for a band who only contributed their voices for their first few albums.

Mike Nesmith and The Beatles

Which of these things are not like the other: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger Keith Richards, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan, and Mike Nesmith of The Monkees? In 1967, the Texas guitarist joined these British music legends in the recording studio.

Mike Nesmith and John Lennon at the recording studio.
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He attended the celebrity-filled recording session for the Sgt. Pepper song, “A Day in the Life.” Mike showed up for a split second in the promotional clip. It is one of those moments that you’ll miss him if you blink, but he was definitely there.

“Monkeemania” Was Staged

In Season 2, the Monkees jet off to Paris in an episode that shows them being mobbed by French fans. It was a play on Beatlemania because the band would be mobbed by screaming fans wherever they went. While it might have looked real, it was entirely staged.

A photo of The Monkees during the show.
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French audiences hadn’t caught on to the show, or it wasn’t airing in France yet, so Rafelson had to get creative with the screaming girls. In “Monkees in Paris,” the band pretended to run from a mob of their non-existent French fans.

Monkees Behind the Camera

Towards the end of the second and final season, Peter and Micky got the opportunity to direct an episode. Tork directed “The Monkees Mind Their Manor,” using his full name in the credits, Peter H. Torkelson. The episode aired in February 1968.

A photo of The Monkees behind the scenes.
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Micky then ran the episode titled “Mijacogeo” (sometimes known as “The Frodis Caper”), which ended up being the series finale. After just two seasons, the Monkees would be canceled later that year because NBC and the band felt the series had run its course, and its episodes had become repetitive.

The Finale Featured Two Beatles Songs

In the Micky-directed episode, it opens with the Beatles’ track “Good Morning Good Morning.” Micky revealed that it was a big moment because the Beatles never let their songs play on another show. It is still not easy to get a Beatles song for a TV series.

Michael Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork pose for a picture.
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Micky’s song choice was special because he heard an early version of the track during a visit to the Beatles’ studio at Abbey Road. In addition, Davy can be heard singing “Hello, Goodbye” to himself twice during the episode. You have to listen closely because he isn’t singing loudly.

Frank Zappa Made an Appearance

As The Monkees was winding down, Mike was trying to show the rock community that he wasn’t just a sitcom actor. He achieved this by inviting The Mothers of Invention frontman Frank Zappa on the show. He also conducted a strange interview where they switched roles.

A picture of Frank Zappa’s appearance in the show.
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Switching roles with Zappa allowed Mike to refer to The Monkees’ music as “banal and insipid.” It was bizarre to see Zappa in a Monkees double-button blue shirt and Mike’s signature green hat, and Mike wearing a Zappa-esque wig and fake nose that kept falling off.

The Liberace Had an Uncredited Cameo

The flamboyant was never known for fading into a crowd. He gave a flashy performance when he showed up in a Season 2 episode of The Monkees. However, viewers didn’t expect him to take a golden sledgehammer to his piano.

A portrait of Liberace.
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Liberace’s pianist Liberace shocking act inspired Frank Zappa to use the same golden sledgehammer to destroy a car when he appeared on the show. Mike appeared in both bits, and we wonder if he had something to do with them using the sledgehammer. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence.

Micky Dolenz’s Song Was Too Offensive

Micky’s first song for The Monkees was titled “Randy Scouse Git.” It appeared on the band’s third album, Headquarters. The song was inspired by Micky’s time in England in 1967 and revolved around his time with the Beatles, Samantha (his eventual wife), the parties, and everything. The song was great, but the title was offensive.

The Monkees sing in a still from the show.
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To everyone on this side of the pond, the song’s title seems tame. However, in Britain, it directly translates to “Horny, Liverpudlian jerk,” which was deemed inappropriate in England, so Micky chose an alternative title. The song still made it to number two on the British charts.

Davy Jones Never Heard of the Beatles

Davy Jones should have known who the Beatles were as the only Brit of the group, but he might have been living under a rock. Before The Monkees, the English tambourine player had his first encounter with the Beatles. They would change his life forever.

A portrait of Davy Jones.
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Davy was a cast member of the Broadway musical Oliver and performed on the same historical episode of the Ed Sullivan Show featuring the Beatles. At 19, he was oblivious to who John, Paul, George, and Ringo were and had never listened to their music.

Borrowed Set Pieces

The Screen Gems studios where The Monkees was filmed was previously home to three comedy legends. The Three Stooges used to film in the same place, and they left a lot of props and set pieces behind. When The Monkees started using the studio, they repurposed the props.

A photo of The Monkees in a still from the show.
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Sets and props from the comedy trio’s short movies were reused for the sitcom, including a pair of footie pajamas worn by Curly. They had a bunny on them and were later handed down for Peter to wear in an episode.

Improv Was Encouraged

Before The Monkees got their script for the first episode, the four boys were sent to six weeks of improv training camp. Director James Frawley thought it would help them with their acting and make them more comfortable on set.

A still from the show.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The lessons were helpful because they would often goof around while the cameras were still rolling. Many of their improvised jokes made it into the show, and the directors encouraged them to use more improv because it made the show funnier.

Goodbye Laugh Track

In many sitcoms around the time of The Monkees, laugh tracks were used all the time. However, the band found it annoying when they heard it during the first season, and they pushed to ditch the cheesy, fake laughter. During Season 2, they no longer used the laugh track.

An image of an audience laughing.
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Many sitcoms continued to use laugh tracks until the mid-2000s. Comedy sitcoms like The Office and Modern Family were some of the first hit shows to stop using laugh tracks and let the jokes be funny on their own. The Monkees paved the way for that.

The Big, Black Box

As four rowdy young men, Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike would often wander off set, making it difficult to find them for their scenes. The studio came up with the idea to repurpose an old meat locker into an area for the band to hang out between takes.

An image of Micky, Davy, Peter, and Mike sitting in the dark.
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They might have thought it was a hang-out spot, but it was really just a way to wrangle the boys into one place. The box even had a light system with a color assigned to each actor. When their color lit up, it meant they were being called to set.

Left to Their Own Devices

The Monkees put their experiences in the black box in art. In 1968, the boys were left to their own devices, and with the help of Jack Nicolson, they made an experimental movie titled Head. The strange film was filled with surrealism, symbolism, and wackiness.

A photo of The Monkees filming a flying sequence.
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The film includes a bizarre sequence where Micky, Peter, and the rest of the band become trapped in a black box. It was a metaphor for The Monkees because they couldn’t leave the box or a hotel room when they were on tour.

They Wanted a Third Season

During its two-season, 58-episode run, The Monkees started to recycle old scripts they had previously discarded. It frustrated the band because they wanted to do something new and fresh, but it felt like the show had run its course.

A still from the television show.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The band wanted to come back for a third season, but with a completely revamped concept. Some ideas discussed were to have an hour-long variety show or a weekly live music broadcast. However, the show got canceled instead. They eventually did a one-off variety special in 1969.

Paging Mr. Bob Dobalina

When the band finally got some creative freedom with their music in 1967, they released the album Headquarters. It included the song “Zilch,” a studio experiment involving each Monkee saying random phrases that were repeated and layered. It was like a pre-rap-era rap song.

A photo of the album cover.
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When Peter recorded his line, he said, “Mr. Dobalina, Mr. Bob Dobalina.” He thought of it because an associate of the band heard this over a speaker in the airport. The line was so ridiculous but genius that Del Tha Funkee Homosapien sampled it for his 1991 hit “Mistadobalina.”

Hey, Hey, It’s the Fill-In Monkees

Reruns of The Monkees in the early ‘70s helped push their 1976 greatest hits album to have some success. Davy and Micky thought it would be a good idea to do a reunion tour, but Peter and Mike didn’t want to join. Instead, they recruited some fill-ins.

The Monkees in a publicity still.
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They asked Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote, produced, and performed on many of The Monkees’ early songs, to join them for the reunion tour. Unfortunately, the new group couldn’t legally use the band’s real name. Instead, they recorded an album and hit the road using all their last names as the new name for the band.

They Fought With the Musical Director

Don Kirschner was initially brought in as the musical director for The Monkees TV series. He was known in the industry as “the man with the golden ear.” However, the group disagreed with him from day one when he refused to give them any creative freedom.

A photo of The Monkees.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Mike got so angry during one heated argument with Kirschner that he punched his fist through a wall next to Kirschner’s head. He said, “That could have been your face.” Eventually, Kirschner was fired for releasing a single without the production company’s authorization.

Banned From the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Monkees took a lot of heat for not forming organically, which hurt them in some ways. Co-founder of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jahn Wenner, has refused to include The Monkeys because “they were hired as actors, not musicians.”

A portrait of The Monkees behind the scenes.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Although they achieved great things with their music and had critical acclaim advocating on their behalf, Wenner refused to change his decision. Pete said Wenner’s actions were an abuse of power, and we have to agree because they deserved a spot.

Davy Jones Was Almost Drafted

Between the first and second seasons of The Monkees, Davy was almost drafted by the US Army to serve in the Vietnam War. He didn’t want to go and leave the show behind, so he took drastic measures to make himself unfit for the army.

A portrait of Davy Jones.
Davy Jones. Source: Moviestillsdb.com/ Copyright: Sony Pictures Television

Davy fasted for three weeks to drop enough weight so that he wouldn’t be drafted. The draft board also considered that he was the sole provider for his family, so they needed him home to make money. Luckily, his plan worked, and he didn’t have to join the army.

Mike Nesmith Brought His Laundry to the Audition

One of the reasons Mike stood out to producers during auditioning was because he brought his laundry with him. They were baffled when the Texas native showed up for the interview with his large bag in tow like it was nothing out of the ordinary.

A portrait of Mike Nesmith.
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He was also wearing his signature green wool hat even though it was the middle of a hot California summer. Mike also told a story about a time he flipped a general’s airplane while in the Air Force. All of this combined sealed the deal for the producers.

The Series Won Two Emmys

It might be hard to take the goofy sitcom seriously. Still, those hilarious plots helped earn the show a few Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy in 1967. It was considered somewhat of an upset.

A portrait of The Monkees holding their two Emmy Awards.
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In the Comedy Series category, people were surprised The Monkees won because it was up against long-time favorites like The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart, and Hogan’s Heroes. The director was nominated for the same award in 1968 but sadly didn’t win again.

The Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees

After Kirschner was fired, the Monkees were finally free to record their own music with producer Chip Douglas. After recording their fourth studio album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., which featured a greater extent of session musicians, they dropped Douglas to produce their own music.

Mickey Dolenz and Mike Nesmith on the set of the television show.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For the Monkees’ fifth album, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, they made some great hits like “Daydream Believer,” “Dream World,” and “I’ll Be Back Up on My Feet.” However, this was their last album as a group because they decided to go their separate ways.

Peter Tork Was the First to Go

After the show’s cancellation and the commercial flop of the film Head in 1968, Peter was the first to leave the band, claiming exhaustion. The trio of Micky, Davy, and Mike continued to record a few more albums and toured until Mike’s exit in 1971.

A portrait of Peter Tork.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

While Mike wanted to focus on a solo project, Micky and Davy recorded one last album called Changes. This was the last album before they decided it was time to do their own things too. However, it wasn’t the last time they would perform together.

The “M” Stood for “Monkees”

In 1985, concert promoter David Fishaf approached Peter to reunite the Monkees for a 20th-anniversary tour in 1986. Although it took some convincing, the rest of the group agreed. However, Mike backed out at the last minute because it was too time-consuming.

A photo of The Monkees performing in concert.
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Even without Mike, the tour was one of the most massive musical undertakings of 1986 because MTV started airing reruns of the series in marathon form. MTV execs said they had never received so much mail. The 20-year-old show became so popular and helped sell out the reunion tour.

A Super Bowl-Sized Fiasco

In 1986, the Monkees and MTV had a great relationship. The success of their reunion tour allowed them to record a new album (without Mike) titled Pool It! The first single was “Heart and Soul,” but fans complained that they couldn’t find the music video.

A photo of The Monkees.
Source: Pinterest

MTV refused to air the video because of a miscommunication with the band. The Monkees were supposed to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show, but they didn’t show up because they were booked for another performance. It caused a rift in their relationship with MTV.

It Wasn’t Always Smooth Sailing

Rumors of the band arguing plagued them, but it wasn’t all gossip. In one instance, Davy said he headbutted Peter during a fight, and they both had to go to the hospital. Their reunion tours in 1997 and 2001 often dissolved into bickering, but there was no real animosity.

A photo of The Monkees at their comeback tour.
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Peter admitted that there were moments of tension, but “The Monkees never promised to stay together. People forget we started out as the cast of a TV show.” In the end, they were all good friends regardless of the problems that arose between them.

Saying No to New Monkees

Because of the rebirth and success of the Monkees on the charts and the road, the entertainment industry longed for a full Monkees reboot. Instead of bringing together a group of men in their 40s to sing teen pop songs, they wanted to launch an entirely new band.

Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, and Davy Jones of the Monkees attend a photocall.
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Using The Monkees model from the ‘60s, Columbia Records auditioned several young men and selected four. The New Monkees were sold into television syndication. The show bombed and was canceled halfway through the first season. Nothing could replace The Monkees’ magic.

Make Monkeys Not War

The Monkees may have been created as a corporate endeavor, but the producers let the writers add anti-war, hippie-leaning sentiments to the show and the music. Both The Monkees and the band’s songs expressed anti-Vietnam War messages despite aggressive censorship in the late ‘60s.

Mickey Dolenz on the set of the television show The Monkees.
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The Monkees was one of the few shows that got away with these messages. According to a show writer, the network execs had no idea what they were saying, so they didn’t censor anything. They added sly remarks, which was a clever way to broadcast their message.

Mike Nesmith Inherited a Fortune

After leaving The Monkees, Mike bought out his contract in 1970. It put him in a financial bind, but he didn’t participate in the 1986 reunion tour because of prior work commitments. By then, he had received a hefty inheritance from his mother’s estate.

A dated portrait of Mike Nesmith at home.
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His mother invented typewriter correction fluid, so he was financially set after she passed away. In recent years, Mike and Micky went on tour under the name “The Monkees Present: The Mike and Micky Show.” He had some health problems and had to get quadruple bypass surgery but recovered.

Micky Dolenz Released a New Album

As the son of actors George Dolenz and Janelle Johnson, Micky was destined for fame. When The Monkees broke up, he did voice work for cartoons like The Funky Phantom, Devlin, and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels. He was always more than happy to reunite with his former bandmates.

Micky Dolenz performs on stage.
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Micky got the opportunity to work with music legends like Carol King, Brian Wilson, and more. In recent years, he toured with Mike to bask in the Monkees’ limelight again. In May 2021, he released a solo album called Dolenz Sings Nesmith. The 76-year-old has been married three times and has four daughters.

Davy Jones Had a Fatal Health Issue

Post-Monkees, Davy started a new venture by opening a clothing store in New York City called Zilch. However, he never gave up on music and television. He had many guest appearances on shows like Boy Meets World and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.

A photo of Davy Jones attending an event.
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Davy continued his music career and collaborated with U2. He had a few solo albums and performed annually at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival. While tending to his horses in 2012, Davy complained of chest pains. He was rushed to the hospital for a severe heart attack and tragically passed away.

Peter Tork Had No Money

As the first member to leave The Monkees, Peter used an opt-out clause in his contract. It cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving him with no money. He had to teach algebra and coach basketball at a private school. He even worked as a singing waiter once.

A portrait of Peter Tork.
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Unfortunately, Peter’s record and movie production studio flop caused him to sell his home and move into David Crosby’s basement. After joining his former bandmates for the 20th-anniversary reunion tour, he got back on his feet and was able to move into a new home.

Peter Was a Legend

After the reunion tour, Peter took on occasional acting roles like two appearances in Boy Meets World and a small part in the horror film I Filmed Your Death. That was his final acting role, but he still worked with the Monkees when they would perform.

Peter Tork on the set of the television show The Monkees.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 2009, Tork was diagnosed with a rare form of neck cancer. He underwent surgery and radiation for years. Sadly, the cancer returned in 2018, and he passed away the following year, shortly before his 77th birthday. His bandmates and fans remember him fondly.

The Monkees Made TV Worth Watching

When The Monkees premiered on TV, many of the hit shows were Westerns or variety shows. They breathed new life into TV with vivid color and four young men playing rock and roll music. It was a new concept for that generation, but it represented the growth of a counterculture.

Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith on the television show set.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The show made TV worth watching in the late ‘60s. It had a good pace, quick cuts, actors breaking character, camera tricks, and stand-alone music videos. It fully embraced its rock and roll sensibility that everyone was excited to watch each week.

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