Ralph Lee, the celebrated puppeteer and theater artist who masterminded the Land Shark character on Saturday Night Live, has died at age 87 following a monthslong illness.
The Westbeth Artists Housing and Center for the Arts, where Lee lived, shared the news in a statement. “Ralph Lee, Westbeth Master Puppeteer and founder of the Village Halloween Parade and the Mettawee River Theater Company, among many other accomplishments, passed away on May 12, 2023,” the organization wrote. “He was a gentle, beloved figure of immense creative vision in the Westbeth community and the world — which is now a lonelier place without him. Our hearts go to his [wife] Casey and his family.”
Born in 1936, Lee began making puppets during his childhood in Middlebury, Vermont. He studied theater and dance in Europe and acted on and off-Broadway in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Lee also began making masks, props and puppets for various productions during this time, and in 1974, he organized the inaugural Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. He directed the parade until 1985, growing it from a small community event into one of New York’s major attractions, drawing an estimated 2 million spectators yearly.
Lee created masks for several of New York’s preeminent theater and dance companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Opera and the New York Ballet. He also became the artistic director of the Mettawee River Theatre Company in 1976, helming dozens of productions in upstate New York and New England each year. Yet Lee is perhaps best known for the Land Shark, which debuted on Saturday Night Live in the fall of 1975 as a response to the Jaws-induced shark hysteria taking the nation by storm.
Watch the Land Shark on ‘Saturday Night Live’ Season 1
Hastily assembled from household items like foam, cloth and rubber laminate, the Land Shark made its televised debut in the “Jaws II” sketch on Nov. 8, 1975. Voiced by Chevy Chase, the so-called “cleverest of all sharks” would masquerade as a repairman or door-to-door salesman, knocking on victims’ doors and attacking them when they let their guard down. Chase portrayed the Land Shark a handful of times in SNL‘s first three seasons and occasionally reprised the role in later years.
The Land Shark was a far cry from Lee’s typical, fastidiously crafted puppets, but as an enduring cultural icon, it accomplished his goal. “The sculptor in me wants to be immortalized in his work,” Lee told The New York Times in 1998. “I think I always had the urge to build things for eternity.”