For anyone other than a ’90s kid, the passing of actor and mixed martial artist Jason David Frank last Saturday at the too-young age of 49 (reportedly by suicide) might not carry a huge amount of weight. But for an entire generation of old-to-middle millennials, he was the closest thing we had to Jackie Chan: an authentic PG-rated martial arts action star streamed straight to our televisions every day of the week. Kids’ TV was hardly the arena for fast and furious fight choreography; in fact, parents at the time raised hell over the amount of violence directed at their children. But in Power Rangersand Tommy in particular, we had a superhero we could see us mimicking on the playground and in our own backyards.
When it premiered on Fox in 1993, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was an instant surprise hit: from the very first episode, kids were already enthralled by its bright and colorful superheroes, field slapstick antics, and fighting and monster imports from Japan (the series borrowed loosely from the Super Sentai tokusatsu show series that had run there since the mid-1970s). But it was the introduction of Frank as Tommy Oliver, the Green Ranger, that cemented the show’s smash hit status.
In a move that still feels new to kids’ TV, Tommy was introduced in a five-episode arc, ‘Green With Evil,’ which introduced him as an ‘evil’ Green Ranger, mesmerized by series villain Rita Repulsa to take down the Rangers. from inside. But even within the baked woodiness of the show’s performances, Frank struck a chord: He was tall and handsome, with a high-pitched voice that could swing between vulnerability and menace in the blink of an eye. (And, of course, those ’90s fashions served him well: green mesh shirts, baggy pants, tousled hair that would eventually grow into a long, wild ponytail.)
Tommy was the kind of Ranger who could run and fight in circles around our do-good heroes, whose characters suffered painfully under the show’s squeaky-clean mandates. But Tommy’s edginess brought out the best in them and the show itself, which made him an instant fan favorite.
He was the bad boy of the franchise, one as willing to beat up all five Rangers in the cockpit of their Megazord as he was to snub the advances of Pink Ranger Kimberly and send school bullies Bulk and Skull running into a dumpster with a single gaze. And when that original arc concluded with the Rangers breaking Rita’s spell and bringing it back into the fold, it was then Power Rangers truly it took off.
Frank’s contract with Power Rangers it was originally only 14 episodes, matching the temporary trajectory its Sentai counterpart followed in the show where they crippled all of their footage, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger. But Tommy and Frank were just too popular: Frank was arguably the most skilled martial artist of the main cast, and his uniquely magnetic presence elevated the rest of the ensemble. Also, his gear was just too cool. That golden shield on his chest! Dragon’s flute! So, the show just brought it back.
As an actor, it’s safe to say that Frank wasn’t much (not that the show ever asked much of its performers). But there was an intangible charisma to his work that seems similar to the more adult-oriented action stars of his day: Brilliant, if a little woody, he poses and grinds his lines with commitment to the game. He wasn’t too far from Jean-Claude Van Damme, honestly, a nimble martial artist who had just enough star presence to carry his scenes between the roundhouse kicks. It was the PG alternative to the Arnolds and Slys of his day, explicitly marketed to children without losing the fighting ferocity of its big-screen peers.
Frank’s meteoric rise to fan favorite coincided with the show’s trajectory for Tommy; in the show’s second season, the writers elevated him to squad leader, giving him the white ranger’s gold-and-black shield and talking tiger sword (don’t ask). This move coincided with Power Rangers becoming an even bigger hit and when the franchise transitioned to the big screen for the 1995s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The MovieFrank and his castmates felt like bona fide movie stars.
As the show progressed and more changes were needed to the formula, Frank remained the star attraction of the series. Powerful morphine evolved into Power Rangers Zeos, as the franchise has fully embraced the dynamic of new suits each year of Sentai. Tommy still led the team, but not as an augmented Sixth Ranger: he had switched to Red Ranger. This continued through the first half of the car-themed season Power Ranger Turbo before he and most of his other castmates fell victim to the eventual turnover the franchise requires of its cast.
After Rangers, returned to his first love, martial arts – he would run classes for young aspiring Rangers to learn the way of the punch – and even developed his own form called Toso Kune Do, a blend of aikido, Jeet Kune Do, karate , boxing Thai and a host of other styles. He appeared in occasional acting roles (including an episode of MTV Stripped), but otherwise stayed away from the cameras.
However, the power of the Morphin’ Grid (and the cries of an increasingly adult man Power Rangers fan base) couldn’t keep him away for long. In 2002, he returned for the show’s 10th anniversary special, “Forever Red,” along with all of the previous Red Rangers in the series both before and after his tenure.
Frank would return on a more permanent basis in 2004 Power Rangers Dino Thunder, this time as a mentor: Dr. Tommy Oliver, her high school senior who apparently holds a PhD. in archeology (e.g sick mid-aughts soul patch) in the years following Rangerhood. While he spent the first few episodes teaching misfit high school students how to be Power Rangers, he soon dressed up again as the Black Dino Ranger. “Aren’t you a little old for this stuff, Tommy?” the villain of the episode makes him purr. His response, just before he transformed for the first time in years? “I may be old, but I can still handle it.”
Implausibility aside – this is a show about giant robots, after all – it was really nice to see Frank back on screen, now older and a more experienced and confident performer. Gone was the bad-boy glitter, balanced with a more paternal and professorial softness towards his young protégés. He was the Giles to them Buffy the Vampire Slayerif Giles looked a little more like Scott Stapp.
Frank would make a few more cameos after that Dino Thundermostly in additional anniversary specials (Super Megaforce and a recent one in Super Ninja Steel). He also appeared in 2017 Power Rangers reboot alongside former Pink Ranger Amy Jo Johnson. But his omnipresence in the franchise has never made him feel like an out-of-work actor continually returning to a reliable cash cow. Instead, he looked, however naïve, like an elder statesman double-checking the legacy he left behind.
That love for the franchise has extended to his fans, and Frank always seemed to take seriously the iconic status he’s achieved among Ranger fans across generations. He was a fixture at conventions and appeared in fan projects and voiceovers for spin-off games and other media. (Shortly before his death by suicide last week, he had wrapped production The Legend of the White Dragona Kickstarter-funded fan film heavily inspired by the Rangers and featuring several other Ranger allies.)
It’s clear that Tommy meant a lot to Jason David Frank, just as the man himself did to the legions of fans who grew up watching Tommy spin, brood and eyat-se-eyah his way through the most exciting part of their childhood. Within the narrow but powerful niche Power Rangers sculpted, Frank was an icon, one who matured as an artist the longer he held his Power Coin. Under different circumstances, he could have been mentioned in the same breath as JCVD. But part of me hopes (and thinks) that he was happy with his legacy. May the Power protect him.