To anyone who wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool latchkey ’90s kid, the passing of actor and mixed martial artist Jason David Frank this past Saturday at the too-young age of 49 (reportedly by suicide) might not carry a tremendous amount of weight. But for an entire generation of elder-to-mid millennials, he was the closest thing we had to Jackie Chan — a bona fide PG-rated martial arts action star beamed straight to our televisions every weekday. Kids’ TV was hardly the arena for fast, furious fight choreography; in fact, parents at the time raised hell over the amount of violence aimed at their children. But in Power Rangers, and Tommy in particular, we had a superhero we could see ourselves imitating on the playground and in our backyards.
When it premiered on Fox in 1993, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was an instant surprise hit: From the first episode, kids were already hooked to its bright, colorful superheroes, camp slapstick antics, and imported-from-Japan fights and monsters (the series took liberally from the Super Sentai series of tokusatsu shows that had run there since the mid-’70s). But it was Frank’s introduction as Tommy Oliver, the Green Ranger, which cemented the show’s smash-hit status.
In a move that still feels novel for kids’ TV, Tommy was introduced in a five-episode arc, “Green With Evil,” that presented him as an “evil” Green Ranger, hypnotized by series villain Rita Repulsa to take down the Rangers from within. But even within the baked-in woodenness of the show’s performances, Frank struck a chord: He was tall and handsome, with a reedy voice that could flit between vulnerability and menace at the drop of a hat. (And, of course, those ’90s fashions served him well: green mesh shirts, baggy pants, shaggy hair that would eventually grow into a long, wild ponytail.)
Tommy was the kind of Ranger who could run and fight circles around our do-gooder heroes, whose characters suffered painfully under the squeaky-clean mandates of the show. But Tommy’s rough edges brought out the best in them and in the show itself, which made him an instant fan favorite.
He was the franchise’s bad boy, one as willing to beat up all five Rangers in the cockpit of their Megazord as he was to snub Pink Ranger Kimberly’s advances and send school bullies Bulk and Skull running into a dumpster with a single glare. And when that original arc ended with the Rangers breaking Rita’s spell and bringing him into the fold, that’s when Power Rangers really took off.
Frank’s contract with Power Rangers was originally a mere 14 episodes, matching the temporary trajectory his Sentai counterpart followed in the show where they cribbed all their footage, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger. But Tommy, and Frank, were just too popular: Frank was easily the most skilled martial artist of the main cast, and his uniquely magnetic presence elevated the rest of the ensemble. Plus, his gear was just too cool. That gold shield across his chest! The Dragon Flute! So, the show just brought him right back.
As an actor, it’s safe to say Frank was no great shakes (not that the show ever asked much of its performers). But there was an intangible charisma to his work that feels akin to the more adult-oriented action stars of his time: genial, if a bit wooden, posing and grinding through his lines with game commitment. He wasn’t too far removed from Jean-Claude Van Damme, honestly, a lithe martial artist who had just enough star presence to carry his scenes in between roundhouse kicks. He was the PG alternative to the Arnolds and Slys of his day, explicitly marketed to children without losing the fighting ferocity of his big-screen peers.
Frank’s meteoric rise to fan favorite dovetailed with the show’s trajectory for Tommy; in the second season of the show, the writers elevated him to team leader, giving him the gold-and-black shield and talking tiger sword (don’t ask) of the White Ranger. This move coincided with Power Rangers becoming an even bigger hit, and when the franchise moved to the big screen for 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, Frank and his castmates got to feel like bona fide movie stars.
As the show progressed and even further changes to the formula were required, Frank stayed on as the series’ primary draw. Mighty Morphin evolved into Power Rangers Zeo, as the franchise fully embraced the new-suits-every-year dynamic of Sentai. Tommy still led the team, but not as an upgraded Sixth Ranger: He’d graduated to Red Ranger. That continued to the first half of the car-themed season Power Rangers Turbo before he and most of his other castmates fell victim to the eventual turnover the franchise requires of its cast.
After Rangers, he went back to his first love, martial arts — he would set up classes for young wannabe Rangers to learn the way of the fist — and even developed his own form called Toso Kune Do, a blend of aikido, Jeet Kune Do, karate, Thai boxing, and a host of other styles. He’d appear in the occasional acting role (including one episode of MTV’s Undressed), but otherwise stayed away from the cameras.
Still, the power of the Morphin’ Grid (and the cries of an increasingly grown-up Power Rangers fan base) couldn’t keep him away for long. In 2002, he returned for the show’s 10th-anniversary special, “Forever Red,” alongside all of the series’ previous Red Rangers both before and after his tenure.
Frank would return more permanently in 2004’s Power Rangers Dino Thunder, this time as a mentor: Dr. Tommy Oliver, his high-kicking high school student apparently having earned a Ph.D. in archaeology (and a sick mid-aughts soul patch) in the years since Rangerhood. While he spent the first few episodes teaching misfit high school students how to be Power Rangers, he soon suited up again as the Black Dino Ranger. “Aren’t you a little old for this, Tommy?” the episode’s villain purrs at him. His reply, right before morphing for the first time in years? “I may be old, but I can still pull it off.”
Implausibility aside — this is a show about giant robots, after all — it was really nice to see Frank on screen again, now older and a more seasoned, assured performer. Gone was the bad-boy twinkle, balanced with a more paternal, professorial softness to his young charges. He was the Giles to their Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if Giles looked a little more like Scott Stapp.
Frank would crop up in a few more cameos after Dino Thunder, chiefly in further anniversary specials (Super Megaforce and a recent one in Super Ninja Steel). He even appeared in the 2017 Power Rangers reboot alongside former Pink Ranger Amy Jo Johnson. But his omnipresence in the franchise never felt like an out-of-work actor continually returning to a reliable cash cow. Instead, it felt, however naively, like an elder statesman checking back in on the legacy he left behind.
That love for the franchise extended to its fans, and Frank always seemed to take seriously the iconic status he achieved among Ranger fans of several generations. He was a regular fixture at conventions and appeared in fan projects and voice-overs for spinoff games and other media. (Shortly before his death by suicide last week, he’d wrapped production on Legend of the White Dragon, a Kickstarter-funded fan film heavily inspired by the Rangers and which features several other Ranger alums.)
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 flip, brood, and eyat-se-eyah his way through the most exciting part of their childhoods. Within the narrow but powerful niche Power Rangers carved out, Frank was an icon, one who matured as a performer the longer he held onto his Power Coin. In different circumstances, he could have been mentioned in the same breath as JCVD. But a part of me hopes (and thinks) he was happy with the legacy he’d made for himself. May the Power protect him.