Muppet pal Gordon, a doting dad, talks about life on the Street.
Sun Mar 22 2009
Although Roscoe Orman has played Gordon Robinson on Sesame Street for the past 35 years, the 64-year-old real-life father of four and grandfather of five doesn’t consider himself a star (we know some preschoolers who might argue with that!). Born and raised in the Bronx, he’s grateful for the enduring popularity of his signature role, which served as inspiration for his memoir, Sesame Street Dad: Evolution of an Actor, and his children's book Ricky & Mobo. However, when he’s not on PBS, he insists, he's just a hardworking character actor, who's appeared in numerous Off Broadway shows, acted as the chief storyteller at AudibleKids, and done guest spots on adult series such as The Wire and Sex and the City. As Time Out Kids sat down with Orman at Serendipity 3 to chat about his career, the tot hot spot was abuzz with kids and parents clamoring for a glimpse of the small-screen icon. So much for not being a star!
How did you get into showbiz?
Acting and performing is something that came to me through my grandfather, who was in vaudeville for a brief period. His stories about those years filled me with a sense of wonder and joy. During my senior year at the High School of Art and Design, I was recruited to be in the All-City High School Chorus. Shortly after that I was cast in an Off Broadway musical revue. I was very fortunate to have people around me who were very affirming, supportive, pushed me to excel and never told me to have something to fall back on. They just assumed I’d succeed, and I always felt that I had to live up to their expectations. I’ve never had to work a non-acting job.
What’s the best thing about your Sesame Street fan base, which includes preschoolers and parents?
Well, obviously, its enormous breadth. It’s always been a part of the Sesame Street philosophy to entertain and engage grown-ups in a different way from their children. It’s a great thing for a kid to see his mom and dad laughing, and it definitely helps reinforce the show's lessons. Over the past 40 years, Sesame Street has raised generations of viewers who now range from preschool to middle age, not to mention the parents of the original target audience who, like me, are now senior citizens.
How did you join Sesame Street?
I had been acting in New York City theater for several years when I was cast in a film, Willie Dynamite, in the early '70s. It didn’t take long for me to realize that there weren’t many opportunities for black actors in Hollywood back then. The only bona-fide black star at the time was Sidney Poitier; everyone else in the community was struggling. So I came back to NYC, resumed my stage career and was suddenly approached about the Sesame Street role. [Orman is the third actor to play Gordon, after Matt Robinson and Hal Miller.] I was happy to land a steady television job because my wife and I were expecting our first child, but at the time, I never imagined that the show and the character would become such dominant forces in my career.
What's it like working with Muppets? Does Elmo ever misbehave?
In my memoir, I describe my audition for Sesame Street. The most difficult part for me was relating to the Muppet. I was acting opposite Oscar the Grouch, who was insulting me and giving me all this grief. It was hard talking to this inanimate Muppet when puppeteer Caroll Spinney was in plain view. Fortunately, the second part of my audition was improvising with a kid. It’s been helpful to observe and take cues from children when acting with the Muppets. Up until the age of seven, kids have this incredible ability to believe in the imaginary characters and establish a real connection and relationship with them. They don't even acknowledge the person under the puppet! Over time, I’ve come to know both the puppeteers and the Muppets so intimately that I make no distinction between them. I’ve definitely developed special relationships with Elmo, Oscar and Telly Monster. And yes, Elmo does misbehave occasionally, though never out of malice. He's always ready to learn from his mistakes.
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