INTERVIEW : ROSCOE ORMAN OF SESAME STREET

Roscoe Orman has played the character of Gordon on Sesame Street since 1974. We caught up with him in advance of his appearance at this year’s New York Comic Con to talk about what it’s like to spend nearly four decades in a happy place surrounded by good people and mythical creatures (a lot like our jobs, in fact).

Gordon occupies this poignantly innocent place for at least a couple generations of grownups and a whole bunch of kids. How has a mere mortal lived up to being Gordon for all these years?

Well, for all of us who have done Sesame Street for so many years — we’re all a part of a team that’s committed to children and that is such a big part of who we all are as artists and workers. Sesame Street is us. What we’ve become is synonymous with what’s known as Sesame Street. And in fact it’s one of the easiest, most fun jobs that I’ve done. It comes quite easily because of that rapport that we have with each other and the common bond that we share.

It seems like that rapport extends to the viewing audience as well. It feels like we know these Sesame Street characters.

Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a strong identification with us, including us human cast members who have matured and aged over the years but are still recognizable, that those who grew up watching us feel like they know us. They know us intimately and when we’re doing any kind of an appearance together in public, it can become an emotional experience for people who have all those memories with us.

As for the non-human characters, Elmo, for example, was around for years before he broke out and became a star. Are there any muppets on the precipice of being a superstar? Is Hoots the Owl one performance away?

Funny you mention Hoots the Owl. I haven’t seen Hoots for a number of years, but he was performed by Kevin Clash who does Elmo as well. Kevin is a creative force. He grew up with this dream of working with Jim Henson and it’s a dream that came true. What emanates from all his performances is this incredible enthusiasm and love and spontaneity. He’s really in the moment and enjoying everything each time he puts on that little red monster. The entire group of puppeteers have a kind of synergy together that’s wonderful to watch. Of course, everyone has their favorites. In my case, it’s Grover.

It’s been nearly thirty years since Will Lee, who played the character of Mr. Hooper, passed away and the producers of Sesame Street decided to deal with that directly with the famous “Farewell Mr. Hooper” episode, in which Gordon consoles Big Bird. There have been references to Mr. Hooper throughout the years, including recently. Big Bird still keeps a drawing of him above his nest. Those kinds of things demonstrate this genuine commitment to the human ethos of the show. What’s it like to be part of something like that?

I remember when that decision was being made and the producers and writers really thought it was an opportunity for them to address a very difficult topic which most children at some point in their lives will experience. It was a brave move, but I thought it was handled really well. It aired on Thanksgiving, so families could be together when they watched it and it was an educational moment for all of us. Those of us who were in that episode were experiencing the grieving process in a genuine, real-time way. It wasn’t something that we had to try to create, and I think that came through. Those kinds of difficult issues are something that Sesame Street occasionally steps up and confronts and deals with in a way that reflects how we educate children about not only letters and numbers but feelings and community.

Yeah, that genuine empathy and compassion of both the humans and Muppets on Sesame Street seems like such a simple thing, but the way the show presents this ideal way of relating to people is as important a part of the mission as the ABC’s and 123’s.

Absolutely. That I think, even more than the cognitive skill development aspect, is what has endeared Sesame Street to generations of fans. After 38 years of being on the show, when I do any kind of public performance as Gordon, the response is still overwhelming and humbling. Our audience is deeply touched that people who were such a positive part of their early childhood are still around. We’re still doing what we do.   

How did the Robinson Family feel on November 4, 2008? Is the outside world a better place now for the people on Sesame Street then it was in 1974?

With all the challenges we have that drive us to be involved creatively to try to improve our world, in many ways we’re in a much better place then we were 38 years ago. As a country, we’ve gotten to the point that we have our first African-American president. And I’ll never forget meeting Michelle Obama for the first time when she came to the studio. She gave me this huge hug and it dawned on me that [the Obamas] are the first First Family that were young enough to have experienced the show when they were children. The President was beyond his pre-school years when it started but he had a younger sister who used to watch it. And I think they really got the impact of it and they represent a lot of what it’s been about in terms of inclusion.

Any unforgettable Jim Henson moment you’d like to share?

Jim Henson was such an unassuming, quiet, introspective person. The thing I remember about him is how quietly he was able to accomplish what he did, which was pretty magical. He hardly ever spoke much above a whisper. He had this really gentle nature about him. His genius, besides his incredible imagination, was his ability to inspire everyone around him to want to be on his team and work and create their own voices. That was the magic, that he was able to get everyone else to do their best work.


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