We are thrilled to be able to present our web readers with this profile of Roscoe Orman, Sesame Street's Gordon.
Matt Robinson walked away from playing Gordon in 1972 and was replaced for two enigmatic seasons by stage actor Hal Miller, who faded away in 1974.
Dave Connell and Jon Stone were forced to recast the role for a second time in five years. They passed on Robert Guillaume, who would later gain fame in the prime-time sitcom Soap (1977–81) and its spinoff Benson (1979–86), in favor of New York stage actor Roscoe Hunter Orman, whose résumé included a two-year stint with a black revolutionary theater company and a starring role in a blaxploitation film about a megalomaniacal pimp. It takes some explaining.
Orman, a fifth-generation New Yorker born in 1944, was named for his father, but the family called him Ricky, a nickname given him by his grandmother. He was the oldest child in a household where music and humor were in the genes. Orman’s maternal grandfather, Hunter Wells, was a vaudeville performer in the 1920s. Singing and dancing came as naturally to his father as comedy came to Viola, his mother. “She could have been a comedienne,” Orman said. “Whatever sense of humor I have I got from her.”
Orman said his family never missed an episode of the TV series Amos and Andy and recalled the thrill of seeing Nat King Cole host a fifteen-minute variety show on NBC in 1956. “For my family, it was a really big deal any time there was a black person on television. We would all gather around and say. “Oh, wow, look!”
He loved Westerns as a child and met his cowboy hero, Roy Rogers—along with Rogers’ horse, Trigger, and wife, Dale Evans—during a promotional appearance at Gimbels department store. Rogers starred in the first movie Orman saw in a theater. “I remember sitting there and seeing this big wide screen full of Technicolor scenes of Roy and his golden palomino.”
For young Roscoe, it was an aptitude in drawing that first provided entrée into the arts. “My fifth-grade teacher saw my doodles and decided I had talent,” he said. With encouragement from that teacher and his parents, he won a scholarship for art lessons given at a Saks department store in the Bronx.
To the delight of his family, he also performed in school pageants and plays in public elementary school. From sixth grade to the tenth, he attended Catholic school, earned high grades, sat straight, and paid rapt attention. In the eleventh grade, he transferred to New York’s High School of Art and Design, a public academy for gifted visual artists. “I was really was craving some kind of artistic outlet,” he said. “Transferring was one of the best decisions I ever made. I majored in advertising illustration, but I also began to perform more seriously at that age. My final two years of high school were like an explosion of creativity and expression, after having had all those regimented years with the nuns and priests.”
As a high school senior, Orman appeared in an off-Broadway music revue, and later enrolled at the Circle in the Square acting school and the Manhattan School of Music. He also took classes with the Alvin Ailey dance company. Among other roles, he played the nonspeaking, nonsinging role as the Mute in a summer-stock production of The Fantasticks. “It was a great exercise for the imagination, becoming the wind, the rain, and whatever elements were needed in the story,” he said.
The history of Sesame Street is replete with stories of coincidence and crossed paths, and Orman has one of his own. Barely out of his teens, he was cast in Unfinished Business, a television production produced in Philadelphia by CBS affiliate WCAU. One of the writers and producers attached to the project was Matt Robinson, who had gotten his start at the station after graduation from Penn State. “I later got to know Matt again through mutual friends in the early seventies,” Orman said. “By then he had been working with Sesame Street a few years, and a few years after that I was his successor as Gordon.”
While changing planes in an Atlanta airport in1965, Orman had a life-altering encounter. “I was on my first trip South to join the Free Southern Theater, and while waiting at the gate I noticed a commotion and a small entourage. I looked up and there was Martin Luther King walking toward me. He grabbed my hand and we had a little brief conversation, but I don’t remember a word. I was just blown away by the power of his personality. And he was the reason I was heading South.” Orman was on his way to join a mixed-race theater group that was staging provocative plays in the Deep South.
“The Free Southern Theater was a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement,” he said. “Our audiences were primarily black and southern at a time of staunch segregation. Jim Crowe was still very much alive.”
Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, where the theater company was based, Orman and his Jewish roommate were arrested in a bar. “The charge was vagrancy,” Orman said, a trumped-up charge often used to intimidate northerners working in the movement. “They thought we were trying to integrate the bar,” Orman said. “But that wasn’t the case. This was 1965. We had just moved into our apartment and all we wanted was a drink.”
A legal team, bolstered by the ACLU, used the case to test the constitutionality of the vagrancy law. “It immediately went into dismissal, but it really drove home what it was we were down there to protest and to change in the South.” Among the productions mounted by the touring company was In White America, Martin Duberman’s two-act documentary play about the history of racism, from pre–Civil War days through the 1960s . “We also did plays that had parallel themes but were not indigenous to this country, the works of Bertolt Brecht and Seán O’Casey. Those were themes that were actually being lived by our audiences.
“As a consequence of working in the movement, I got know a few of the major figures, including Andrew Young and Julian Bond. It was a real education for me. When I got back to New York in 1967, I joined a group in Harlem called the New Lafayette Theater, and we performed plays that told of the struggle within black communities. The Free Southern Theater and the New Lafayette Theater were all-consuming for five years of my life. But it ended in 1971, during a period of political and cultural change. Most of the theaters of that period were being funded by philanthropic groups and foundations, with a bit of government subsidy. But during the Nixon administration monies were being pulled out of the communities, and we just couldn’t survive without that kind of support.
“At one point I realized that was over and was visiting family in St. Croix, which is not a bad place to hang out,” he said. “While there I learned that one of my colleagues from the Free Southern Theater was trying to contact me. He was about to begin work on his directorial film debut in Hollywood. It was at the tail end of the genre of films that later became to be known as the blaxploitation film era of Superfly and Shaft. Those movies were like the old Hollywood gangster films of the thirties, with Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, only with black actors. They were simplistic but they made money. I got in on the tail end, getting the lead role in Willy Dynamite. The producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown bankrolled it, shooting the low-budget film at the same time they were completing The Sting on the Universal lot.
“Willy Dynamite’s dream was to be the number one pimp in New York,” Orman said. “By the sheer force of his will he was going to just outdo all the others. Unfortunately, he had many enemies, like all the other pimps in New York, including a black Muslim and a social worker who was a reformed prostitute whose mission in life was to bring down people like Willy.
“After the movie came out I thought, ‘Well, maybe this might lead to other kinds of roles in Hollywood.’ It turned out not to be the case. So I came back to New York and began to do theater again. One of the people I worked with quite a bit in those days was Morgan Freeman; we did five or six plays together. Morgan by then had already been contracted to do The Electric Company.
“I decided that the New York theater was really where I really belonged and not Hollywood. I was doing The Sirens, a play at the Manhattan Theater Club. The director of that production was a friend of mine with whom I had worked at New Lafayette, Bill Latham, and his younger brother, Stan Latham, was an up-and-coming TV director and film director as well but mostly television. He worked quite a bit on Sesame Street.
“He came backstage after the show and he said, ‘You know, they’re looking for someone to replace an actor on Sesame Street.’ I said. ‘Yah, I’ve heard about that show. Do you work on that?’
“He said, ‘Yah, it’s a good show. You should check it out.’
“By that time I had recently married and my wife was expecting our first child. So the thought of having a steady job on television sounded pretty good, though I had never done anything seriously for kids. It conjured in my mind images of Pinky Lee and Captain Kangaroo, and I just couldn’t see myself in those kinds of images. But my first meeting with the producers of Sesame Street changed all of that. I walked in the door and after five minutes, I said to myself, ‘This is very different, I grew up with Howdy Doody, and this was as far from that as you could get. Plus, Jon Stone struck me as this grounded, creative, sensitive, brilliant guy.”
Orman said Stone described Gordon as “a nurturing but also a strong male presence, a guy who’s not afraid to be sensitive and relate to children in a way that’s really gentle, kind, considerate, and patient. He told me that people come to Gordon for help because he’s always reliable. As an African American actor, those characteristics really stood out, especially in the context of images of black men on television. When I was growing up, there was never a character like Gordon on TV, someone who was obviously intelligent and educated but also funny and personable and could hang with the kids and be just a regular dad.”
The role had appeal, and Orman went after it hungrily. Though he stumbled in a screen test with Oscar (“How was I supposed to relate to this green rag coming out of a can at the end of guy’s arm?”). He performed well in an improvisation meant to see how well he related to preschoolers. “They set me up with John-John Williams, a child who became well known to the viewers for these little unscripted vignettes he would do with Grover and Kermit. John-John was the most adorable, bright, funny kid, with these great eyes. I just had a ball with him, and I was offered the part because I obviously being with him and him with me.”
Assuming the role played by two previous actors had its challenges, both for the actor and the children who regularly appeared on the show. “Those kids had been used to working with Hal Miller. Then, all of a sudden, here was a Gordon who had no hair and a mustache. When kids starting doing scenes with me they said, ‘This is not Gordon.’ They would really give me a hard time. And so that first season was about winning them over.”
In time, Orman would become as adept at working with the Muppets as any actor in the ensemble. “One of the things I was able to learn fairly early was not just how to relate better to the kids, but how to relate to the puppets by watching the kids,” he said. “Kids relate to the Muppet characters with total belief. The puppeteer can be right there in full view, but for the kid, he doesn’t even exist. Occasionally he might look down and wonder, ‘Who’s that guy?’
“What viewers don’t always understand is that the Henson puppeteers are extremely talented actors. They just happen to act with dolls, whereas we act with our own selves and our own bodies. They become these dolls. I’ve seen really accomplished actors come on our show and be totally flabbergasted, saying ‘How am I supposed to act with this thing?’ I felt that way with that first screen test with Oscar.
“Once I became good at establishing relationships with the puppets—and really having fun with them and really getting into the whole spirit—I was on my way. I learned how to really take it seriously yet to really have fun at the same time, which is why I think the show is so successful. It does both. You can see we are really enjoying what we do. But at the same time what we’re doing is something that’s not frivolous at all; it’s very serious. It’s a powerful combination.”
Through the years, the writers gave Orman amply opportunity to explore Gordon’s emotional range. “Because we wanted to convey a sense of reality and truth, it was okay for Gordon to become upset and angry, but only to a certain limit because we had to also personify the best in people. We had to relate to one another and take the time to listen and solve problems. That’s what Susan and Gordon came to represent, while also representing another milestone in television. Long before Cliff and Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Gordon and Susan were television’s stable, married black couple. They obviously had a loving relationship based on equality. It wasn’t like Father Knows Best. Susan was an equal partner to Gordon always. The fact that their loving partnership has endured for kids to grow up and see has had an impact, especially on culture. It’s been really a privilege to be a part of that, that kind of imagery.”