For over 35 years, Roscoe Orman has entertained generations of parents and children as the lovable Gordon on the beloved children’s program Sesame Street. Celebrity Parents had the honor of meeting this legend to speak about all things Sesame Street, quality children’s television programming and why he won’t play the role of Tyrone the Pimp again anytime soon.
Some people might not know this, but you are actually the third actor to play Gordon on Sesame Street.
Yes, that’s true. Matt Robinson, one of the original writers and producers of Sesame Street, was the first Gordon. A few years later, I got word through a mutual friend that they looking for someone to replace the second Gordon. At the time, my wife was expecting our first child. I thought it would be good to have a steady acting job to help pay for some bills! I didn’t have any real knowledge of the show, since I hadn’t had children at that point. It didn’t take me long to realize, though, that it was unlike any other kids’ show that I had grown up with.
Sesame Street was a smart, cutting-edge, educational program for children. It was the first educational program for preschoolers. All the other programs were just fillers between commercials. So the wonderful content of the show, me becoming a dad, and wanting to share this experience with my children were all incentive for me to become a part of Sesame Street.
Your son Miles was a regular on the show.
All my kids — my three daughters and my son — were on the show. My son Miles, became a regular cast member on the show. He played my adopted son, Miles. We used to joke and say, “You really are adopted!” They used his real name because he started on the show when he was just a year old. He wouldn’t have answered to Harry or Jim, or anything other than Miles.
That must have been a wonderful experience for him to be on Sesame Street.
It was very cool. He became a celebrity in his own right. The kids at school were psyched that Miles was one of their buddies. It was also a great experience for him in terms of developing skills about work. Eventually, it became a real job, and he had to be ready and prepared when he came to work. That is one of the great things about Sesame Street. The kids on the show are themselves. The show respects each individual child for who he or she is.
Wasn’t Sesame Street the first program to show physically challenged children as well?
Yes, that was a first. All of the physically and mentally challenged children were mainstreamed into our neighborhood. Their personalities were just as important as anyone else’s. Up until Sesame Street, those children had been hidden and not seen.
How do you explain the enduring love for Sesame Street? I’m sitting here with you now, and I’m so happy that I want to hug you![laughs] It’s a phenomenon that is almost impossible to explain. That fact that Sesame Street has endured puts it in a unique place in American popular culture. It’s the one entity that not only can children of today watch, but whose parents and grandparents can all share a sense of connection to as well. As we matured along with our early viewers, there’s a sense of endearment to it. Among that first group of young viewers, like you, we represent a touchstone for their earliest years. If they see more than one of us at the same time, it becomes overwhelming! It’s a flood of emotions. It’s a deeply emotional connection that they have from their earliest time of life with us.
What I admire about Sesame Street today is that at the core it is still the same program that I loved when I was little.
Beyond just being the first educational show for preschoolers, it was a show that symbolized a concentrated effort in research in child development by childhood psychologists. They worked to develop a curriculum to serve the needs of children, and that dedication continues to be a part of everything we do. In addition to being fun, there are other levels of education, such as social development and self-esteem issues that feeds into a deeper need with the viewers.
Another hallmark of Sesame Street is the camaraderie that each of the cast members have with each other. We have become an ensemble cast, and have developed a genuine fondness for each other. It’s truly the quality of the people that helps to make the show special.
Now, as an actor, how has it been to have played the same role for 35 years?
At first, it was a little disconcerting. I had been acting for 10 years prior to Sesame Street. I had developed a good body of work in the theater. I thought about getting typecast as a children’s performer and how that might limit my career. As an actor, it’s an interesting dilemma. We’re afraid of being typecast, but we’ll do anything for steady work. The good thing is that I have continuously acted in television and theater during my entire career with Sesame Street. And to have worked on such an amazing program has been a pleasure.
Let’s talk about your stint on All My Children as, um, Tyrone the Pimp.[laughs] The year after my first season on Sesame Street, I was asked to do a few appearances on a soap opera as a really bad guy. I thought, “This will give me a chance to do something different.” I did such a good job, that they signed me on for a whole year. Now, as a parent, imagine you’re sitting at home with your kids. You’ve just finished watching Sesame Street, you change the channel, and there’s Gordon playing Tyrone the Pimp!
How did it go over?
Not very well! [laughs] It went over really well with the audience of All My Children, but there was a flood of letters and phone calls to Sesame Street. I understood their concerns, and being a parent, I know it might have been confusing to mix those two images. Since then, I’ve continued to do TV work, but it’s primetime guest appearances playing good guys, such as judges or police officials.
Let’s talk about some of the projects you are currently working on.
I love theater, and I am always looking for a good role to play. I’ve done Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theater. I recently played Gabriel in August Wilson’s Fences on Broadway. I also played the lead role of Troy in that same play in the Madison Repertory Theater in Wisconsin. That role was one of the greatest roles in theater, especially for an African-American actor. In January, I will be in Driving Miss Daisy at the Fulton Playhouse in Pennsylvania.
For the past few years, I’ve also been working with audible.com, the leading digital downloading provider of books. They started a children’s division, called audiblekids.com, and they asked me to be their national spokesperson and Chief Storyteller. I have always wanted to be the chief of something, so I agreed! [laughs] I have done a lot of narration for films, and I was delighted to be a part of this. I’ve recorded scores of books for kids, from picture books and classic fairy tales, to Shakespeare. I get to play all the roles! It’s like a dream come true.
Which Shakespearian play did you like the best?
I love Macbeth. It happens to be the first Shakespearian play I read in high school. I will never forget how turned on I was by it. I never knew that language could be so beautiful, and have so many layers while telling a story. As an actor, I’ve done Shakespeare for the New York Shakespeare Festival. I love Shakespeare; the writing is incredible.
And speaking of writing, you’re writing another book.
I just finished another book for young readers. I’m hoping to publish it next year. All of my books have been autobiographical, and this one is a continuation from the previous one. This one is called Ricky’s Hunting Lesson, and it is based on an experience I had in my pre-teen years. I’m putting the finishing touches on it now.
What about Sesame Street, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary?
We were honored at the Daytime Emmy Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award. A bunch of us went there to accept the award. It was incredible to see the audience’s reaction to us; it always amazes me how loved the show is. It is a great honor to be a part of something that is so much larger than any of us. It is something to be truly proud of.