Saturday, June 14, 2008
What happened to Mr Gordon?
Matt Robinson (Jan 1, 1937- August 5, 2002) was a writer, producer, and actor who originated the role of Gordon on Sesame Street, playing the part from 1969 to 1972. Robinson also created the character of Roosevelt Franklin, and performed Roosevelt's voice. 
Most people immediately identify bald African American actor Roscoe Orman, who has been playing Gordon since 1973, as the character. However, when Sesame Street first debuted in 1969 a very different Gordon appeared on television screens. Actor Matt Robinson played the fatherly school teacher as a tall man with a huge black pantheresque afro and huge assed mutton chops. Originally Gordon was the central character on Sesame Street who was your guide around the block. Gordon was both hip and professional as well as kind but a bit stern at times. However, Matt Robinson was far more important on the Sesame Street set than just playing the character of Gordon. Matt Robinson also worked as a writer and producer on the series and the majority of the ground breaking multicultural and racial politics that the early days of Sesame Street are famous for were a direct result of Matt Robinson's influence on the series.
Matt Robinson, who grew up on the streets of Philadelphia as a child, became well known throughout the 1960s for writing and producing black-orientated television dramas and public affair programs. His reputation gained the attention of the CTW when they formed in 1966, whose vision was to create a children's program that would speak to children of all different races and cultures, with special attention aimed towards the urban children and black kids which kids shows had never before been aimed towards them. Thus, Matt Robinson's work in television fit their vision. Robinson was originally hired by the CTW as only a producer and a writer but when they had a hard time finding the perfect actor to play fatherly Gordon Robinson, Matt Robinson stepped up to the plate.
Matt Robinson looked to the role of Gordon to make a difference to black children all over North America. He knew that one of the continuous problems for black children was a lack of positive black male role models in their lives and that they often lacked father figures. In the 1971 book All About Sesame Street, Robinson was quoted as saying, "somewhere around four and five a black kid is going to learn he's black. He's going to learn that's positive or negative. What I want to project is a positive image." As a result Robinson used a mixture of proper English and street slang so that black children could relate to him and he could create a more natural connection between him and the viewer. However, some of Robinson's political views often created conflict within the room of the writers. One famous account of this occurred when the CTW decided that Gordon's wife Susan was to go and get a job as a nurse. Robinson felt that another key problem in black neighbourhoods was the fact that women were in the workplace and not staying home to make sure their children were not getting into trouble, which was a direct contradiction to the 1970s feminist values that the CTW was beginning to incorporate into Sesame Street. As a result, when the episode aired, even on the screen Gordon's reluctance to accept Susan as a nurse managed to seep through.
Matt Robinson was also key in developing the first black influenced Muppets with Jim Henson. Robinson and Henson worked together on the Roosevelt Franklin sketches in the early 1970s with Robinson providing the voice for the Muppet. Roosevelt Franklin was a jive talking, scat singing Muppet who was kind of a child like cross between Ray Charles and James Brown. Other Muppets developed by Robinson and Henson were Baby Ray Francis, Mobley Mosey, and Hispanic Muppet A. B. Cito. Robinson's urban Muppet characters were featured on the album "The Year of Roosevelt Franklin," which not only contained songs about learning the alphabet, safety tips, the days of the week and the months of the year, but also songs about racial issues as well.
Robinson also penned the very first Sesame Street themed children's book titled Gordon of Sesame Street's Storybook.. The 1972 book contained four original children stories written by Robinson, as well as a cartoon caricature of him reading to children on the front cover.
Matt Robinson played the role of Gordon on television, stage, and in recordings for four years and gave the part up in 1972 to move to other things. However, Robinson occasionally still worked with the CTW up until 1974, primarily on Roosevelt Franklin material. With Gordon being such an important part of Sesame Street the CTW had no desire to retire the character with Robinson's departure and recast the character with actor Hal Miller for a single season and then, finally, with today's Gordon, Roscoe Orman. However, the CTW never recast a role again. As Orman explained it, children had a hard time dealing with cast changes of that type: "The kids who were on the show that first season would not accept me as Gordon. One day there's Hal Miller as Gordon and the next day there's this new guy who says he's Gordon... the kids, both on the show and at home... they just assume that we are that person we're playing."
After Sesame Street Matt Robinson continued in television - most notably as producer and/or contributing writer on Sanford and Son, Captain Kangaroo, and The Cosby Show. In 1982 Robinson was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease but managed to battle through it for twenty years, finally submitting to the disease in 2002. Although most generations of children that watched Sesame Street never saw Robinson as Gordon, Matt Robinson left his legacy on the series as a pioneering series dealing with race and multiculturalism that helped create a more tolerant world as children learnt racial diversity at a far younger age. Perhaps Robinson may not be the actor immediately identified as Gordon, but his vision made a difference.
Hal Miller, also known as Harold Miller, was the second actor to play Gordon on Sesame Street. He appeared on the show in Season 4 and Season 5, before passing on the role to Roscoe Orman.
Miller had previously performed on and off-Broadway in such stage plays as The Perfect Party, Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Twelfth Night. After Sesame Street, his film credits were limited to the independent film Distance, the sex comedy If You Don't Stop It... You'll Go Blind!!!, The Warriors (with Lynne Thigpen), and Born in Flames. TV credits include two appearances on Law & Order. In recent years, he has performed cabaret extensively in Europe and Southeast Asia.
Roscoe Orman (born June 11, 1944, in The Bronx, New York) is an American actor who plays Gordon Robinson on the television show Sesame Street. Orman joined the show in 1973, taking over as the third actor to play Gordon on the show (subsequent to Matt Robinson, 1969-1972, and Hal Miller, 1972-1973). The 38th season of Sesame Street marks Orman's 33rd as Gordon, a science teacher who is married to Susan and the father of Miles.
Orman was also featured in the blaxploitation film, Willie Dynamite in the eponymous lead role.
In September 2007, his children's book Ricky and Mobo was released.
Orman and his wife and daughter Cheyenne are residents of Montclair, New Jersey. His son, Miles Orman was on Sesame Street playing Gordon's son Miles Robinson from the mid-1980's into the early 1990's. Miles is a student at Marist College.