Sure, they're cute. But some of Sesame Street's Muppets are difficult to work with, admits Roscoe Orman, who ought to know. He's played Gordon on the PBS kids' show for more than 30 years. But it's not the usual suspects (hello, camera-hogging Elmo! We're talking to you, super-freakin'-huge Big Bird!) that give Orman trouble. "Oscar's a rag with huge eyeballs and grungy green fur," he says. "He insults me throughout scenes. He's a challenge."
Except for the occasional run-ins with Oscar and Grover ("He's unpredictable"), Orman says much of the cast is level-headed. "Most of them are easy to work with," he laughs. He even has favorites. Elmo's actually a delight, he says. "But you have to develop relationships with the puppets and suspend all disbelief."
Just don't get him started on the program's shift to a more puppet-centered agenda in recent years. "The format has changed, so there isn't as much interaction between the human cast and Muppet characters," he sighs. "I think the show suffers from not having that interpersonal relationship between the whole community, like it used to. But it's much less demanding for the rest of us. I'm one of the busiest of the human cast, and even I don't have [much to do]."
Orman appears at this weekend's KidsFest, where he'll lead kids (and parents) through a musical stage show that takes its cue from a certain award-winning, generations-spanning children's TV show. "It's more fun than being in the studio," he says. "I get kids onstage with me to play games. You never know what's going to happen."
Since landing the role of the amiable Gordon in 1972, Orman says, he and his lesson-dispensing character have become inseparable. "When grown-ups find out that my name isn't really Gordon, I can see their disappointment," he says. "The characters that we play on the show have pretty much evolved to be closer to our own personality types and even our interests.
"In the early days, we were asked by the producers, 'What kinds of things do you like to do? What kinds of things are you interested in?' [Stuff] that might lend itself to our characters. That really helped to shape who the characters came to be."
At least Gordon's more admirable than the titular fast-talking pimp Orman played in the 1974 blaxploitation flick Willie Dynamite ("Ain't no one crosses Willie D," states its tagline). "That one was not based on Roscoe," he laughs. "I had to research that one a little bit more."
Orman's also appeared on Law & Order and Sex and the City, and claims there's little difference between screen roles in the Bruce Willis shoot-'em-up Striking Distance and the more family-friendly Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. "I'm a character actor," he says. "All my jobs involve me playing someone else. But with Gordon, it just fits a little more comfortably into my own persona."
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