Roscoe Orman is best known to most Americans as Gordon on the Sesame Street children's television program, a fixture of the Public Broadcasting System television network since the mid-1970s. With his shaved head, Orman seemed an almost ageless presence among the truly ageless Muppets in the show's regular cast. The seeming simplicity of Orman's Sesame Street performances was grounded in solid theatrical training; he began his working life as a stage actor and continued to expand his range as his career developed, having been freed from financial constraints by his success as a beloved icon of children's television.
Born on June 11, 1944, Roscoe Orman was a native of the New York City borough of the Bronx. Orman heard of the wonders of a theatrical life from his maternal grandfather, Hunter Wells, who had worked as a vaudeville performer and who entertained the family with tales of the stage. Orman took any chance he could to appear in plays and musicals, and his teachers encouraged his talents. He continued to win lead roles and chorus-concert solos even after transferring to the selective High School of Art & Design, and he sang in New York's All-City High School Chorus in his senior year.
Performed in Summer Theater
Orman worked cutting picture-frame mats when he was young, but his life from his teenage years onward has been dominated by acting. New opportunities were opening up for African Americans in New York theaters in the early 1960s, and the producers of a musical revue called If We Grow Up asked him to join the show in 1962. He took acting classes at New York's Circle-in-the-Square Theatre with noted teacher Michael Kahn, and he appeared in a summer production of the musical The Fantasticks on Long Island. After joining the Actors' Equity union around 1964, Orman began to make a living as an actor. For two years he toured with the Free Southern Theatre of New Orleans, and when he returned to New York, he became a founding member of the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem.
Remaining with the New Lafayette Theatre for five years, Orman appeared in numerous productions with the company and also directed several plays. He became well known in New York's theatrical world with appearances in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. After being invited by director Gilbert Moses to take the lead role in Willie Dynamite, one of the last of the classic so-called "blaxploitation" films, Orman began to think about a big-time film career. Movies hadn't come as far as New York theater in ending discrimination, however. "Hollywood was a one-shot thing," he recalled to Nadine Goff of the Wisconsin State Journal. "The black movement was in full swing, but Hollywood didn't have a Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman yet."
Unsure of what to do next, Orman auditioned for the role of Gordon on Sesame Street, which was open after the character's creator Matt Robinson had left the show and briefly been replaced by another actor. Orman had little experience performing for children and was nervous as he auditioned opposite Muppet Oscar the Grouch. "At first I found it strange, talking to an inanimate object at the end of someone's arm," he told Joan Finn of New Jersey's Montclair Times. But as a five-year-old child became part of the audition situation, Orman loosened up. "I began to relate after watching how the children on the show would suspend disbelief and establish a relationship with the puppet characters," he recalled to Finn.
Brought Own Son into Cast
When Orman got the part, he became part of an award-winning program that was eventually broadcast in more than 140 countries. The friendly Gordon Robinson was a familiar face to kids and to nearly anyone with kids over much of the world. Orman enjoyed his interactions with Muppets creator Jim Henson and the rest of the tight-knit Sesame Street team. And the early years of the show coincided with Orman's own experiences of parenthood as he and his wife Sharon raised four children. Orman's son Miles, a future basketball star at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, played his Sesame Street adopted son Miles between 1987 and 1992, and his three daughters also made occasional appearances on the show.
More generally, he told Brendan McGarry of the Buffalo News, "I think being on the show has probably made me a better parent and more sensitive to early childhood experiences. The show has taught a lot of people, both parents and kids, things like sharing and cooperation." And the hallmark of the show's philosophy, he pointed out to Tom Feran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "is that we really respect the audience. The premise is that they are intelligent, eager to learn, full of imagination and fun."
Orman found himself in demand for live appearances at children's events, performing a one-man show of his own creation called The Safety Zone as well as Sesame Street events. He didn't let Sesame Street put an end to his career performing for adults, however. In fact, with filming on a year's worth of Sesame Street episodes being completed in four months, he had plenty of time to pursue other opportunities. He made guest appearances on hit television shows such as Sanford & Son and Kojak in the 1970s, and continued to make occasional appearances in such programs as the soap opera All My Children and the drama Law & Order. He also found small movie roles in such films as F/X (1986), Striking Distance (1993), and New Jersey Drive (1995), as well as the Sesame Street children's spinoff The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999).
Portrayed Stepin Fetchit—and His Creator
The bulk of Orman's efforts were devoted to live theater. One of his most ambitious projects was a one-man show called The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit, which he performed at the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere in Washington, DC, during Black History Month of 1995. Stepin Fetchit, whose real name was Lincoln Perry, was an African-American actor of the 1930s who specialized in often degrading comic caricatures of blacks, but who had both white and black fans and was widely praised for his talent. Orman was recruited for the show by Matt Robinson, his predecessor as Gordon on Sesame Street and later a producer on the show; Robinson had known Perry personally.
At a Glance …
Born on June 11, 1944, in the Bronx, NY; grandson of Hunter Wells, a vaudeville perfomer; married Sharon; children: three daughters and one son, Miles. Education: Graduated from High School of Art & Design, New York; studied acting at Circle-in-the-Square Theater School, New York.
Career: Actor, 1962–. Free Southern Theatre, New Orleans, LA, touring cast member, mid-1960s; New Lafayette Theatre, New York, founding member, 1967.
Addresses: Home—Montclair, NJ. Office—The Entertainment Business, 2075 Leedoms Dr., Newtown, PA 18940-9420. Web—www.theentertainmentbusiness.com.
The role was a challenge for Orman, who at first was repelled by the Stepin Fetchit figure. Learning of the complexity of the character and of the man who created him, however, Orman became more and more interested. In the play, he portrayed both Lincoln Perry and Stepin Fetchit. Orman won positive critical reviews for his performances. Some audience members were upset by the often racist content of the play. "They ask the question, 'Why do we have to see this?'" Orman told Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle. "And my answer is because it is the truth. Because it happened. It is part of our story. If we don't examine it and come to terms with that history, then I think we are limiting our own development."
In the early 2000s Orman started a production company of his own. Called The Entertainment Business, it allowed him to move freely among the age ranges he had dealt with in his performing career. He offered a program called Eyes on the Prize that wove music, poetry, and prose into a pageant of important moments in African-American history, structuring the show so that it could be tailored for audiences of any age. Word in 2002 that Gordon from Sesame Street had died shocked Orman's legions of fans, but in fact it was his predecessor on the show, Matt Robinson, who had passed away. Orman's career continued to flourish, with an appearance at Wisconsin's Madison Repertory Theatre, in the starring role of Troy Maxson in August Wilson's classic play Fences, among his stops in 2005.
Willie Dynamite, 1973.
The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, 1999.
Sesame Street, Public Broadcasting System, 1974–.
If We Grow Up, 1962.
The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit, 1995.
Buffalo News, July 11, 2002, p. C1.
Montclair Times (Montclair, NJ), January 27, 2005.
New York Times, June 16, 2000, p. E38.
New York Post, February 4, 2005, p. 96.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), March 30, 2000, p. E4.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), March 12, 1999, p. 21.
San Francisco Chronicle, February 4, 1995, p. E1.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), January 5, 1996.
Wisconsin State Journal, March 3, 2002, p. F1.
"Biography," The Entertainment Business, www.theentertainmentbusiness.com/Orman.htm (October 13, 2005).
"Roscoe Orman," All Movie Guide, www.allmovie.com (October 13, 2005).
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