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Robinson, Matt

Matt Robinson

1937-2002

Television writer, producer, performer

Even though he is best known as the first actor to play the amiable history teacher Gordon on the popular children's television series Sesame Street, Matt Robinson made many more contributions to the small screen. Besides originating the Gordon character, Robinson worked as a writer and producer on the show. He helped the program achieve its mission of speaking to children of different races and cultures and created some of the first African-American characters on children's television. Leaving Sesame Street after only three years, Robinson went on to build a career as a successful screenplay writer, penning several films and writing for popular sitcoms. As the head writer and producer of The Cosby Show during the 1980s, he became one of television's most prolific writers.

Matthew Thomas Robinson Jr. was born on January 1, 1937, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Matthew Robinson Sr., a postal worker and freelance writer for the Philadelphia Independent newspaper, and Marie Henson Robinson, an elementary teacher. Early on, his parents modeled a life of writing and teaching that would shape his career path later in life. In All about Sesame Street, Robinson told Phyllis Feinstein, "I was surrounded by teaching and education all my life. My mother is a teacher; my father taught for a time…. School counselors, neighbors, and friends were always urging teaching as a career." After graduating from West Philadelphia High School, he attended Pennsylvania State University, earning a degree in English in 1958.

In 1962 Robinson penned his first script, the CBS television drama Rained All Night, about a slave revolt. The following year, he took a job as a writer, producer, and on-air host at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. There, he earned a reputation for writing and producing black-oriented public affairs programs, such as Opportunity in Philadelphia and Black Book. This work attracted the attention of the creative staff at the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), which was formed in 1966 with the aim of creating quality television programming for children of all races and backgrounds, but especially black children in America's inner cities. In their eyes, Robinson's work was a natural fit with their vision.

In 1969 Robinson was invited to join the CTW staff as one of three producers of the program Sesame Street. He was to supervise the show's "people" segments (as opposed to the animated parts of the show), focusing in particular on people of different lands. His work took him across the country and the world.

Robinson and his staff created the character of Gordon, whom they envisioned as a father figure who would guide children through the Sesame Street neighborhood. Robinson had never intended to be an actor—his first love was writing—but when the producers had trouble finding the right actor for the part, a colleague suggested that Robinson give it a shot. According to Feinstein, Dave Connell, a CTW co-founder and the originator of the Sesame Street series, said that "[a]bout three minutes into the first scene, we knew we had found our Gordon."

Though Robinson was initially reluctant to take on the part of Gordon, he was inspired by the possibilities of the role, seeing it as a chance to portray a strong, positive father figure—something that many black children lacked, in his view. He told Feinstein, "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 the kindly yet paternal Gordon, Robinson spoke in a mixture of standard English and vernacular black slang, aiming to communicate with children in a more familiar way. Robinson told Feinstein, "When kids are comfortable, they speak whatever way is natural, and I respond on that level." Even though some criticized his use of "improper" language, he defended his choice: "‘Black English’ involves all sorts of things. Tone, inflection, pacing. I think we should communicate with children in whatever way they understand."

Robinson also worked with the Muppets creator Jim Henson to develop the character of Roosevelt Franklin, a purple-faced, jive-talking puppet who sang songs. Robinson helped Henson create other multicultural puppets, such as the black puppets Baby Ray Francis and Mobley Mosey and the Hispanic A. B. Cito. In 1971 these characters appeared on the album The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, which featured tunes about the alphabet and the days of the week, as well as racial issues.

Robinson left Sesame Street in 1972 to pursue his passion for writing, although he continued to do segments as Roosevelt Franklin until 1974. Wishing to keep Gordon on the show, the CTW staff replaced Robinson with the actor Hal Miller for one season and then with Roscoe Orman, who played the character thereafter and who is probably better remembered as Gordon than Robinson.

As a screenwriter, Robinson first scripted the film The Possession of Joel Delaney, starring Shirley MacLaine, in 1972. He wrote and produced the documentary Save the Children in 1973 and, the following year, the film Amazing Grace, starring Rosalind Cash and the African-American actor Stepin Fetchit. He would later write and produce a one-act play about the controversial actor, The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit (1993), in which the title character was played by Roscoe Orman. The Off-Broadway production received critical acclaim.

Robinson worked as a writer for the television shows Sanford and Son, Captain Kangaroo, and Eight Is Enough before being invited by fellow Philadelphian Bill Cosby to write and produce the NBC sitcom The Cosby Show. Robinson was with the show for six seasons, advancing to head writer and producer despite a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, which impaired his muscle coordination and sometimes made it difficult to work.

In 1997 Robinson's daughter, the actress Holly Robinson Peete, and her husband, the football player Rodney Peete, established the Hollyrod Foundation, which is dedicated to providing medical, physical, and emotion support for patients and families suffering from Parkinson's disease.

After a twenty-year struggle with the disease, Robinson died at his Los Angeles home on August 5, 2002, at age sixty-five.

At a Glance …

Born Matthew Thomas Robinson Jr. on January 1, 1937, in Philadelphia, PA; died August 5, 2002, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Matthew Thomas Robinson (writer) and Marie Henson Robinson (teacher); married Dolores James, February 13, 1960 (divorced 1981); children: Matt Robinson III and Holly Robinson Peete. Education: Pennsylvania State University, BA, 1958.

Career: WCAU-TV, writer, product, on-air talent, 1963-68; Sesame Street, writer, product, and performer, 1969-72; film and television writer and producer, 1972-85; The Cosby Show, writer and producer, 1985-91.

Memberships: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; Writers Guild of America; Dramatists Guild.

Awards: Samuel Barsky Memorial Poetry Award, 1958; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image Award, 1988; Humanities Award, 1985; Black Film Festival, Jamaica, 1973; Emmy Award, 1970; Pennsylvania State Distinguished Alumni Award, 1994.

Selected works

Books

The Pecan Tree, Random House, 1971.

A Lot of Hot Water, Random House, 1971.

The Six-Button Dragon, Random House, 1971.

The Gordon of Sesame Street Storybook, Random House, 1972.

Films

The Possession of Joel Delaney (writer), 1972.

Save the Children (writer and producer), 1973.

Amazing Grace (writer and producer), 1974.

Television

Sesame Street (actor, writer, producer), 1969-72.

The Cosby Show (writer), 1985-91.

Plays

The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit, 1993.

Recordings

The Year of Roosevelt Franklin, 1971 (rereleased as My Name Is Roosevelt Franklin in 1974).

Sources

Books

Feinstein, Phyllis, All about Sesame Street, Tower Publications, 1971.

Periodicals

New York Times, March 27, 1993; August 8, 2002.

Variety, August 6, 2002.

Online

Hollyrod Foundation,http://www.hollyrod.com (accessed June 12, 2008).

—Deborah A. Ring

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