Matt Robinson (January 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.
Born in Philadelphia, Robinson graduated from Pennsylvania University in 1958 and penned the 1962 CBS slave revolt drama Rained All Night. Robinson began writing and producing black-oriented public affairs shows for Philadelphia TV station WCAU-TV, such as Opportunity in Philadelphia. Joining the creative staff at Children's Television Workshop, Robinson was initially hired to supervise the filmed segments focusing on people in different lands.
When the production team had difficulty finding the right actor for Gordon, who had been created as a strong male figure, Robinson took the part, and had the first spoken lines in the premiere episode of Sesame Street. He took his role seriously, as a role model for African-American children who lacked a positive father figure. "Somewhere around four or five," Robinson stated in the book All About Sesame Street, "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."
Robinson portrayed Gordon with an amiability and paternal attitude while occasionally alternating between standard grammar and "black" English, as the scene demanded and to better allow inner-city viewers to relate to the character. His dedication to Gordon's role model status occasionally led to conflicts with the show's other goals, as when complaints from feminists led to a 1970 storyline in which Susan takes a job as a nurse. All About Sesame Street described the situation:
“Many people felt that Susan's role as dutiful wife to dynamic Gordon was a put-down to women. So they pushed to have Susan get a job outside the home... In that day's script, Susan wants her husband to approve her intention to go down to the Public Health Department and renew her license. And Gordon does -- grudgingly. Susan tells Gordon that she wants to discuss whether or not she should go back to work, but no discussion actually transpires. 'After all,' she begins, 'I'm a trained nurse and I just think they could use my services, and I was wondering what -- how you felt about it, what you thought about it?' To this awkwardly phrased question, Gordon grumpily states, 'If it bugs you that much, I'll tell you what. Try it and see how it works out.
Off screen, Robinson stated how he actually felt toward the situation. He realized that feminists wanted to use the show to upgrade the female. Still, he maintained, many Black men consider the most important role for a Black woman at this time is to be an ego support for her husband. The problem with the scene as played is that it gave the impression that Gordon is capitulating to Susan's desire to go back to work but doesn't really approve -- hardly a contribution to building a strong male image.”
In contrast to later Sesame Street cast members, Matt Robinson was also reluctant to have his children perform before the camera, though eventually son Matt Jr. and daughter Holly Robinson (later to star on 21 Jump Street) filmed a scene with him.
Robinson played Gordon in stage appearances and records, and also penned the 1972 volume Matt Robinson's Gordon of Sesame Street Storybook, an illustrated anthology of Robinson's original stories. He also scripted the Roosevelt Franklin segments and recorded the voices of Roosevelt and many other characters (including Baby Ray Franklin and Mobity Mosely) for the record album The Year of Roosevelt Franklin.
Robinson resigned from his role as Gordon on Sesame Street in 1972. However, as late as 1974, Robinson was still scripting and voicing Roosevelt Franklin segments for the series.
After leaving the series, Robinson returned to screenwriting, scripting the Shirley MacLaine thriller The Possession of Joel Delaney, contributing episodes of Sanford and Son, and writing and producing the musical documentary Save the Children and the comedy film Amazing Grace. The latter starred Rosalind Cash and aging African-American film pioneer Stepin Fetchit. Matt Robinson befriended the controversial actor in his last years, and following Fetchit's death, penned a one-man play, The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit. The play premiered in Off-Broadway at the American Place Theatre in 1993, starring Roscoe Orman, Robinson's long-term successor as Gordon. Orman subsequently toured with the play.
In 1982, Robinson was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He continued to work, however, contributing scripts to Captain Kangaroo and becoming producer and head writer for The Cosby Show. He made a rare return to the camera in the 1990 episode "Cliff's Nightmare", which featured Muppet guest stars. In 2002, Robinson died at the age of 65.
“On Sesame Street I'm in a lot of trouble because I try to retain as much of the vernacular as possible. When kids are comfortable, they speak whatever way is natural, and I respond on that level. For instance I think that grammar's often a big hangup. I majored in English (at Penn State), so I respect the language, but I don't think I'd correct a child on the air, or anywhere else. If you say, 'Your grammar is incorrect,' what you are saying is that his parents, his environment, all the people he associates with, are wrong. That can cause all kinds of psychological problems. What you can tell a child is, 'There's a different way to say that.' What concerns me is making value judgements... The safe but dull norm isn't natural. A standard is imposed, a definite kind of propaganda for certain values. 'Black English' involves all sorts of things. Tone, inflection, pacing. I think we should communicate with children in whatever way they understand.”
- Children's Television Workshop Season 3 press release, November 1970: "A versatile artist, Robinson created the character Roosevelt Franklin which Muppeteer Jim Henson has translated into an engaging black puppet figure. Robinson has written several songs for Roosevelt and voices the character as well."
- Feinstein, Phyllis. All About Sesame Street, Tower Books, 1971.
- NYTimes Review