Somewhere tucked between the rumor that Marilyn Manson played Kevin on Mr. Belvedere and that Barry Williams slept with his TV Mom Florence Henderson is this urban legend that the Children’s Television Network (aka the CTW), the people that bring us the long running classic television series “Sesame Street”, killed off their lovable blue Muppet Grover in the early 1990s. I have had so many of my friends argue with me about this fact, saying that the message that the CTW was trying to say was that death wasn’t fair and even cute, cuddly and good people die too. I’ve even had at least one of my friends swear up and down to me that they saw the particular episode as a child and that Grover is, indeed, six feet under and teaching the worms the meaning of near and far. Look people – Grover is not dead. At no time did the CTW bury Grover. I mean, puppets don’t die. That’s the great thing about puppets! What happened is that due to the popularity of the annoying juggernaught known as Elmo, Grover’s importance on Sesame Street was compromised as Elmo began to steal his thunder. However, in the past year the CTW has been recognizing Grover again by giving him his own little program called “Global Grover” where, once again, Grover is teaching and entertaining children thus squashing the “Grover is Dead” rumors. No more playing “C is for Cookie” backwards for the hidden message on Grover’s death, okay people? However, now that we have cleared that urban myth up, the grim reaper has, on occasion, visited Sesame Street and death has occurred amongst the human characters of the series. Probably the most famous Sesame Street alumni to have passed through death’s door was the Muppet creator himself, Jim Henson, in 1990. While puppets may not be able to die, sadly their creators can. There have also been a few less publicized deaths on Sesame Street. Deaths of actors who, at the time, served as recognizable figures in our childhood but, due to the almost rarely publicized public personas of the Sesame Street cast members, we never really go to know them. So why don’t we pay tribute to these icons of our past and learn a little bit about these talented men as
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Matt Robinson (Gordon Robinson #1) – 1937-2002 - Sesame Street is not famous for pulling Darren Steven type switcharoo’s on its human characters. However, the only character in Sesame Street history that had ever been recast was the friendly father figure Gordon Robinson. 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.
Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) – 1908 – 1982 - Possibly the most famous of the Sesame Street deaths is that of the gruff yet grandfatherly Jewish grocer Mr. Hooper, proprietor of Hooper’s Store. The reason for this was because when actor Will Lee died in 1982 Sesame Street made the bold decision to deal directly with death by killing Mr. Hooper off as well. However, Will Lee had a very long and interesting career in acting long before Sesame Street made its debut in 1969.
A life long New Yorker, Will Lee began acting in the 1930s and slowly worked his way up to Broadway in character parts. He would bring his love for acting with him to Australia when he was stationed there in the army during World War II and between fighting the Japanese, Lee spent time staging and directing productions for the troops, as well as teaching acting classes to the troops overseas. Returning to New York after the war, Lee continued a successful career on Broadway and the occasional film. However, Lee’s career hit a stumbling block in the 1950s when he was blacklisted by the American House of Un-American Activities during Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare. A member of the Actors Studio, Lee was called as a witness to the Un-American Activities committee where he proved to be uncooperative. This led him to having a dry period in his career up until 1956 when he was cast as Grandpa Hughes on the soap opera “All My Children,” which he played up until he was cast as Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street. Lee also taught theatre throughout the 1960s and 1970s in both New York and Boston with his most notable student being James Earl Jones, whom Lee got to be the first celebrity guest star on Sesame Street in 1969.
The CTW’s original concept for Mr. Hooper was to have an older Jewish storekeeper who would be a bit short tempered, perhaps a bit scary at times, but to actually be a big softie and to show that a gap could be bridged between the elderly and children and that they both could learn from each other. However, it didn’t take very long for Will Lee to soften the character and very soon Mr. Hooper became one of the most beloved and endearing characters on Sesame Street. It was the fact that he was so loved, both by the audience and cast, that when Will Lee died suddenly of a heart attack his death became what the Emmy Awards would eventually identify as being one of the ten most influential moments in daytime television.
Will Lee died on December 7th, 1982 at age 74. After the problems expressed by Roscoe Orman in children not accepting replacement Gordon’s, the CTW no longer recast human characters and, instead, made it a habit to just quietly phase out actors who had left the series. However, the producers of Sesame Street saw Lee’s death as an opportunity to make a bold statement in children television history by using this event as a way to discuss the hard facts of death to children in a way they might understand. Thus it was decided that not only did Will Lee die, but his character, Mr. Hooper, had died as well. Now, it wasn’t the first time that a children’s show had dealt with the subject of death. Fred Rogers had dealt with death earlier with a dead goldfish and talking about death and sadness in a way that children could understand. Although this sounds pretty lame, it was actually a very well executed episode which earned Fred Rogers an Emmy Award. However, a dead goldfish is hardly as effective or as real as an endearing character that children had loved for over a decade. Thus, the team at the CTW developed a tender, yet frank, discussion between Big Bird and the human characters of Sesame Street over the death of Mr. Hooper.
This special episode aired in 1983 on Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving Day was planned as the CTW figured that parents would be home with their children for the holiday and that further discussion between children and parents about the subject of death could be dealt with. In this special episode the Sesame Street adults explain to Big Bird the meaning of death in a way that young children could understand and even dealing with different stages of grief like denial, anger and compromise. The scene was so powerful that at moments characters such as Bob and Maria couldn’t even suppress real tears. The death of Mister Hooper was praised by many television and parenting groups and was even turned into a picture book in 1984 titled I’ll Miss You Mister Hooper, which would further teach about death in a gentle manner for children who never saw that particular episode, nor an episode with Mr. Hooper at all. Thus, Will Lee’s influence in the development of children surpassed even his own life. To this day the character of Mr. Hooper, as well as the influence of his death, is remembered by old school Sesame Street viewers fondly.
Northern Calloway (David) – 1949-1990 – Possibly the most tragic death of the Sesame Street cast was jive talking hipster David who played Sesame Street’s number one cool cat from 1971 until just before his death in 1989. Throughout his life the immensely talented Calloway would be subject to whispers involving the subject of legal issues, illness and madness.
Northern Calloway had a life long love for the theatre. A New Yorker, Calloway graduated from the School of Performing Arts and immediately found work with the Lincoln Center Repertory Company. Soon afterward Calloway had stints at Stratford Ontario’s Shakespeare Festival and quickly found himself on the Broadway and off-Broadway stages. Even once he got his regular gig on Sesame Street, the theatre proved to be an essential part of Calloway’s life. He appeared on the New York stage throughout the rest of his life in various productions.
Northern Calloway was hired in 1971 as the first “new” human character since Sesame Street’s debut. His character, David, was created to be a positive older brother type character that might appeal to African American kids. David was hip, talked in jive, and was more in tune to street life than the older black characters, Gordon and Susan. However, what made David unique and a positive role model to urban children was that unlike the older boys that got involved in drugs and gangs in their neighbourhoods, David was not only studying in university to become a lawyer but he also held a part time job at Mr. Hooper’s store…and STILL managed to be the coolest cat on Sesame Street.
Northern Calloway also voiced the jive talkin’ rhyming Muppet “Same Sound Brown” which was sort of a Roosevelt Franklin knock off after the character was retired when Matt Robinson left the series. Eventually David was even dating the prettiest girl on the street, Spanish character Maria which was the first inter-racial relationship on children’s television. However, when Maria eventually married Luis in 1988, just prior to Calloway quietly leaving Sesame Street, viewers kind of wondered what was up.
What was up was that Northern Calloway was diagnosed earlier that year with stomach cancer. While he battled the disease for a little while on television, he was soon unable to continue work on Sesame Street and opted to be quietly written out of the series. However, Northern Calloway’s battle with cancer ended in January of 1990, only months after he left Sesame Street. Unfortunately, Calloway’s family rushed him to the closest hospital that happened to be a psychiatric hospital, which created rumors that Calloway had died in an asylum. Tragically these rumors were believable due to an unexplained episode in Calloway’s life ten years earlier.
In 1980 Nashville Tennessee police arrested a half naked Northern Calloway, who was wearing nothing but a Superman T-shirt, during a wild rampage in a quiet residential neighbourhood. Calloway had been in Nashville performing a Sesame Street themed stage production while staying at the home of the theatre’s marketing director. Apparently, sometime during the evening of September 20th, Calloway had beat his host with a metal iron, causing her to suffer a head injury and broken ribs, before tearing off half naked to the streets. In his rampage Calloway managed to break a series of windows, as well as take the iron to a car. Police found him by following a trail of the actors blood, caused by cuts suffered by shattered glass, and Calloway was reported to the police as muttering strange phrases and trying to eat grass. As police and ambulance drivers attempted to strap the enraged Calloway to a stretcher he was reported to have screamed “I’m David of Sesame Street and they’re trying to kill me.” When finally being interviewed days later about his rampage, Calloway was quoted by the Nashville Tennessean as saying, “It will be a sad, sad thing for the children to hear about this. I can’t remember a thing. I’ve never had a spell like this before.” Calloway was transferred to Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute for further study. However, the strange story of Northern Calloway’s insanity ends there. The woman whom he attacked lived and soon Calloway was not only out of the hospital but back on Sesame Street without the CTW batting an eyelash, and would play the role for another nine years without incident. Obviously Northern Calloway’s rampage was an isolated incident of temporary insanity and the story was quickly swept under the rug, allowing Northern Calloway to keep both his reputation and his career. However, those who remembered Calloway’s night of madness were quick to jump over the actors legacy when they found out that during his death he was treated at a psychiatric hospital. In reality Northern Calloway lost consciousness shortly after arriving at the psychiatric hospital and was immediately transported to the nearby Phelps Memorial Hospital where he died at age 41. Thankfully the stories of Northern Calloway’s madness were only told in whispers and rumors, thus not tainting his memory. Instead he will always be remembered as the funky and friendly singing hipster.
However, it has been asked many times why Sesame Street never dealt with Northern Calloway’s death in the same fashion as they did with Will Lee. The CTW felt that two major character deaths in a short span of years may be pushing the envelope a bit too much, thus it was explained that David had gone to live on his grandmother’s farm to help her, but still owned Hooper’s Store (which Mr. Hooper had willed to him) and managed it from afar while Gina ran the store. The CTW would honour the memory of Northern Calloway in their own way. When Elmo began his solo adventures he was often accompanied by a little orange Muppet-like stuffed toy which he had named David. Elmo’s favourite toy would be a tribute to Northern Calloway so that the name David would always be connected to Sesame Street.
The lives and the stories about these three Sesame Street actors only prove, once again, that there are stories to be told from all the actors that forge the path of our pop culture journey. Often, such as in the case of shows like Sesame Street, they are taken for granted for just “being there” instead of the stories of their lives and their careers being told. Hopefully these three talented and unique men will never be forgotten by the children that loved them, and the public that will never forget them. May their legacies live on, just as the Muppets that they played with still do.
POP CULTURE ADDICT BONUS
Now you can relive classic Sesame Street moments with Matt Robinson, Will Lee, and Northern Calloway via our good friends at YouTube. Whether youre just discovering them for the first time, or reliving a few old childhood memories, take the time just to see how great these three men were.
We’ll Miss You Mr. Hooper – Cited as one of the most important moments in daytime television history, the Sesame Street adults explain Mr. Hooper’s death to Big Bird.
Mister Hooper Gets a Mysterious Note - Mister Hooper and Gordon (Matt Robinson) deduct who sent him a mysterious note. Columbo these guys are not. Your average five year old could figure out who sent him the note. When Big Bird shows up Mr. Hooper loses his shit on him, displaying his famous temper.
Mr. Hooper Plays Pac-Man – Will “Mr. Hooper” Lee’s commercial for Atari hocking Pac-Man from the early 1980s.
What’s the Name of That Song? - Northern “David” Calloway leads the Sesame Street cast in “What’s the Name of That Song?” This clip shows just how well the Sesame Street cast work together and just simply liked each other.
Northern Calloway as Jasper Johnson – Oh c’mon. Just how much funkier can this guy get? Pure 70′s funk. David was the Sly Stone of Sesame Street I tell ya…minus the drugs and jail time of course.
The Cursed Prince – Grover (still not dead) tells the story of the Cursed Prince featuring David and Maria. Weren’t those two cute? What the hell was Maria thinking of leaving David for Luis?
Matt Robinson as Roosevelt Franklin - The magnificent Matt Robinson as funky Muppet Roosevelt Franklin teaches kids to sing their ABC’s. Kind of a preschool version of Issac Hayes. Has to be seen to be believed.
Gordon Makes Muppets - Matt “Gordon” Robinson builds “Anything” Muppets on an early Sesame Street episode.