Tough Pigs News Extra

August 6, 2002

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Matt Robinson dies

From an AP article on Yahoo News

August 6, 2002

Reprinted without permission

 

   Matt Robinson, a writer for the 1980's sitcom The Cosby Show and the first actor to play kindly neighbor Gordon on the children's show Sesame Street died in his sleep on Monday after a 20-year struggle with Parkinson's disease. He was 65.

 

   Robinson began his show-business career in 1963 as a writer, producer and on-air talent at TV station WCAU in Philadelphia.

 

   In 1969, he took the role of Gordon on the PBS children's program Sesame Street and also performed the voice of purple-faced puppet Roosevelt Franklin. Robinson remained with the show until 1971.

 

   Robinson went on to produce and write the films Save the Children (1973) and Amazing Grace (1974). He also wrote several plays.

 

   As a television writer, he penned the scripts for Sanford and Son and Eight is Enough.

 

   He joined with fellow Philadelphia native Bill Cosby in 1983 as a staff writer and producer for the comedian's NBC family sitcom The Cosby Show.

 

   Though impaired muscle coordination from his Parkinson's disorder made work difficult at times, Robinson remained with the show for seven seasons. 

-- Associated Press

 

* * * * * 

 

Here's a little more information about Matt Robinson: 

 

   Matt Robinson was the first actor to have a speaking line on Sesame Street. In the first scene of the first episode, Gordon shows a little girl named Sally around the street -- she just moved to the neighborhood, and he introduces her to the rest of the cast. His first line is, "Sally, you've never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here, you're gonna love it!"

 

   One of the things I really like about him on Sesame Street is that he seems like a real person. Lots of the street scenes in the early days of Sesame Street were improvised -- especially scenes with kids -- and he always reacted in a really natural way. 

 

Here's a scene from the first episode (Nov. 10, 1969):

 

[ Gordon and Susan's apartment. Gordon enters with Sally, the new little girl on the block. Susan is baking. ]

 

Gordon

 

Hi, pretty lady!

 

Susan

 

Hi!

 

Gordon

 

See my pretty lady here?

 

Susan

 

Hello.

 

Sally

 

Hi!

 

Susan

 

Your name was Sally, right?

 

Sally

 

Right!

 

Gordon

 

She's been having a great time on Sesame Street. Met Big Bird, right?

 

Sally

 

Yeah.

 

Gordon

 

Mr. Hooper? And Bob?

 

Sally

 

Yeah.

 

Gordon

 

And -- all kindsa people.

 

Susan

 

Did you come for your cookies and milk I promised you?

 

Sally

 

Yes.

 

Susan

 

Well, why don't you have a seat, over at the table.

 

 

 

[ Sally sits down. ]

 

Gordon

 

And I haven't seen you -- (he kisses her cheek) -- all day

 

Susan

 

How are you?

 

Gordon

 

How you been doing?

 

Susan

 

Okay.

 

Gordon

 

Excellent. [ He sits down at the table. ] Sally? It's time for cookies. And some milk. You like milk?

 

Sally

 

Yeah.

 

Gordon

 

You do? Drink it all the time?

 

Sally

 

I love it.

 

Gordon

 

You love it? Really?

 

Susan

 

Well, that's good, it --

 

Gordon

 

She loves milk! You can't go wrong with Sally.

 

Susan

 

It's good for you.

 

Sally

 

When I was a little girl, I used to love coffee, but now --

 

 

 

[ Gordon laughs loudly to cover what Sally is saying. Both Gordon and Susan start talking at once to cover her. ]

 

Gordon

 

Well, that was just one short experience. Drink the milk. It's good for you. It makes good strong bones.

 

[ Sally drinks. Cut to a film insert about cows. ]

 

 

* * * * * 

 

Here's an excerpt from a New York Times Magazine article called "Report Card on Sesame Street" (May 24, 1970). I think it says a lot about how passionate, complicated and interesting Matt Robinson was:

 

   Sesame Street is male oriented for the same reason that the character of Gordon dominates the series. "This was done in order to upgrade the black male," said [producer Joan Ganz] Cooney. "We felt very strongly that it would be a good thing to show a black male who works and is strong and who is the force in the Sesame Street community, because the father is missing in so many slum homes."

 

   Yet Gordon as the force in the Sesame Street community does not necessarily reflect the views of Mrs. Cooney. "I am a feminist, myself," said the executive director, who, though married, is childless. "Our society doesn't need more babies, we need more doctors." So she pushed for Susan, who is portrayed as also married but childless, to get a job outside the home. "We felt we had put her down a little in making Gordon so important," Mrs. Cooney said. "Susan was just the little woman in the kitchen. We talked about making her a doctor, but it didn't seem real, with them living where they live."

 

   So the next scene in the continuing story of the people of Sesame Street has Susan discuss with her husband whether she should go back into nursing. "The reason we chose public health nurse," said Mrs. Cooney, "was that the medical services in this country are going to need more and more people. Then, too, we wanted a job with a uniform that little girls could identify."

 

   In the script, Susan wants Gordon to approve her intention to go down to the Public Health Department and renew her license, and Gordon approves. However, the dialogue is partly improvised; like many of Sesame Street's improvisational scenes, it is partly clumsy; and for that very reason, it is rather revealing. Susan tells Gordon that she wants to discuss whether or not she should go back to work, but no discussion actually takes place. "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 replies that he had spoken to her when she came back from Mr. Hooper's store, but she walked right by him without answering. Susan apologizes, explaining that the critical nursing shortage was on her mind. "If it bugs you that much, I'll tell you what," Gordon grumpily concludes: "Try it and see how it works out."

 

   Neil Smith, who has been directing the first season but is now leaving to return to soap operas, says that he would have liked more time to rehearse the improvisational material. "The show has a soft underbelly," said Smith. "It's on five hours a week, so we have to turn out a lot of tape. Some things have to go in the can, not because they are the way I want to see them, but because we've got to produce a certain amount of tape each week." This scene is clearly a case in point: what chiefly comes through is the ambivalence of actor Matt Robinson as a person toward the situation on which he is being asked to improvise. Off screen, Robinson says he realizes that feminists want to use Sesame Street to upgrade the female; still, he says, many black Americans consider that the most important role black women can play at present is as ego supports for their husbands. The problem with the scene as played is that it gives the impression that Gordon is acquiescing to Susan's desire to go back to work ("If it bugs you that much..."), but doesn't really approve. The effect is hardly a contribution to building a strong male image. I felt that this scene, at least, should not have gone into the can until there was agreement on the effect Sesame Street wanted it to achieve.

 

   The transition from this segment to the next is accomplished by Gordon as he watches Susan go off to the nurse's registry. "Well, she's happy now," he rather moodily tells a black child named Kwame and a white child named Ann. "And, speaking of happy people, take a look down there..."

 

 

Danny@ToughPigs.com

 

 

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