Matt Robinson (actor)
|Born||Matthew Thomas Robinson Jr.
January 1, 1937
|Died||August 5, 2002
Los Angeles, California
|Known for||Gordon Robinson
Sesame Street (TV)
|Children||Holly Elizabeth, Matthew Thomas III|
Matthew Thomas "Matt" Robinson Jr. (January 1, 1937 – August 5, 2002) was an African American actor. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on New Year's Day in 1937, he was the first actor to portray the character of Gordon Robinson on the long-running PBS children's TV program Sesame Street. When Sesame Street began in 1969, not only did Robinson play Gordon, but he also provided the voice of the puppet Roosevelt Franklin and also was one of the show's producers. He left the show in 1971. In later years, when producers needed a last name for the Gordon character, then played by Hal Miller and then Roscoe Orman, they used Matt's last name.
He wrote and produced the films Save the Children and Amazing Grace in the early 1970s, and authored scripts for Sanford and Son and Eight Is Enough. In 1983, he joined the staff of the NBC's The Cosby Show as a producer and staff writer. By that time, he was beginning to show symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, but stayed with the show for seven seasons despite the difficulty. He ultimately succumbed to the disease on August 5, 2002 in Los Angeles at the age of 65.
He is survived by his daughter, actress Holly Robinson Peete (21 Jump Street, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, For Your Love, The Talk.) son Matt Robinson III, his wife, Dolores Robinson, and five grandchildren.
Family, early life
Born Matthew Thomas Robinson Jr., to Matthew Robinson Sr. and Marie Robinson on January 1, 1937. His father worked as a postal worker and one of the first African American columnists for the Philadelphia Independent newspaper (Philadelphia Inquirer at the time), while his mother worked as an elementary school teacher.
Robinson attended West Philadelphia High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania before going on to Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania and graduating in 1958 with a degree from the College of the Liberal Arts and Sciences. While at Penn State, Robinson was elected president of the Penn State Omega Psi Phi fraternity, one of the first African American fraternities founded at a prominently African American college or university--Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Robinson began his media career in 1963 where wrote and soon after became a producer and on-air talent during a job at local television station WCAU-TV in his home town of Philadelphia. Here, Robinson produced and hosted Opportunity in Philadelphia, a weekly televised employment service oriented towards African Americans. By televising job opportunities, Opportunity in Philadelphia broke the "apprehension" involved when the poor African American sought out the employment office. He established his talent at WCAU-TV, ultimately leading to future successes as a producer and actor. Before that, in 1962, Robinson wrote a slave revolt drama titled Rained All Night.
Robinson's television breakthrough came in 1969 when he joined the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) to assist in the development of a new children's program for National Educational Television, Sesame Street—his initial role with CTW was to produce and oversee filmed segments focusing on the diversity of different characters on the show. Robinson was eventually chosen to play the fictional character of Gordon in the series, after the performance of the character in test episodes by another actor, Garrett Saunders, did not work out as the producers hoped. Gordon was the first character with spoken lines in the show, as a result of difficulty in finding someone to fill the figure. This was against his original intentions with joining the show as he preferred a behind-the-scenes role, and was initially reluctant to take the part. Dolores Robinson commented on his backseat role on the set with, "He was by nature shy, and he knew that they were having a difficult time casting Gordon. And the people overseeing the taping up in the booth, peering at the monitors, kept saying, 'Matt knows what to do. He should be the Gordon.'” He ultimately resigned from the role in 1972.
Despite resigning from the character Gordon, and the Sesame Street group officially in 1972, Robinson continued to work with the show, scripting and voicing Roosevelt Franklin sketches until 1975. Since 1972, two other actors, Hal Miller (1972–1974) and Roscoe Orman (1974–present) have played the role of Gordon. Later, when Gordon's surname was needed, Robinson's was used in tribute.
Robinson wrote the first Sesame Street themed storybook in 1972 and was titled Gordon of Sesame Street's Storybook. It was made up of four of his originally written children stories, "No More Milk", "Fisher-Man", "Fire-Man", and "A Lot of Hot Water". The cover has a Gordon Robinson caricature reading to different children.
While with CTW, Robinson also played the voice of a reddish-magenta puppet named Roosevelt Franklin. Robinson worked closely with Jim Henson to accurately design the first black influenced Muppet. Some other Muppets designed between Henson and Robinson were Baby Ray Francis, Mobley Mosey, and a Hispanic Muppet—A.B. Cito. Roosevelt Franklin promoted ideals such as family, pride, respect, and geography while also showing a passion for rhyming and blues music. Both creating and performing Franklin's voice for three seasons, Robinson played his puppet to one of the main characters on the show, in addition, Franklin continued to make appearances until 1975.
The puppet was pulled from the show because negative reception of the character from the African American community continued to grow. This was due to his frequent unruly behavior at the fictional elementary school, which was deemed a bad example for the audience. Additional arguments for his departure can be found in his over excessive black image or lack thereof. Dolores Robinson comments on this issue by stating that Roosevelt Franklin became a televised vehicle for her then husband's anger with racism and pride in the African American race. While Roosevelt Franklin represented a figure to associate with in the African American community, it would be important to teach the highest standard of the English language—some saw this is being not black enough for children to relate too though.
Robinson recorded and released the first Sesame Street album--The Year of Roosevelt Franklin (Gordon's Friend from Sesame Street) that was focused on a single character--Roosevelt Franklin. Released in 1971, and then re-released in 1974 under the name My Name is Roosevelt Franklin, the album focused on many appropriate behaviors for children growing up. Aside from the basic topics such as numbers and letters, also included in the album were traffic safety, sharing, and getting along with others. All tracks were co-written with the help of Joe Raposo. The album was again released on compact-disc in 2010 as a part of a set titled Old School: Volume 2, also including Grover Sings the Blues and The Count Counts.
Following his time with CTW, Robinson continued to produce and write for movies, television and the stage. Robinson wrote and produced, under the direction of Stan Lathan, Save The Children (1973), a musical performance that was a spinoff of Black Exposition (conducted by People to Save Humanity). Robinson would continue his work as a producer and writer in the 1974 film Amazing Grace, about a group of neighbors seeking to overthrow the a few shady, money hungry politicians in town.
Other post-Sesame Street work included writing episodes for Sanford and Son, The Waltons and Eight Is Enough, and writing and producing for Captain Kangaroo, a children's television series on CBS which aired from 1955 to 1984.
The Cosby Show (1983–1990)
In 1983, Robinson jumped on board the crew of NBC's The Cosby Show as a producer and writer. The family sitcom, which aired from 1984 for eight seasons until 1992, revolved around the life of the Huxtable family – an affluent African-American family in Brooklyn, New York. He co-produced and wrote several episodes during his seven-year tenure with the Cosby Show, further proliferating his success on television. During this time, Robinson transitioned between writer, executive story consultant, executive story editor, and soundtrack writer for over 50 episodes of The Cosby Show. His work ultimately culminated in him becoming co-producer of the show. He acted in his only episode, "Cliff's Nightmare", as the French Scientist.
The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit (1993)
Written by Robinson and directed by Bill Lathan, The Confessions of Stepin Fetchit is a one-man play which focuses on Lincoln Perry, who was once popular because of the black comic character in 1930's films but soon became under fire by civil rights advocates. This play was meant as a call to history as well as a discussion forum for reflection on Perry's life story as one of America's first African-American movie stars.
Awards and honors
- Daytime Emmy Awards – 1983, nominated (along with Bob Brush, Harry Crossfield, Martin Donoff, and Howard Friedlander) for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming-Writing for Captain Kangaroo
- Distinguished Alumnus Award from Penn State University (1994)
- 42nd NAACP Image Awards
Matt and his wife Dolores had two children together – son, Matthew Thomas Robinson III, and daughter, Holly Elizabeth Robinson (born September 18, 1964). At first, Robinson was skeptical about his children going into film and television despite his daughter's prominent role in television today, where she is well known throughout. Robinson Jr.'s marriage to Dolores ended in divorce.
Robinson was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1982 at the age of 45, but continued to battle the disease for 20 years. In 1997, during her father's struggle with the disease, daughter Holly Robinson Peete and her husband, NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, started the HollyRod Foundation.
In honor of and inspired by her father's fight with Parkinson's disease, the HollyRod Foundation was created to reach out to all those affected by Parkinson's disease or autism and provide medical, physical, and emotional support. Located within the Center for Parkinson's Research and Movement Disorders at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, the HollyRod Foundation is able to provide low to no-cost treatment as well as various services to the under-served in greater Los Angeles.
Robinson died in his sleep at his Los Angeles home on Monday, August 5, 2002 at the age of 65. A memorial service was held on the morning of Friday, August 9, 2002 at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, California. He is survived by daughter and actress Holly Robinson Peete, son and production assistant Matthew Robinson III, spouse Dolores Robinson, and five grandchildren.
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