?When Sesame Street debuted on November 10, 1969, no one could have accurately predicted that show would change television and education forever. By mixing puppets, animation and live action, the producers deliberately eschewed antiseptic Romper Room teaching techniques for a multicultural approach to children’s programming that was representative of how kids were actually growing up in cities across America. The diversity of the show’s human characters rang true with viewers and that, combined with content that was actually entertaining, was an immediate hit with tykes and their parents alike. Forty years and over 4,000 episodes later, the show is still going strong with no signs of stopping — even if Elmo and the overblown controversy regarding Cookie Monster’s taste for vegetables has dulled the series’ edge a bit. Much of the accolades swirling around the show’s recent 40th anniversary celebration gave only a passing mention to the humans who populated Sesame Street over the years. This is understandable since the larger than life personas of Big Bird, Oscar, Grover, Bert, Ernie and the rest of the Muppets featured on the program. Since it’s well established how awesome the Muppets are, it seems only fair that Topless Robot pay tribute to the flesh and blood characters who have lived along side of the furry folks for the past four decades. Here’s a look at the greatest non-Muppet regulars from the street where everything’s a-ok.
8) Sonia Manzano as Maria
Even if you never forgave her for ditching the eternally cool David to take up with the milquetoast Luis, you have to admit that Maria always brought a warmth to every segment she appeared in. Since 1971, Sonia Manzano has perennially become the first crush of kids across the globe (as the clip above shows, even The Count had a thing for her). More than just the fantasy object of puppet vampire foot fetishists, Manzano is a a driving force on Sesame Street — both through her role as Maria and as a longtime writer for the series. According to her website, she is currently working on a memoir that will comment on her work as a tireless children’s advocate and her legacy as a Latin American pop culture icon. Hopefully the book will also give us the dirt on what Guy Smiley was really like.
7 & 6) Loretta Long and Roscoe Ormanas Susan and Gordon
For kids growing up in an age where divorce was commonplace, the perfect romance between Susan (Loretta Long) and Gordon (Roscoe Orman) was televised wish fulfillment. Their enduring chemistry is even more remarkable given that Gordon is the only character ever recast in Sesame Street‘s 40-year history (he was originated by Matt Robinson and then briefly portrayed by Hal Miller before Orman took on the role in 1973). Throughout the years we’ve seen them teach the ABCs and 123s, console Big Bird as he attempted to cope with Mr. Hooper’s death and add to their family by adopting their son Miles. Luke and Laura, Sam and Diane and Kirk and Spock have nothing on Susan and Gordon. They might just be TV’s greatest couple. They’re certainly the most consistent.
5) Northern Calloway as David
Despite its long run, Sesame Street has been largely devoid of E! True Hollywood Story-style backstage turmoil. An unfortunate exception is Northern Calloway, who played law student/Mr. Hooper’s store shopkeeper David from 1971 to 1979. Following a nervous breakdown in 1980 that resulted in an assault — something that went unreported in those heady pre-TMZ days — Calloway returned to the show and sporadically struggled with bipolar issues before tragically dying in 1990. Conflicting reports state that his passing was either related to stomach cancer or a heart attack that was brought on by mental illness while he was institutionalized in New York (the latter being cited as the cause of death by the coroner). The David character was like your cool uncle: a great dresser and ladies man who was up on the latest music and always able to find time to help you with your problems. Whatever the true circumstances of his death were, it’s probably best to remember Calloway this way too.
4) Matt Robinsonas Gordon
Roscoe Orman may be the longest running Gordon, but Matt Robinson was the first. With a friendly persona and the most stunning set of muttonchops ever to appear on television, Robinson had the privilege of speaking Sesame Street‘s first words when the show debuted in 1969. His Gordon was an intelligent, kind and streetwise dude who quickly became the show’s most realistic and relatable human character. He also helped create and voice underrated Muppet extraordinaire Roosevelt Franklin. After three seasons on the show, Robinson gave up the role of Gordon but continued overseeing Franklin segments until some demented viewers began complaining that the character was too rowdy/reflected negative African-American stereotypes and the Children’s Television Workshop got skittish and yanked the purple puppet off the airwaves. Insanity.
3) Paul Benedict as The Mad Painter
Best known as Harry Bentley on The Jeffersons and as the scene stealing concierge in This Is Spinal Tap, Paul Benedict portrayed the number-obsessed Mad Painter in a variety of shorts that aired during Sesame Street‘s early years (there were only 10 of these segments ever produced, though through the magic of repeats it seems like there were many more). The Mad Painter might have a raging case of OCD and he’s clearly stalking Stockard Channing, but thanks to Benedict’s performance the character’s borderline criminal antics are downright charming.
2) Will Lee as Mr. Hooper
Before the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, 1980s kids’ JFK moment was where they were when they learned of Mr. Hooper’s death. When the infamous “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” episode aired on Thanksgiving 1983, a bit of a generation’s innocence died along with the character. That might sound like an overstatement, but you’d be hard-pressed to name a TV character whose death had such an enduring impact on young viewers. Like a non-creepy version of the “don’t squeeze the Charmin” guy, Will Lee’s portrayal of Hooper as a kindly grandfather figure endeared him in the hearts of the audience. So you can hardly fault them for completely losing their shit when they heard that he had left Sesame Street for the big variety store in the sky. My personal favorite Mr. Hooper memory? When he saved Ernie and Bert’s holidays by returning their prized possessions that they traded in order to buy gifts for each other in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. Or this Atari ad in which Will Lee seems bemused by Pac-Man.
Of course, he may have just been angry that the Atari adaptation of Pac-Man sucked so hard.
1) Bob McGrathas Bob
Bob McGrath has been with Sesame Street since the very beginning and he is totally sensitive, a great musician and a good listener and all that whathaveyou. But here’s the thing about Bob that will blow your minds: dude is a singing sensation in Japan. Just picture a karaoke bar in Tokyo full of salarymen unwinding to the ballads of Mr. McGrath. Would they sing songs? Sing out loud, sing out strong? Sing of good things not bad? The mind boggles! If he were here right now I would tell him how amazing he is. Hell, I’d tell him in sign language. Who are the people in your neighborhood? If they are like Bob you are very lucky indeed.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.