Roscoe Orman never set out to be an expert on parenting.
Back in the mid-1970s, he was best known for starring as a pimp in the blaxploitation flick "Willie Dynamite." Young, handsome and socially conscious, Orman devoted himself to the provocative stage shows of New York's emerging black theater scene and campaigning for civil rights.
He'd also taken a fun, part-time gig playing a guy named Gordon Robinson on a children's show called "Sesame Street." But, as the third actor to play Gordon in just five years, he had no reason to assume he'd stick around for long.
Today, as a father of four and grandfather of five, he's been dispensing wisdom and kindness for nearly 35 years as the street's resident dad. The role of Gordon - a job he once assumed would be a tiny piece of his theatrical career - has turned him into a role model and touchstone for a generation of young parents.
At live events these days, parents are sometimes more excited than their offspring to meet him.
"Elmo, of course, is the favorite among the littlest kids. I tend to come out a little ahead with the grown-ups," Orman says.
Some ask for parenting advice. Others just want to shake Gordon's hand.
Preschoolers and the world around them have changed, but Gordon still calmly handles the problems they confront. He patiently teaches the alphabet to humans and Muppets alike, and even coaxes some warmth from Oscar the Grouch.
Two other actors played Gordon first, but the role grew once Orman arrived, says Michael Davis, author of "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street," due out in December.
"Immediately, Gordon became a much more mature, accessible, warm, multidimensional character who could play comedy but also could play serious," he says.
"He just emanated so much trust and believability."
Davis points out that Gordon and Susan have the longest African-American marriage in the history of television.
"They have successfully used Roscoe in so many situations to project an image of men - not just African-American men but men period - that is so positive and so strong," Davis says.
While Orman's Gordon character has become a role model for reasoned, caring parenting, the real Orman sees himself strictly as a storyteller and is writing and illustrating his second children's book, "Ricky's Hunting Lesson," a follow-up to last year's "Ricky and Mobo."
Orman prefers giving tools, rather than lessons, to parents and sharing pieces of his own history to help them find their way. His 2006 autobiography, "Sesame Street Dad," touched on his parenting experiences but stopped short of giving outright advice.
Last month, he signed on as "chief storyteller" for AudibleKids.com, a social networking and literacy site for kids that offers digital books.
Orman says many parents probably feel "left in the dust," as he does, when grappling with emerging digital technologies. But, given that iPods and cell phones are central parts of kids' lives, he's looking to help parents make them as educational as possible.
He likens his new work with AudibleKids to his early days at "Sesame Street," when many parents and teachers doubted TV could be beneficial for kids.
" 'Sesame Street' really changed the whole landscape of children's television forever." Orman says.
It's the same thing today with parents' new concerns about the digital technology that consumes children's attention, he says.
"For many grown-ups who are not as connected to it, there's a kind of apprehension and fearfulness about something so new and unknown," he says. "The children, of course, are totally tapped into it. They take it for granted."
In addition AudibleKids and his book projects, Orman hopes to continue adding to his long resume of film, TV and Broadway credits. And, at 64, he isn't giving up his gig as Gordon (and his heroic alter ego, "Trash Gordon") anytime soon.
He says it's the job of a lifetime to be teaching young kids even as their parents are reassured by his presence.