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From 'Sesame Street' to 'Sopranos'

Bartlett exchanges chats with Elmo for love scenes with mobster
/ Source: The Associated Press

After filming an intimate scene with his girlfriend in “The Sopranos,” Steve Buscemi’s good-natured angst over actress Alison Bartlett’s other job on “Sesame Street” was laid bare.

“Everybody’s going to hate me!” Buscemi moaned. “I’m bedding down Gina!”

What would Elmo say?

Good-natured Gina, the veterinarian and “Sesame Street” neighbor for nearly two decades, semi-nude and in bed with a man? A mobster just out of prison, no less.

Even in a profession with vertigo-inducing character switches, Bartlett’s feat — simultaneously performing on television’s most violent show and probably its most gentle — is noteworthy.

“It is an extreme,” she said over lunch at an Italian restaurant last week. “An absolute extreme.”

Children’s Television Workshop, which makes “Sesame Street,” has rules about what outside work its performers can take on.

Lewis Bernstein, the show’s executive producer, said he trusted Bartlett to do what’s right.

He was able to see for himself Sunday, when the love scene involving Bartlett’s character, Gwen McIntyre, was scheduled to air.

Bartlett has been a member of the “Sesame Street” family since 1986, first portraying a student in a science class. Gina graduated college, came back to run a day care and is now a vet, even though Bartlett is allergic to dogs.

Before joining “Sesame Street,” Bartlett had prime “Sopranos” training: at age 12, she played a girl who chopped her boyfriend’s head off in a Gary Sinise-directed play.

Taking time off to have three children, “Sesame Street” was Bartlett’s only acting job for many years.

But in the past two years, she’s actively sought other work. She’s on a new series, “The Jury,” to air on Fox this summer. She played a prison guard raped by a prisoner on “Law & Order” and a closet lesbian schoolteacher on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”

“It’s a good thing my children go to bed at 8 o’clock,” she said.

Georgianne Walken, casting director on “The Sopranos,” said Bartlett nailed the audition for McIntyre’s character by capturing the maternal instincts of a woman who fell in love with a prison inmate.

It wasn’t a case where someone wanted to hire a “Sesame Street” character because of a perverse sense of humor, she said.

“When I brought her in the room I don’t think anyone realized what she had been doing prior to that,” Walken said. “We’re adults and we don’t watch (”Sesame Street”) anymore.”

At the same time, Bartlett said she pursued the role because “The Sopranos” is a great show, not because she was trying to break from the constraints of a long-established character.

She and her manager, Carolyn Anthony, cleared the job with Children’s Television Workshop. Bartlett’s contract with “The Sopranos” had a long list of activities she would not do, words she would not say.

When the love scene with Buscemi was filmed, Anthony watched from the control room. She demanded another take when Bartlett flashed too much skin during one run-through.

“The people who are looking to see something, they are going to be disappointed,” Bartlett said. “But if they are looking to see something from Gina, they will be pleased. They shouldn’t be comparing me to a Bada Bing (girl).”

Bernstein, her boss at “Sesame Street,” was looking forward to seeing it.

“Knowing her, Allison will probably have the good judgment to know what she could or could not do,” he said. “She’ll walk the line without us having to pass on the script, because I don’t think we want to be in that role.”

Children’s Television Workshop forbids its actors from making commercial endorsements for children’s products, or performing in roles on other children’s shows because it might confuse “Sesame Street’s” young fans.

The show asks actors not to appear in roles that would cast their “Sesame Street” characters in a bad light, he said.

“Sesame Street” is also careful in picking outside celebrities to appear on the show, which is done partly to attract parents to watch with their children. Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, was on three years ago to talk to children about fears.

Bartlett’s appearance on “The Sopranos” shouldn’t be a problem because any parent with common sense isn’t letting their preschool children watch the show, he said.

Bernstein can’t recall any problem with an actor over an outside job. A new season was six months of work when she started. Now in its 35th season, “Sesame Street” is making only 26 new episodes over two months, so producers can’t really complain when actors seek other work.

“Our actors should be able to have a life outside of ‘Sesame Street,”’ he said. “We hope that they will have the good judgment not to do things that would not reflect well on the show. And they know we’ll be watching to see if it’s good or not good. We don’t have long-term contracts.”

Still, seeing Gina in a clinch with Buscemi’s character may be tough for those Muppets to take.

Again, what would Elmo say?

“He’d probably use his high-pitched voice to say, ‘I saw Gina in bed,”’ Bartlett said. “And he’d probably need a good therapy session.”