This is the third installment of a three-part interview with R. Bruce Connelly, the performer of Sesame Street‘s Barkley since 1993. Click here for part one and here for part two. In today’s installment, Connelly talks about inhabiting Fozzie Bear, riding in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, personifying George Burns onstage, and Barkley’s potential future! (This interview has been edited for clarity.)
TP: Your LinkedIn also mentions “Fozzie Bear walkaround character.”
RBC: Yes! I only got to do that once. I had the audition – and who doesn’t love Fozzie Bear? I put in my DVDs and studied him on the show, and we had this choreography, this whole dance we had to learn. I memorized his gestures – playing with his tie and his nervousness and so on.
Then I also added things, like where all of us would have to turn to the right and walk around in a circle, I would go to the left and then correct myself. Fozzie wouldn’t know all the choreography. He makes mistakes here and there.
That was a great costume. He had a huge, wide mouth – all the air you want. It was a wonderful costume to breathe in.
TP: Was that a theme park show, or what was that for?
RBC: We did that at BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music]. Now why did we do that…? That had to be sometime in the ‘90s as well. I think it was some sort of “World Children’s Day” or some sort of UN event. There was a Piggy character, a Kermit character, and the Fozzie. We did the show several times a day, and then we would hang out with the kids in the lobby and play with them. That was great because I didn’t need to get out of the costume because it’s so airy. And he’s walking on his own two feet like Bozark.
TP: Nothing too strenuous.
RBC: Yeah, you’re not on crutches. Your arms are your arms and your fingers are your fingers.
TP: That must have been a nice change of pace.
RBC: Yeah. Knowing the character so long before I got to play him, and to be playing a walkaround Fozzie, that was such a pleasure. I hope so much for Fozzie. You want things to go right for him, but he’s so sad and desperate, and those guys are mocking him all the time. He’s trying his hardest! He’s such a heart-wrencher, you know?
TP: He’s such a lovable character.
RBC: He really is. It was a pleasure to be part of Fozzie for whatever length of time I was. I was always hoping that he’d be around more, like in a parade or something.
Oh, that’s something that’s cool! The parade! Barkley got to be in the parade for a few years.
TP: You were in the Macy’s parade?
RBC: Yeah! I don’t think he’d been in the parade until I started doing him, and then they added him in. The cool thing about that is Barkley is the one character who can move around on the float.
TP: He can actually move around, unlike the other puppets.
RBC: Right. And it’s funny, the calling out from the audience as you’re going down the street is amazing. The cheers for the Muppets. I just hear: “Big Bird! Big Bird! Elmo! Elmo! Big Bird!” Hundreds of voices shouting “Big Bird!”
Then I hear one little girl go “Barkley!” And I could react to her! I could find her in the crowd and react to her, and then she would react to that. The one little girl shouting “Barkley,” I could run over to her side of the float.
RBC: I was also on the float in 2001, after the attack on the World Trade Center. There were a lot of policemen lining the streets, and we didn’t know what to expect. What was the world going to be like at this point? Was it safe to even be doing this?
I saw all these policemen, and I had once worked with a dog who couldn’t stand anyone wearing a hat. If anyone had a hat on, the dog would bark.
TP: That’s funny, because I had a dog who had that exact same thing. Anyone in a hat.
RBC: Yeah, even though I understand dogs, I don’t know what that means. I also knew dogs who would bark at people in uniform. I worked with a vet near me who had rescue dogs, and I would volunteer to walk them and take them to the park and socialize them. Are they having trouble with bigger dogs? Are they having trouble with dogs of the same sex? And check all these things out, so when somebody adopted them, it’d be fewer surprises. Is this dog good with cats? All this stuff.
I would see all these things, and all dogs are different. I decided on that day that I would bark at police with hats. And there were so many! [laughs] They were all so serious, of course, doing their job. I would bark, and run around the float to them when I would see them, and I could see them start to smile. Then I’d see them surreptitiously take a picture – phones with cameras were new, so I didn’t know what they were taking out of their pockets, if they were going to tase me or something. They were taking pictures quickly and then sliding their phone back in their pocket.
But I thought that was cool. Here are these guys, doing their job to keep people safe, so to be able to give them a smile… And then I’d sit down and I’d wag my tail or I’d roll over to show I’m no threat to them. I can see they’re safe. I don’t have to worry about that big hat on your head and now I can be a regular dog.
TP: That’s great!
Well, we haven’t seen Barkley for a while, and I’ve heard that the puppet is in disrepair, which is really unfortunate.
RBC: Well, they have repaired him. It was February of 2020 that I was called in, and they were repairing him, and I had one day one week, and another day the next week, and they were working on him because all his foam was crumbling… And then the world shut down. March of 2020 happened.
RBC: I got to visit with him and see his head. I opened the box, and there’s his big head. He always looks happy, and we’re like, “He hasn’t been walked in a while. He wants to have a walk.” So I got to visit with the costume a bit – it’s always, when you go to the shop, his body is in pieces. His body’s on a hanger and his tail’s over on a table, so it’s very strange for me. It’s like seeing Snuffy hanging from the ceiling: “Why’s Snuffy up there? Why’d you take Barkley’s head off?”
But they got a new helmet, they were working on the weight of the head… Last time I was there they had sculpted a whole new head inside, so his face was reconstructed. Do you know that Barkley actually has eyes?
TP: No! I don’t know that we’ve ever seen them.
RBC: We never have. There was one time I was at the vet in the show – Gina was the vet – and they actually check his eyes – and I realized, the way they had shot it, they didn’t actually uncover them. He has the most beautiful, many-faceted… It’s like a big black button eye. It’s so twinkly. And I saw it accidentally. I had no idea he had eyes under all that fur. But they’re beautiful! He can’t see through them, just between you and me, but he has eyes.
TP: I had no idea.
RBC: But it was good to see that he was being reconstructed at that point.
TP: Yeah! It sounds like they had plans to do something new with him, and then they just had to put it on hold.
RBC: Right. I haven’t been over to “the street” since COVID began. The restrictions there are much tighter. On a normal day I could have gone and visited, but I think there’s a limit to how many people can be on the set at a time.
TP: Are you aware of Tango, the new character who’s Elmo’s puppy?
RBC: Yeah, I was talking to Marty Robinson, and he said one of their ideas was to make Barkley Elmo’s dog, but they went with another dog. I haven’t actually seen Tango.
TP: She’s a very cute character. She’s just a regular-sized Muppet, like a hand puppet. But it’s a similar kind of thing, where she just acts like a real dog.
RBC: She doesn’t talk? She’s like a real dog?
TP: Yeah, she barks and pants. But when you said that about rebuilding Barkley, I wondered if there was some intention of pairing up the two of them. Any time Sesame Street posts on social media about Tango, the comments always have people saying, “Tango is cute, but I wish we could see Barkley again!” There’s a lot of Barkley fans out there.
RBC: Aww, that’s nice to hear. There’s a friend of mine in Yorkshire, England, whom I met at a comic con. She was in a steampunk coat and caught my eye – lovely lady, red hair, tiny – and she looked a little shy, and she was shy, and she wore the steampunk coat to make her braver. She turned out to be a writer and publisher, and I went to visit in 2018. I met her children, and they only call me Barkley. It’s like, “Actually, my name is Bruce…” [laughs]
One little girl just couldn’t quite figure out who I was or how I could be connected with Barkley, and then she came out with, “Bruce? Do you have two hearts?” I said, “Two hearts?!” She said, “Yes. A man heart and a dog heart?”
RBC: You get these questions, and… “Let me write that down! I don’t know how to answer it!” [laughs] “No… I’m a man who plays a dog…”
But that lady started publishing short stories in a quarterly book. She’s been publishing my short stories since 2019, which is cool. You know, you meet someone at Comic Con, you don’t necessarily think it’s going to go anywhere. But [her kids] are always talking about Barkley, not me. “Barkley’s on the phone!” Am I supposed to bark now?
TP: But again, that just shows how convincing you are at being a dog.
RBC: They were really baffled seeing me standing on my own two legs. [laughs] I hope she straightens it out at some point. The little girl still says “Barkley” on the phone, and she’ll send Barkley cards. At some point she’ll have to figure it out.
TP: I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but are there any other projects or anything we haven’t touched on?
RBC: I’ve done human roles, if you want to know about them. In between Barkley gigs I’m working on the stage. I just finished a six-week run as George Burns in a one-man show called Say Goodnight, Gracie. Somehow there’s always work for George Burns. I’ve done him in five different shows at this point. I’ve done Say Goodnight, Gracie twice, and there are two shows that were written based on the old TV show.
RBC: Yep. Then there was a musical that was put together about a guy that George Burns mentored, and George Burns had a scene. We did a backers’ audition, and then it turned out they didn’t have the rights to the music. So then it was, “Oh, you play George Burns? Here’s a job for you!”
TP: You have a reputation as being the go-to George Burns. And Say Goodnight, Gracie is a one-man show?
RBC: Yeah, it was recently at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut. That was during this whole [COVID] thing, so it was last fall, and it was strange being unmasked. Coming from New York, where we were being so careful, to eastern Connecticut, where they didn’t have an outbreak badly there. The seats were arranged so they were six feet away from each other. I was wondering how that was going to be for me, for my focus.
It’s an hour-and-a-half show, and there’s some film clips, and radio spots and so on. It wasn’t distracting, but we did catch one case of COVID at the theater. Somebody caught it, but they were testing us three times a week, so they caught it right away.
These theaters are so brave. Broadway shows are opening, closing, opening, closing. The Music Man, Hugh Jackman got sick and Sutton Foster got sick.
TP: It’s still such a strange time.
Does it feel like the same part of your brain that’s doing stage acting, that it’s similar to the puppeteer part of you?
RBC: No… That’s an interesting question. It’s funny, you know how [the Muppet performers] tape their lines to their legs, when they’re rolling around on their little scooty carts? Barkley, of course, can’t. I proudly say I memorize my barks. As far as memorizing lines, it’s completely different.
With George Burns, for this play… It’s 90 minutes long. It’s terrifying because you’re the only one out there. It’s not a conversation, it’s a monologue. Every day [of learning lines] I would go out in the park, and I would take a page. They kept changing it – it was going to be April 2020, then summer 2020, then fall, then February. All I knew was, at some point I was going to do it.
I would go out into the park, and every day I would mutter another page of dialogue and put it back with what I’d already memorized, and each day I would do that. I figured, if I can do this in the park, with all these distractions, then I can do it in front of an audience.
Then I found that everyone’s in the park with their masks on, and they’re all wearing their phones in their ear now. So I realized I could just talk out loud. I didn’t have to mutter anymore. I could just talk.
TP: They would just think you were on the phone.
RBC: I’d be doing all my jokes for the birds and the squirrels. No one ever laughed, but I knew by the time I had to do it, I know the script. I remembered Julie Andrews saying a teacher told her, an amateur rehearses until they get it right, and a professional rehearses until they can’t get it wrong. I thought that’s a great way of putting it. It was something I was doing every day, going to the store, talking behind my mask.
TP: Are you doing a George Burns voice for this?
RBC: Yes, and my voice isn’t at all like his, and I didn’t want to do damage to my throat. It’s so gruff. I found a way to put more air through it. I’m not an impressionist, either, but I could get the sound and the quality of it, so if [lowers voice] I push it down to here, it’s more like I’m rolling something around in my throat.
[as George Burns] “Gracie said she wasn’t going to make egg salad anymore. I asked her why not. She said she knew egg salad was made from eggs and mayonnaise. But when she looked at a label on a jar of mayonnaise, she found out it was made from eggs, so why bother?”
TP: [laughs] That’s good!
RBC: One man who came back after one of the shows came up and hugged me and said, “You brought him back to me,” and I thought, Boy, he really liked George Burns. And he gave me a Christmas card that said “George and Gracie Burns.” He had won a contest in the ‘50s for Carnation Milk, who was one of their sponsors. I guess it was something you had to write in and send in the coupons, and he won the contest. What he won was a letter from George and Gracie, and they sent this Christmas card as well.
He said, “I’m going to keep the letter, but I want you to have this card.” I said, “I can’t!” He said, “You have to take it.” So he gave me this card from “George and Gracie Burns.” Very few people have seen – it’s always “Gracie Allen.” You never see “Gracie Burns.” So that was really cool.
RBC: It’s nice to have the reactions. It’s a wonderful piece. Rupert Holmes wrote it. He wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He wrote “The Piña Colada Song.” He’s the nicest guy, and I have done Edwin Drood as well. I love Dickens, so that was an absolute pleasure. But with Say Goodnight, Gracie, I’ve been in touch with him a lot because I’ve had questions with the script or things that he’s wanted to say to me. It’s a wonderful, wonderful script, and it’s so moving. It’s tragically sad and hysterically funny.
You live through the moment where Gracie dies, and you live through the moment where Jack Benny dies. There’s a hysterical clip that you can see on YouTube – just before I have to come out and say that Jack Benny passed away, you see a clip of [a variety show sketch of] Jack and George standing back-to-back in Roman togas holding jugs spilling water into a fountain.
They’re supposed to be two statues on a fountain, and the water is trickling, trickling, trickling, and then Jack finally stops, and George says, “Are you finished?” and Jack says, “Almost!” And trickle, trickle, trickle… Then George says [laughs], “When the plumbing gets old, it gets rusty.” Then Jack says, “Okay, I’m done,” and they have a conversation as these two back-to-back statues.
George starts singing, and Jack says, “If you’re going to sing, I’m going to get out of here,” and George says, “It keeps the pigeons away!” All of a sudden a flock of pigeons comes in and they fly in and land on George Burns’s head, and George is still singing. It’s a wonderful, delightful sketch of them as older comedians. The audience is roaring with laughter, and into that laughter I had to come out and tell them that Jack Benny had died.
RBC: But then it talks about how Jack Benny was about to do The Sunshine Boys. He was supposed to do the George Burns role. He had to call the studio and let them know he had to bow out of the project because of his pancreatic cancer, which is one of the worst. You don’t have much time. But he said if they had any thought for him or for this project, they would give the role to George Burns, who was someone they didn’t even audition. Have you seen It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?
RBC: If you think about it, he’s the one comedian who’s not in that movie. Once Gracie was gone, nobody thought of George Burns anymore. Then he was given the part in The Sunshine Boys, and he comes in the first day, and they see him as this little old man who used to do TV. They say, “Oh, he doesn’t have a script! Get him a script!” They get him a script, and he’s already off-book. Knows all the lines. And he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor!
TP: And he had kind of a comeback after that.
RBC: That was it, yep. He kept going. He worked constantly until he was like 96 years old, and did special appearances… and was so beloved just as George Burns. It was no longer George and Gracie. It was what George was able to do on his own.
TP: Yeah, that’s great.
TP: Well, thank you for sharing your memories and your stories. Is there any message you’d like to convey to the Sesame Street fans?
RBC: Well, I love that they’re saying “Where’s Barkley?”
TP: Yeah, absolutely.
RBC: One of my concerns was, there was this little girl whose mom wrote to me, and she asked me if Barkley had died.
TP: Oh no.
RBC: Yeah. This was years ago, this was in the ‘90s. My first year as Barkley, I did thirteen shows. The second year, I did two. Then it varied in other years. But they hadn’t seen him in a while, and they had just lost their dog. So when Barkley hadn’t been on the air for a while, this little girl was concerned that Barkley had died.
I let the writers and producers know that, and said, “This is really something to think about.”
TP: It’s a concern, yeah.
RBC: This is a real dog to the kids, and people do lose their dogs. But anyway, Barkley’s still alive – and repaired and well.
TP: There you go. We hope to see him soon.
RBC: And he needs a walk!
Thanks to Muppet Wiki for images, and to YouTube uploaders BMan78 and SpookyLorre! Click here to order the sci-fi anthologies featuring Connelly’s stories!
Click here to bark at hats on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com