What It Was Like to Star in ABC's Family Sitcom 'Dinosaurs'

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·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Never mind the Flintstones; the Sinclairs are the modern Jurassic Age family you’d most want to meet. Thirty years after ABC introduced viewers to the ‘60s caveman clan Fred, Wilma, and Pebbles, the network launched the ambitious family sitcom Dinosaurs in 1991, and invited family audiences into the home of dinosaur husband and wife, Earl and Fran, and their three kids: Robbie, Charlene, and Baby. Unlike their animated forebearers, the Sinclairs were live-action, life-sized puppets, built by the ace crew at Jim Henson Productions. These days, the same characters would probably be rendered with CGI. But in the early ‘90s, the family was brought to life purely through the magic of puppetry, with teams of actors donning beautifully designed latex costumes and cracking wise in classic sitcom fashion. That’s why it made our list of the 30 Best Bad Shows of the Last 30 Years.

One of these actors was Leif Tilden, who wore the latex body of the eldest Sinclair child, teenage dino Robbie. (The character was voiced by Jason Willinger, and puppeteer Steve Whitmire — who assumed the role of Kermit after Jim Henson passed away in 1990 — manipulated Robbie’s facial expressions.) It was Tilden’s second tour of duty in a Henson-built suit, previously playing Donatello in the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feature film and its sequel, The Secret of the Ooze. Now a filmmaker, Tilden spoke with Yahoo TV about bringing Robbie to life, dancing with Michael Jackson, and the show’s famously dark series finale where the Sinclair family literally faced their own extinction.

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Before Dinosaurs, you wore a Henson-designed suit for the first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. How did that experience prepare you for the series?
It prepared me for the process more than anything. The process of preparing the way the character moved, conveying emotion through the body, working in sync with the other puppeteers, pacing yourself in the heat, keeping hydrated. The audition process for Dinosaurs was very engaging. It’s a little like Andy Serkis playing Gollum, only instead of wearing white balls for the motion capture artists, you’re wearing a costume that’s a combination of latex and fabrics, and people can’t see your face and facial expressions. It’s not amusement park performing; there’s comic timing and hitting emotional beats. I went in as if I was playing Robbie, saying his lines and physicalizing him. I know I’m talking esoterically about a show like Dinosaurs! But I defend Dinosaurs. It’s a family show that has an innocent spirit to it. It’s really funny, and somewhat dark at times. I just think it was kind of a startling concept for some people.

Maybe they were thrown by the idea of watching a traditional family sitcom starring full-sized puppets.
It’s a hard one. It was experimental in a lot of ways. We weren’t The Dark Crystal [Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy adventure], where the characters are sort of magical and exist in a different world. I don’t know why it wasn’t successful, really. I’ve met a lot of people since who love that show. I think it takes someone with an eccentric personality to dig it. Did you ever see that Saturday Night Live skit [“First Got Horny 2 U”], where Aidy Bryant had a crush on Robbie and then he takes off his head and it’s a balding middle-aged man in there? That was funny, but it shows a certain cynicism. And if you’re a cynical person, you’re not going to like Dinosaurs.

How long did it take to put on Robbie’s suit?
It took about an hour in total; the average shooting day was 12 hours. It wasn’t cumbersome to move around in. It was designed to be actor-friendly so the performer could instill life into the suit. And I want to emphasize that it wasn’t just me playing the character. I was one of a group of people who played Robbie. The people who made the costume made a big contribution to how that character is portrayed, as well as the puppeteers doing the mouth and eyeballs. It’s just like a motion capture character; Gollum isn’t all Andy Serkis’s work — he builds the foundation and they tweak his performance in the computer. It’s the same thing with Robbie. I don’t stake a claim that this is my work — it’s our work.

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Tilden out of Robbie’s costume (Photo: Alamy)

Steve Whitmire provided Robbie’s facial and head movements, while Jason Willinger voiced the character. How did you all work together to bring him to life?
I never met Jason. It was mostly the same approach as any other show. Steve and I were given scripts, and we’d go to the table reads before each episode. The challenge was when we started rehearsing on stage with all the characters and puppeteers and trying to make it look seamless. Steve and I memorized the dialogue and then rehearsed out of costume. Then we’d start playing with the suit. I always wore the head, but the facial features were manipulated by remote control by Steve. The mechanics that controlled his face were buried deep in the latex, so it would have been impossible for me to manipulate them myself. It was a total collaboration, putting the character together physically. Steve and I had to be completely in sync and connected emotionally. We also did the character of Earl’s boss, B.P. Richfield, together. I loved that character more than Robbie!

Baby Sinclair is probably the character viewers remember the most. He had the show’s signature catchphrase: “Not the Mama!”
The baby was an amazing puppet. And you know you played that character? Kevin Clash! He also performed Splinter and Elmo. Apart from what anyone might think of him politically, Kevin Clash is an amazing puppeteer, one of the few in my mind that had the spirit of Frank Oz and Jim Henson. He’s a genius and can bring anything to life. And there aren’t a lot of those performers. Jim and Frank were very special people, who had a very special chemistry together. Just because you’re a talented puppeteer doesn’t mean that you have that magic.

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Jim Henson passed away the year before Dinosaurs premiered. Did he have any input with the series prior to his death?
I think he was privy to the design of the characters and the concept of the series, but he died before we started filming. He was on set for the first Ninja Turtles movie, and he was an amazing guy. He was like a big kid — he loved to play and demanded collaboration. That’s getting lost now; when the pressure is on, everyone’s ego rises to the surface. My one brutally honest remark about Dinosaurs is that there was a spirit lacking. Jim and Frank were our heroes, and were the spirit of The Muppet Show. Their spirit was unique, and Dinosaurs needed it. To me, Bill Barretta [who played Earl], is the closest thing we have to Jim Henson today. I recently went to the set of ABC’s The Muppets [which Barretta executive-produces and voices Rowlf and Dr. Teeth for, among others] to hang out, and saw that Bill is instilling that same spirit. I think great things are going to happen with Bill if they give him the opportunity.

The series finale of Dinosaurs has become legendary for its dark ending. How do you feel about the way the show wrapped up?
It’s a fitting end. They’re ending the show — kill ‘em! It’s dark, but darkness is a part of life. Joy and sorrow come from the same place within our bodies. The reason it gets pegged as being dark is because Dinosaurs was a TV sitcom. But why should that matter? Darkness can happen anywhere, to anyone, at any time. When people say, “It’s dark!” that’s a reflection of that person. That person has issues with darkness. We all have nightmares and darkness, it’s part of who we are. The studio really held back the show — it couldn’t be too dark or too adult. But for the series finale, we were really set free and shook up the rules. That last episode was the most fun episode, and it’s the one everyone remembers because of that dark ending! Because the show was ending, [the studio] was just like, “Go for it.” To me, they should have been saying that the whole time!

What was a signature moment for you making the series?
One day stands out above the rest: when Robbie got to dance with Michael Jackson for an ABC promo. Michael Jackson was one of my heroes. They made a white glove for Robbie, and I learned this whole routine. I remember seeing Michael in his trailer, and he spoke with me and give me a big hug. That, to me, was the most epic moment.

Do you think Dinosaurs is due for a re-evaluation?
It got a second life when it was on Netflix for a while. If you liked it then, it’s worth a second look. It was a very expensive show, and a process that was really hard to do. There’s a lot of integrity to the show; we all tried to be authentic. I’m proud of Robbie, and feel he really comes to life. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back when I say this, but it’s true.

Read more about the 30 Best Bad Shows of The Last 30 Years.