The puppeteer who has played Elmo for nearly three decades has taken leave from “Sesame Street” in the wake of “unsubstantiated” underage sex allegations against him, according to Sesame Workshop.
Sesame Workshop said in a statement on its website that it received a “communication” in June from a 23-year-old man who claimed to have been in a relationship with Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash when he was 16.
The organization said it “took the allegation very seriously" and later determined Clash had “exercised poor judgment and violated company policy regarding internet usage and he was disciplined.”
But after meeting with Clash’s accuser twice Sesame Workshop said it could not substantiate his claim of underage conduct.
“Kevin insists that the allegation of underage conduct is false and defamatory and he is taking actions to protect his reputation,” Sesame Workshop said. “We have granted him a leave of absence to do so.”
In a statement to NBC News, Clash said that he had been in a relationship with his accuser – when both were adults.
"I am a gay man. I have never been ashamed of this or tried to hide it, but felt it was a personal and private matter," Clash said in the statement. "I had a relationship with the accuser. It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to characterize it as something other than what it was. I am taking a break from Sesame Workshop to deal with this false and defamatory allegation."
Clash is the third puppeteer to have played Elmo on “Sesame Street,” and has done so since 1984, according to his bio on Sesamestreet.org. While best known for playing the red monster, Clash also performs as Hoots the Owl and Baby Natasha on the long-running children’s show.
He is a three-time Emmy winner for outstanding performer in a children’s series and also won Emmys from 2001 to 2006 for his work as co-executive producer on the series, according to his bio.
Clash's film credits include “Labyrinth” and the first two “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” films. He penned an autobiography in 2006 titled "My Life as a Furry Red Monster, What Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud" and was also the subject of the 2011 documentary “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.”
In an interview about the film last year with New York magazine, Clash opened up about the voice he brought to playing Elmo.
"The first time I really knew that I had something was the sketch that I did — this is in the doc — when Elmo is packing his bags for a vacation and he’s giving Luis goodbye and hello hugs," he said. "And the camera guys and the crew laughed when I was doing it. And you know, it’s the same thing with a comedian: The first time you get laughs on stage, you get that confidence that you feel like you can do it. And that’s what happened on 'Sesame Street' with Elmo and me. Once I heard those laughs, I was like, Okay, there’s something here."
Despite Clash's leave of absence, Sesame Workshop said that Elmo "is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world, as it has for 40 years."