Never Fluffing Her Lines, Sesame Street's Meryl Sheep Is TV's New Dyed-in-the-Wool Star

updated 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Meryl Sheep is at it again. Big Bird is staging a production of Little Bo Peep, and he wants her to play one of the sheep. As is her wont, however, Meryl rejects the typecasting and will settle for nothing less than the lead. "But how can a sheep be Bo Peep?" asks Big Bird. Clearing her throat and replying in an Eastern European accent oddly reminiscent of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, Sheep answers, "I am an actress, dahling. I can be anything I choose."

What she's chosen to be—indisputably—is the most talked-about new character (and most mutton-headed actress) on TV. Created in part by Sesame Street's head writer, Norman Stiles, Sheep has had nothing but ewelogies since her debut. The latest in a long line of Sesame's celeb-based creatures, such as Alistair Cookie and Placido Flamingo, Meryl weaves together the to-dye-for looks of Shari Lewis' Lamb Chop and the if-looks-could-kill temperament of Joan Collins. The combination has given the adults among Sesame Street's 12 million-weekly audience an even better excuse to watch the show. "It's a privilege to work with such a talent," says Stiles, 45, who writes some of Meryl's material. "I don't think there's a greater talent anywhere on four hooves."

Her sentiments exactly. Backstage after Little Bo Peep (which will air on the show in March), reflecting on her Oscar (the Grouch) caliber performance, Sheep admits she rewrote some of her dialogue. "Big Bird was only using about a third of the alphabet when he showed me the script," she says, "so I just made some changes and added the rest." The Bird was miffed and a flap ensued, "but he loved the way it turned out," assures Meryl. "Life is conflict, as is drama."

Her own pre-Sesame life, as only one of that show's characters could concoct it, was the stuff of high drama. Raised on a small farm, she was saved from a life in the sweater shops by her theatrical mentor, Sam the Shepard. Under his tutelage Meryl says she enjoyed shear success as an actress, keeping audiences flocking to such Sheepspearean classics as Lamlet and The Taming of the Ewe. "Did you see me in The Merchant of Venison?" she asks. "I brought down the house with that famous monologue, 'If you prick us, do we not bleat?' " Of the films she's done, The Big Sheep is her most notable. In it she impressed most critics as totally honest, totally veal.

Her favorite co-star is Rabbit De Niro, but there's no romance between them, as rumored. "I don't have time to get involved," she says, her predictable answer cloaked in a sheepish grin. Her spare time, she insists, is devoted to visiting friends in Baa Harbor.

Meryl was tendered a full-time job on Sesame Street this season after appearing in the show's production of Sleeping Beauty last season. While she loves "the creative freedom that Sesame Street offers," she has occasionally felt free to trample her fellow cast members' feelings. Indeed, should Meryl ever butt into the equally vain Miss Piggy on a special, it's even money which ego would bring home the bacon.

"She's a bit demanding at times," admits puppeteer Camille Bonora, who's also had a big hand in Meryl's career. "But she's not domineering." Try telling that to Big Bird. But the envy of co-workers, as Sheep well knows, is one price of stardom. "You get famous and people think you're a shag rug they can walk all over," she mutters. If she's caused some fur to fly on the show, it's only because she's a perfectionist. "I do like to get things right," says Meryl. "Unlike a lot of other people around here, I really bust my chops."

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