Bruce Fretts
February 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

Cheech Marin sits in the corner of a Central Park West restaurant under a sign that reads ”No Smoking Under Penalty Of Law.” No joke — the diminutive half of the pro-pot ’70s comedy duo Cheech and Chong has cleaned up his act; he’s in New York City to appear on Sesame Street. ”They resisted having me on the show for years because of my drug lord connections,” he says mischievously.

But Marin’s recent kids’ album, My Name is Cheech, the School Bus Driver, convinced Street‘s producers it was safe to book him. ”I dress as an Elvis impersonator and have to convince Oscar the Grouch to share,” Marin, 47, says. ”I have this great turquoise blue Elvis suit. I look like Pakistani Elvis.”

Marin’s role as the semi-trusty sidekick Pancho in TNT’s Western remake The Cisco Kid is also something of a departure, although he thinks he was the natural choice for the role. ”Who else could play Pancho? There aren’t too many guys,” he says. ”Eddie Olmos? A little too serious. Paul Rodriguez? Can’t ride a horse.” Actually, neither could Marin until he took lessons at a ranch outside Mexico City a few weeks before filming. ”I got good at it,” he brags. ”I was the only one who wasn’t thrown. Of course, I had this buttermilk horse, and everyone else had these high-spirited ones.”

Marin says his desire to move in new directions precipitated his breakup with Tommy Chong in the mid-’80s. ”We ran out of drug jokes, and it wasn’t politically correct anymore,” he says. ”I didn’t want to play those chords — it was boring. I wanted to get the characters involved in dramatic situations. Tommy was real resistant.” (Chong is back doing stand-up; his only Hollywood project in the last three years was a day of voice-over work with Marin for 1993’s FernGully: The Last Rainforest.)

Looking to reach beyond his stoner fans, Marin took a role on CBS’ geriatric sitcom The Golden Palace last season (”It was a place to park for a year, and nobody got hurt,” he says), did cartoon voices (he and Whoopi Goldberg play hyenas in Disney’s The Lion King, due this summer), and won the 1992 Celebrity Jeopardy! championship (”one of my most transcendent experiences”).

Recent accounts of marijuana’s comeback haven’t made Marin change his mind about leaving drug humor behind. ”Pot never went away, it just kept growing and growing,” he says. ”People don’t even consider pot a drug — I don’t.” Wonder what Big Bird would say about that.

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