The puppeteer behind Elmo on Sesame Street said he is taking time out from the much-loved US children's TV show to fight a "defamatory" claim that he had a sexual relationship with an underage boy.
Kevin Clash, the man behind the furry red character's high-pitched voice and frenetic gestures, admitted he had a relationship with his accuser, who claimed he was 16 years old when they started dating.
But Clash said the accuser was not under the age of consent, which is 17 in New York, where the show is made.
"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. I had a relationship with the accuser," Clash said.
"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."
Sesame Workshop, the studio behind the legendary show, said it was contacted by a man who claimed to have had a relationship with Clash seven years ago, when he was 16. Clash was reportedly 45 at the time.
"In June of this year, Sesame Workshop received a communication from a then 23-year- old man who alleged that he had a relationship when he was 16 with Kevin Clash," it said.
"We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action. We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated."
According to celebrity news website TMZ, the show's makers said they are suspicious because the accuser now has an e-mail purportedly sent to Clash acknowledging they had an affair when he was 16.
The accuser never previously mentioned such an e-mail existed and program bosses believe it is fraudulent.
The show's managers had some criticism for Clash. "Although this was a personal relationship unrelated to the workplace, our investigation revealed Kevin exercised poor judgment and violated company policy on internet usage and he was disciplined."
Clash was the subject of last year's Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, a documentary narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, which won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival.
The studio insisted the claim would not have an impact on the show, or the character.