Emilio Delgado: Beloved handyman Luis on ‘Sesame Street’

Delgado joined ‘Sesame Street’ in 1971 and remained a mainstay of the cast until he left the show in 2016

<p>Delgado at the Kaufman Astoria studios while filming ‘Sesame Street’</p>

Delgado at the Kaufman Astoria studios while filming ‘Sesame Street’

Emilio Delgado, an actor and singer known to generations of Sesame Street viewers as Luis, the gentle handyman always able to fix what was broken, has died aged 81.

Millions of children have grown up watching Sesame Street, the educational series that premiered on US public television in 1969, seeking to harness the power of TV to help teach the medium’s youngest viewers to count, read and make their way in life.

Delgado joined Sesame Street in 1971, during its third season, and remained a mainstay of the cast until he left the show in 2016.

From the start, Sesame Street was notable for the racially diverse cast of live actors who appeared onscreen with Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch and others among Jim Henson’s Muppets. A Mexican American whose early life straddled the US southern border, Delgado served for millions of Latino children as a television role model at a time when Hispanic actors, in his words, were largely consigned to playing “bandits or gang members”.

“I’d been trying all my professional life to be somewhere I can change that, whether I was talking about it or trying to get into a project that showed Latinos in a good light,” Delgado told the Houston Chronicle in 2020. “That’s why Sesame Street was such a good thing. For the first time on television, they showed Latinos as real human beings.”

He gave many English-speaking children their first introduction to Spanish, referring to Big Bird, the canary-yellow avian played for many years by puppeteer Caroll Spinney, as pajaro.

Sesame Street, still airing today, became the longest-running children’s programme on American television. One of its most memorable episodes was the 1988 instalment when Luis married Maria, played by actress Sonia Manzano. Luis and Maria later had a daughter, Gabriela, who was played for a period by Manzano’s real-life daughter by the same name.

“Luis and Maria’s relationship appeared so real on television, that for decades since, when fans saw them out and about with their actual spouses, Emilio Delgado and Sonia Manzano had a lot of explaining to do,” read a tribute to Delgado released by the Sesame Workshop after his death.

Luis and Rosita, a Muppet, chat during the introduction of the ‘You Can Ask!’ programme in 2003

Delgado was born 8 May 1940, in Calexico, California, the eldest of six children raised by a single mother. During part of his upbringing, Delgado lived with his mother’s family in Mexicali, Mexico, crossing the border by foot every morning to attend school in Calexico.

“The border wasn’t the way we think borders are or need to be,” his wife remarked in a phone interview. “All he said was, ‘American citizen’, and they just smiled and waved him on.”

“I heard him say that he had mariachis on one side and rock’n’roll on the other,” she added, describing the bicultural world of Delgado’s youth. “He embraced it all.”

Delgado was interested in theatre from an early age and was steadily encouraged in his artistic pursuits by his mother. When he was in high school, he moved to Glendale, California, where he participated in musical groups and the theatre club.

Delgado served for six years in the California National Guard before enrolling at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita to study theatre. He appeared on the TV drama Cancion de la Raza, about a Mexican-American family, before joining the cast of Sesame Street.

In recent years, he performed in the stage protection Quixote Nuevo, an adaptation of Don Quixote by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes.

His marriages to Barbara Snavely and the actress Linda Moon Redfearn ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 32 years, the former Carole Webb Gillespie of Manhattan; a son from his first marriage; a daughter from his third marriage; two brothers; two sisters; and a grandson.

Emilio Delgado, actor and singer, born 8 May 1940, died 10 March 2022

©The Washington Post

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