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'Sesame Street' actor, Emilio Delgado, dies after a battle with blood cancer

Emilio Delgado poses for a picture at Kaufman Astoria Studios while filming the 50th season of "Sesame Street," in October 2018.
Zach Hyman
/
AP
Emilio Delgado poses for a picture at Kaufman Astoria Studios while filming the 50th season of "Sesame Street," in October 2018.

Updated March 11, 2022 at 11:10 AM ET

Generations of children knew Emilio Delgado as Sesame Street's fix-it shop owner, Luis Rodriguez. This week, Delgado died at age 81, having been diagnosed with a form of blood cancer two years ago. He played Luis for 44 years, starting in 1971. The Sesame Street Workshop noted in a release that his was the longest running role for a Mexican American actor in a TV series.

Delgado was the coordinator of the Sesame Workshop's Bilingual Talk Force, helping to add bilingual content to the beloved children's show. As the first human character in the Muppet world, he introduced young audiences to Spanish words and Latino culture. Along with the Sesame Street puppets, Luis often played his guitar and sang in English and Spanish about being happy.

His storyline also helped teach children about love and family. In 1988, children watched Luis get married to Maria, played by Sonia Manzano. Grover, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch attended the wedding, and so did Elmo, as the nervous ring bearer. Later on the show, Luis and Maria had a daughter, Gabriela, who they raised on Sesame Street.

Delgado was born in Calexico, California, and spent his childhood crossing the border to Mexicali, Mexico, where his grandparents lived. As a boy, he shined shoes and worked at his uncle's bicycle repair shop, according to his IMDb profile. He acted in high school productions in Los Angeles, and studied theater at California Institute of the Arts, while performing as a guitarist and singing traditional Spanish boleros with Mexican trios.

He got a break on the PBS series Canción de la Raza. In his early years, he was the artistic director of the Barrio Theatre of East L.A. In a 2021 interview on the YouTube series "Famous Cast Words" he said when he began on television, "Most of the roles that I went out for were either for bandits or gang members."

That changed when Sesame Street cast him in a positive, ordinary-guy role in a diverse cast of children and Muppets.

"The first time that I saw Big Bird walk on, my line was, 'Big Bird!' But I didn't say 'Big Bird,' I said, 'pájaro!'" he said in the interview. After explaining that "pájaro" meant "bird," the producers let him keep it in. "I called him 'pajaro' from then on every time I saw him," Delgado said.

Many credit Delgado for his pioneering work as a Chicano actor. He also guest starred on TV shows like Hawaii Five-O, The Lou Grant Show and The Get Down. More recently, he was in a Chicano adaptation of Don Quixote.

Delgado also continued to sing, performing with Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. He even recorded a duet of the song "Sing" for the band's album Splendor in the Grass. He was also an activist, supporting organizations such as the United Farm Workers and Head Start, and serving on the Board of Directors at the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice, an LGBTQIA safe-space and community activist center. In 2019, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed October 15as Emilio Delgado Day in NYC, honoring him as a trailblazing Mexican-American artist.

In a statement, The Sesame Street Workshop wrote that Emilio Delgado's "warmth and humor invited children to share a friendship that has echoed through generations."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.