’Sesame Street’ actor Emilio Delgado dies; beloved handyman Luis was 81

Mr. Delgado joined the show in 1971, during its third season, and remained a mainstay of the cast for more than four decades. His character, Luis Rodriguez, owned the Fix-It Shop and proved as skilled at repairing toasters as he was at singing and dancing.

From the start, “Sesame Street” was notable for the racially diverse cast of live actors who appeared on-screen with Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and other Muppets created by Jim Henson.

A Mexican American whose early life straddled the U.S. southern border, Mr. Delgado served for Latino children as a television role model at a time when Hispanic actors, in his words, were largely consigned to playing “banditos, gang members, lowlife characters and sleeping Mexicans under a cactus.”

“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,” Mr. 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.”

“We weren’t dope addicts. We weren’t maids or prostitutes, which [was] the way we were being shown in television [and] film,” he added. “Here, on ‘Sesame Street,’ there were different people who spoke different languages and ate interesting foods, and they were all Americans.”

Mr. Delgado, who often accompanied himself in song on the guitar, gave many English-speaking children an introduction to Spanish. He referred to Big Bird, the canary-yellow avian played for many years by puppeteer Caroll Spinney, as “pájaro,” the Spanish word for “bird.”

Mr. Delgado “did a really good job at erasing the boundaries between ethnicities … but not in a way that erased the culture,” Kathryn A. Ostrofsky, a scholar of media history who has studied “Sesame Street,” said in an interview.

He “used Chicano culture,” she added, “and made it part of the common … experience that all American children had watching ‘Sesame Street’ for generations.”

“Sesame Street,” still airing today, became the longest-running children’s program on American television. One of its most memorable episodes remains the 1988 installment in which Luis marries his on-screen love, Maria, who was played by actress Sonia Manzano. In an episode during their courtship, Luis dons a tuxedo to dance with an elegantly dressed Maria in the manner of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to a song about the Spanish greeting “Hola.”

Luis and Maria later had a daughter, Gabriela, who was played for a period by Manzano’s real-life daughter by the same name. “Sesame Street” writers used her arrival to explain to young viewers how a baby develops but not — in deference to many parents — how one is conceived.

“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 Mr. Delgado released by the Sesame Workshop after his death.

Mr. Delgado was born May 8, 1940, in Calexico, Calif., the eldest of six children raised by a single mother. He spent part of his upbringing 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-and-roll on the other,” she added, describing the bicultural world of Mr. Delgado’s youth. “He embraced it all.”

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

Mr. Delgado served for six years in the California National Guard before enrolling at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita to study theater. He appeared on the TV drama “Canción de la Raza,” about a Mexican American family, before receiving an invitation to try out as Luis on “Sesame Street.”

At the time, he said, he was out of work, with a young child to support, and saw the opportunity to join the cast as evidence that an angel was “looking out” for him.

“I had been staring at my last unemployment check when someone from ‘Sesame Street’ called to ask if I would like to audition for the show,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2018. “There was no agent involved. It came out of nowhere.”

“Therefore, there’s a lot of Emilio in Luis,” he said. “They wanted reality, and that’s what they got from the cast.”

In addition to his role in “Sesame Street” and the program’s related live performances, Mr. Delgado had a recurring part as newspaper editor Rubin Castillo on the TV series “Lou Grant” starring Ed Asner. Mr. Delgado also appeared on programs including “Hawaii Five-O,” “Quincy, M.E.” and “Falcon Crest” and, more recently, the “Law & Order” franchise and “House of Cards,” playing Ambassador Davila.

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he performed onstage in Octavio Solis’s play “Quixote Nuevo,” an adaptation of “Don Quixote” by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes.

Mr. Delgado’s 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, Aram Delgado of Penzance, England; a daughter from his third marriage, Lauren Delgado of Tucson; two brothers; two sisters; and a grandson.

At the Fix-It Shop, ready with a screwdriver in hand, Mr. Delgado repaired radios, clocks and flashlights. Sometimes an object arrived that could not be made whole, and on those occasions, he explained why and what lesson could be drawn from that truth.

However honest his portrayal of Luis, Mr. Delgado confessed to the Chronicle there was one fundamental difference between him and his character.

“I will admit it,” he said. “I am not a fixer in real life. My wife is a better fixer than I am. She can fix anything.”

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