Emilio Delgado has played the character of Luis for 40 years on the beloved children’s show Sesame Street. In real life, Emilio is at once gentle, humble and funny, much like his kindly Fix-It Shop owner character. Speaking with him, it seems that life has imitated art, and lends itself to make the child in us believe that somewhere, Sesame Street does really exist. Emilio spoke exclusively with Celebrity Parents about growing up in Mexicali, our enduring love for Sesame Street, and landing the role of a lifetime.
Emilio, I’m going to try very hard, but I might slip and call you Luis a few times during this interview.[laughs] It happens all the time. People definitely associate me with the character.
What was life like prior to Sesame Street?
I think I’ve always been an actor. Even before I was a professional, I was an actor in school. It all started in the third grade. I was in Christmas play, and someone put a sheet over my head made me one of the three Wise Men. My one line was, “Peace be with you.” I heard the applause and I thought, “Hey, I like this!” [laughs] I was in the band and the chorus and theater throughout school. I’ve always been performing, singing or playing instruments. That’s been the story of my life.
I’ve been very fortunate, because my life has been just so fantastic. We came from nothing. As a child, I would run around with 50 other kids in the family, from brothers to sisters to cousins. We were poor but we were very happy! We would play all day long. We didn’t have television or even a phone. We had a radio in the kitchen where my grandfather would listen to the ball game. As an actor, that was great training because I had to exercise my imagination, full throttle!
When I was a teenager, my mother saw that I was hanging around with a bad crowd, so she called an uncle in Los Angeles and then we all moved to L.A. That was very good for me, because the high school had a terrific theater department.
So then how did you move to the greatest street in the world?
As soon as I graduated, I was pounding the pavement. I was studying acting, singing and dancing, and worked in community theater. In one year, everything happened at once, and it was my year. I had a job in theater, in television and in film. That’s where it started. Then I got a call to audition for the show. I had my last unemployment check. Of course I said, “Sure, I’d like to audition!” And I was then cast as Luis on Sesame Street. I came on for the third season of the show. I started on October 11, 1971, so that was 40 years ago. Sesame Street was the job that brought me to New York City. I like to say it was like space travel and I went to another planet! That changed my whole life.
What was your first reaction to working on the show?
It’s been an amazing thing. As an actor, I had a job! Plus, working with the other actors and doing all the other things that we were doing; we knew that it was one of a kind. Here I was, a working actor, now being in a show with an incredible cast and puppets! I had never worked with puppets before. I remember that on my first day, my knees were really shaky. I had a scene with Big Bird, and Carroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird, has a great sense of humor. It put me right at ease. And that’s true for the celebrities who come on the show, too. They are amazed at how relaxed it all is.
And what is it like, forty years later to be on Sesame Street?
You can’t leave it. It’s becomes part of you. It’s truly an American phenomenon. It’s so exhilarating, and you have such an appreciation of what it means to people. They’ve grown up with it, and they’re your age, Jennifer. They have very fond memories of the show, and to know that we’ve done something good for people feels great.
I have to say, you’re totally living up to the five year-old in me right now.
I can testify that’s true of everyone who works there. Part of the phenomenon is that we’re all just like that in real life. Our personalities jive so well. It’s like a repertory company; we know each other’s families and we’re close friends. It’s very real.
I’ve been at the MACY’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC, and celebrities will be on the floats, but I’ve seen first-hand that the crowd goes wild when the Sesame Street float comes down the street.
We know that there are millions of people who watch the show, and we know they’re out there. It never ceases to amaze me, though, that when we’re riding down the street on that parade float that there are millions of people who know and love us and are screaming with joy. It touches us; it really does.
So how would you explain audiences’ enduring love of the show?
The mission of the show has always been to offer the child a window into the world and bring the world to the child. We want to help them expand their minds. Sure, there is ABC and 1-2-3, but it goes way beyond that. Sesame Street shows what love and acceptance is between people. It’s inclusive of everyone. It’s good for kids to see that there are kids who are different, who think differently. There are educational and social points that we try to make with each show.
How has Luis changed over 40 years?
When I first began on the show, I was much younger. I look at myself, I look like I was 19 but I was 30! The exuberance of youth has mellowed down, though, I think! [laughs] The core of Luis is still there; he’s a decent human being, friendly, a dedicated father and husband. He’s also a good worker and that’s a good thing to show. Everyone else is just as nice, except for Oscar, but we get him once in a while! [laughs]
I noticed that beautiful guitar in the living room. When did you start to play?
Music has always been a part of my life. I played the guitar when I was 18. Living in Mexicali, I grew up with mariachis in the street singing boleros, and I was out there shining shoes and selling newspapers. Nowadays that’s the music I love to listen to, although I also love Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I love jazz, too; I have an eclectic taste in music.
What upcoming projects are you working on, besides the beloved Sesame Street?
I love being here in NY because there are so many opportunities to do theater and television and film. People who grew up on the show are now producing and directing so I get cast! [laughs] There’s a new show coming out called Person of Interest and I did a part in it. I did a movie with Tyler Perry called We the Peoples; that was fun. I also like to do theater and readings. As an actor, I’m always interested in doing readings and new work. When you explore new work, you get to develop the character, which is enticing for an actor. Luis was easy because it was like playing myself. If anything, it enhanced my personality.
What are your kids currently doing?
Our daughter, Lauren is a senior in college, and my son is about to graduate, too. I say to them, sure, it’s better to have a college degree than to not have one. I got a great job without one, but I was lucky. One of the biggest lessons I want them to learn is perseverance. You have to always hang in there.
Children need their parents, more than they think they do sometimes. But it’s up to the parents to guide them. You should be friends with your children, but not try to be their best friend.
And what can we expect from Sesame Street in the future?
We’re just finishing up our 42nd season of Sesame Street. And every time we go in there, it’s like we’re having a party! We get paid to have fun. Working with all these great people with great senses of humor, it just nurtures you. And I have my family which nurtures me, too. My wife and I love to travel at the drop of a hat. We live each day as it comes and enjoy our lives together, because it is all so wonderful.