While Sesame Street is celebrating 50 years, it has not been all “sunny days.” The show is known for its iconic characters, both muppet and person. Yet, in that time, it has lost some of the actors and crew that bring Sesame Street to life.
The show famously addressed the death of one Mr. Hooper, played by Will Lee, in the landmark episode “Farewell, Mr. Hooper.” Since then, Sesame Street has continued to tackle difficult topics and major world events.
Following Mr. Hooper’s death, his replacement David reminded us, “We all feel sad, Big Bird.”
Caroll Spinney, the Puppeteer for Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch
Caroll Spinney is the iconic puppeteer behind Sesame Street’s most iconic character, Big Bird. Among his other characters were Oscar the Grouch, Granny Bird, Bruno the Trashman and Beautiful Day Monster, according to Rolling Stones.
Spinney passed away from Dystonia in 2019 at 85 years old, reported Deadline. The illness eventually forced him to step away from donning the Big Bird suit in 2015, but he remained as the voice until 2018.
Sesame Workshop announced his death, saying, “Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending.”
The statement continued, “His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while.”
Charlotte Rae, the Actress who Played Molly the Mail Lady
While Charlotte Rae is best known for playing Mrs. Garrett on The Facts of Life, to fans of Sesame Street, she is Molly the Mail Lady.
Rae passed away in 2018 at 92 years old.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, she announced in 2017 that she was suffering from bone cancer, seven years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“Now, at the age of 91, I have to make up my mind,” she said in a statement at the time, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m not in any pain right now. I’m feeling so terrific and so glad to be above ground. Now I have to figure out whether I want to go have treatment again or opt for life. I love life. I’ve had a wonderful one already … I’ve had a great life, but I have so many wonderful things happening. I’d like to choose life. I’m grateful for the life I’ve already had.”
David Smyrl, an Actor who Played Mr. Hanford
David Smyrl was the second actor to portray Mr. Hanford, following in the footsteps of Leonard Jackson. He died in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania in 2016 at the age of 80 years old, reported the New York Times. His wife said the cause of death was lung cancer.
Playing a retired firefighter, Smyrl starred on Sesame Street from 1990 through 1998. His character ran Mr. Hooper’s store.
In addition to acting, he worked as a writer on Benson and The Cosby Show.
Michael Earl, the Puppeteer for Mr. Snuffleupagus
Tough Pigs reported Michael Earl’s passing in 2015, after the former Sesame Street puppeteer spent three years battling colon cancer. He was uninsured, but fans of the long-running children’s show raised the money for his treatment according to BoingBoing.
He most notably took over puppeteering Mr. Snuffleupagus from Jerry Nelson.
“When it came time for me to do the voice of Snuffy on my own, with Jerry in the studio, I was extremely nervous,” he told Tough Pigs of taking over the role. “This was his character I wanted to do it justice.”
According to the outlet, he was given his big break when Jim Henson hired him for The Muppet Movie.
Leonard Jackson, an Actor who Played Mr. Hanford
Before Smyrl took on the role, Mr. Hanford was played by Leonard Jackson. He served as the shopkeeper of Mr. Hooper’s store from 1989 through 1990.
Other roles of his included The Color Purple, Boomerang and Car Wash.
According to a Quora article, in 2013, he “died of Alzheimer’s Disease at age 85.”
Jerry Nelson, the Puppeteer for Count von Count & Mr. Snuffleupagus
In 2012, The Los Angeles Times reported Jerry Nelson passed away at his Cape Cod, Massachusetts home. The 78-year-old had struggled with emphysema for years.
Nelson started on Sesame Street in its second season, working on the characters of Count von Count, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Sherlock Hemlock, Herry Monster and more. Despite retiring in 2004, he continued to lend his voice to some characters, including Count von Count, until his death.
Upon his death, the Sesame Workshop said in a statement, “A member of the ‘Sesame Street’ family for more than 40 years, he will forever be in our hearts and remembered for the artistry in his puppetry, his music, and the laughter he brought to children worldwide through his portrayal of Count von Count, Herry Monster, Fat Blue, Sherlock Hemlock, the Amazing Mumford and many other beloved characters.”
Larry Block, the Actor who Played Tom
Larry Block played Tom, a worker at Mr. Hooper’s store, for the second and third seasons of Sesame Street. He passed away in 2012, less than a month shy of his 70th birthday.
Block also appeared in Slap Shot, My Blue Heaven, After Hours, Law & Order and M*A*S*H.
Alaina Reed-Amini, the Actress who Played Olivia
Alaina Reed-Amini starred as Olivia, Gordon’s sister and a photographer, on Sesame Street from 1976 until 1988. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported her 2009 death, with publicist Billy Laurence revealing she had battled breast cancer for two years. She was 63 years old.
Her other acting credits include 227, Cruel Intentions and Death Becomes Her. Reed-Amini also appeared on Broadway in Chicago and Hair.
Sesame Street celebrated the star for Black History Month in 2019, writing on Twitter, “Today we highlight our friend, Alaina Reed-Amini! During her time on Sesame Street, Alaina played the role of a photographer and Gordon’s little sister. Alaina helped form Sesame Street into the unique and special place it is today and for that we thank her.”
Kermit Love, the Actor who Played Willy, the Hot Dog Vendor
Kermit Love passed away in 2008 at 91 years old. According to Quora, he passed away from congestive heart failure and pneumonia.
While he played Willy, the hot dog vendor, Love also served as a designer and builder for Sesame Street. Among his designs were Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus.
Michael Jeter, the Actor who Played The Other Mr. Noodle
In 2003, the actor behind The Other Mr. Noodle passed reported the Associated Press. His publicist, Dick Guttman, told the outlet that he was found unresponsive in his Hollywood Hills Home. Jeter was HIV-positive, but regarded in good health. The cause of death was deemed an epileptic seizure, reported to The Advocate.
“Kids would recognize him and come running up to him, ’Mr. Noodle! Mr. Noodle,‴ Guttman told the Associated Press. “He really loved that.”
Jeter’s other roles include Evening Shade, Patch Adams, The Polar Express, The Green Mile, Jurassic Park III and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
Matt Robinson, the Actor Who Played Gordon and Voiced Roosevelt Franklin
After a 20-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Matt Robinson passed away in 2002 reported The New York Times. He is most remembered on Sesame Street for playing the first Gordon, though he also voiced the muppet, Roosevelt Franklin. Starting in the first season, he left the franchise in 1971.
As he said on the show, “You’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here.”
Also known for his writing credits, he worked on The Cosby Show, Sanford and Sons, Eight is Enough, Save the Children and Amazing Grace, as well as multiple plays.
The acting bug runs in the family, as Hallmark actress Holly Robinson Peete is his daughter.
Bill McCutcheon, the Actor who Played Uncle Wally
In 2002, The Los Angeles Times reported Bill McCutcheon died at age 77 of natural causes in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He is known for playing the “grandfatherly” Uncle Wally for eight seasons of the iconic kids’ series.
“Uncle Wally was a fun-loving, down-to-earth, endearing older gentleman,” Danette DeSena, Sesame Street talent producer, told the outlet. “That’s really how Bill was in real life.”
The role won him three Daytime Emmys. Also known for his comedic stage work, he has a Tony for his role in Anything Goes in 1988. Other notable works include Steel Magnolias and Howdy Doody.
Chester ‘Chet’ O’Brien, the Actor who Played Mr. Macintosh
Chester ‘Chet’ O’Brien is the actor who played Mr. Macintosh on Sesame Street from 1971 until 1992. According to Muppet Fandom, he served as the show’s production stage manager and floor designer.
He received the Directors Guild of America’s Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award in 1991 alongside his brother, Mortimer. The award is “for an Associate Director or Stage Manager in Recognition of Career Achievement in the Industry and Service to the Directors Guild of America.”
O’Brien passed away in 1996 at 87 years old.
Raul Julia, the Actor who Played Rafael
Raul Julia appeared in the third season of Sesame Street, playing the “fixit man” Rafael. Though, he is perhaps better known to audiences as the patriarch of The Addams Family, Gomez.
Julia passed away from a stroke in 1994 at the age of 54. A documentary was made about the actor, Raul Julia: The World’s a Stage, by Edward James Olmos. He told NBC News, “He was just beginning. He died much too young.”
His other works include stage and screen, among them The Burning Season: The Chico Mendes Story, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Tempest.
Richard Hunt, the Puppeteer for Gladys the Cow
Richard Hunt died in 1992 due to complications with AIDS, he was 40 years old. Hunt served as a puppeteer on Sesame Street, working on characters such as Gladys the Cow, Don Music, Forgetful Jones, Sonny Friendly, Placido Flamingo, Sully and more.
″It’s impossible to imagine a world without Richard,″ director Jon Stone told the Associated Press. ″He came to us a wild-eyed 18-year-old and grew into a master puppeteer and inspired teacher.″
Stone was not alone in his admiration. “We all miss Jim Henson, but my family had a special relationship with the brilliant Richard Hunt,” revealed actor Mark Hamill on Twitter. “We all loved him dearly & my kids called him Uncle Richard. We lost him at only 40, but he lives on through Scooter-Janice-Statler-Beaker-Sweetums & so many more.”
Jim Henson, the Creator of Muppets
Before there was Sesame Street, there was Jim Henson. He created muppets, a mix of hand puppets and marionette dolls reports The New York Times.
Famously, he served as the puppeteer for another one of his creations, The Muppet Show’s Kermit the Frog. ”I suppose that he’s an alter ego,” Mr. Henson said to the outlet. ”But he’s a little snarkier than I am – slightly wise. Kermit says things I hold myself back from saying.”
The 53-year-old passed away in 1990, dying from streptococcus pneumonia.
According to the publication, Henson’s wife claims that he is “calm and unbelievably patient,” though, “sometimes you want to kick him,”
Northern Calloway, the Actor who Played David
Northern Calloway played David on Sesame Street, while also voicing Same Sound Brown. His character was first introduced in the fourth season as the boyfriend of Maria. After Mr. Hooper’s death, he also took over the shop.
His character moved to Florida when Calloway retired in 1989.
Calloway suffered from bipolar disorder, as was revealed in Street Gang: The Complete Oral History of Sesame Street. At one point, the Arizona Daily Star reported he went on a naked rampage that included beating a woman with an iron. He sought treatment and returned to the show.
He died at age 41 years old.
Will Lee, the Actor who Played Mr. Hooper
In 1982, Will Lee passed away from a heart attack at the age of 74. According to a survey cited by the New York Times, he was the most recognizable character on Sesame Street at the time.
After he passed away, the show had to decide if and how to address his death, which ultimately led to the acclaimed “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” episode. Airing on Thanksgiving in 1983, the episode went on to win the children’s show a Peabody and Daytime Emmy.
According to the AV Club, the show worked with child psychologists to develop points of the grieving process to address throughout the episode. Spinney told the outlet, “It was probably the most sensitive show we have ever done. When we finished there were tears on all the actors’ faces. When I came out of the suit, I had to have a towel because I had been crying.”