Famous Cast Words

S1 E4 | FULL EPISODE

Emilio Delgado

Hosted by actor and writer Lynne Marie Rosenberg (HBO's "High Maintenance"), in “Famous Cast Words” stars from stage and screen discuss representation and inclusion issues facing the entertainment industry. Take a walk down “Sesame Street” with Emilio Delgado as he reminisces on 44 years of playing Luis on the iconic show.

AIRED: February 19, 2020 | 0:15:00
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TRANSCRIPT

Somebody presents a role to me

where he's gonna be a drug smugglers or a bandito

or he's doing ugly things to kids,

I'm not gonna do that.

♪♪

Hi. Welcome to "Famous Cast Words."

I'm Lynne Marie Rosenberg,

and we are bringing you this episode from my home.

I have with me here today actor/singer Emilio Delgado.

You may know Emilio from his 40+ years

as Luis on "Sesame Street."

You might not know him as the voice

of Boar's Head meats on Spanish radio.

Hi, Emilio. Hi, Lynne.

I'm so happy to have you here today.

I'm glad to be here with you.

So, you were on "Sesame Street" from 1971 to 2015.

Is that correct?

Well, yeah. That's about it.

So, how did you get that part --

that part that became a defining role for your life?

Whoa. I'm telling you, it's a long story,

but I'll try to make it as short as I can.

Tell it as long as you like.

I was an actor in Hollywood --

young actor, just starting out,

and trying to get represented on TV,

you know, looking for a job.

Mm-hmm.

-No jobs anywhere. -Mm-hmm.

In particular for a Chicano actor, I'd imagine.

Exactly. So, you know, it was not easy.

But one day I got a phone call out of the blue,

you know, from New York,

and somebody said on the phone,

"Mr. Delgado, we wonder if you'd like to audition for our show,

'Sesame Street,'"

and I was looking at my last unemployment check,

and I didn't know where this was coming from,

so I said, "Sure, yes."

And so the producer, David Connell,

came out to Los Angeles from New York,

and I interviewed with him

for about 10, 15 minutes, something like that.

They just wanted to get a feel, what I looked like,

what I sounded like, whatever.

I don't know. But he asked me things like,

"Can you speak Spanish?" And I said, "Yes, of course."

He says, "Would you shave off your mustache?"

'Cause I had a -- that's the one year

I had a mustache...

And I said, "Yeah, sure."

I'm thinking, "I'll shave anything."

Yeah. [ Laughs ]

Eyebrows, total head, you got it.

Yeah, but he said, "Thank you very much,"

after about 15, 20 minutes and that was it.

Didn't hear for a month, didn't hear anything,

so I just kind of kissed it off.

Another audition -- eh! -- out the window, right?

But then I got another call,

and then Jon Stone, the producer/director/writer --

he was everything on the show --

he came out to Los Angeles, and he interviewed me.

And I guess he just wanted to feel me out

and see what I sounded like, what I looked like,

what kind of person I was.

I didn't audition. I mean, I didn't sing.

I didn't act.

They didn't have anything to audition with.

He just talked with me,

and after about 15 minutes he just looked at me,

and he said, "Well, if you want to work with us,

be in New York October 11th."

I think it says a lot about

the importance of "Sesame Street"

and the importance of the humans of "Sesame Street"

that the audition was really just who you are as a person...

Yeah.

...'cause I think the human beings --

as wonderful as the Muppets are,

and as wonderful as the animation is,

there was something so special about

seeing lots of different kinds of human beings... Yeah.

...and them bringing their heart to a role.

Well, see, that was the thing.

With Jon Stone -- I mean, this guy was amazing.

I mean, he was, like, a total genius

in every aspect of theater and performing.

And I think Jon Stone as the --

sort of like the father of the whole thing,

wanted it to be as real as possible.

Consequently, he didn't want actors. Right.

He wanted real people... Yeah.

...which is what we all were, and we all came together,

and it was like we knew each other already,

like we were a family.

For me, being the Chicano who came in from Los Angeles,

where most of us Mexican Americans

at that time were from the west... Yeah.

...there were very few Mexican Americans

here in New York.

I mean, it was all Puerto Ricans, you know,

and Boriqueños, you know. Yeah.

But all of a sudden here we were

in the neighborhood in New York.

The Chicanos are here, you know?

[ Laughs ] And you get to be the face of all that.

Yeah. There it is, you know -- Luis!

[ Laughs ]

And I always threw stuff in, like, in Spanish, you know?

Whatever the script was,

a lot of times I'd change it, and I would ask them.

I'd say, "What if I changed this

to say it in Spanish here?" or whatever.

And they would be very amenable to that

because, of course, they wanted to bring in the kids

that didn't speak English, you know.

And I would throw in things like, you know,

the first time that I saw Big Bird walk on,

my line was, "Big Bird!"

I didn't say "Big Bird!" I said, "Pajaro!"

Nice.

And we did it, and then they cut the scene,

they stopped the scene, and then Jon said,

"What does that mean, 'Pajaro,' whatever?"

I said, "It means bird." He says, "Oh, okay."

So they had a little conference,

you know, in the room, and said, "Okay, keep it.

Call him Pajaro." I love that.

So I call him Pajaro from then on every time I saw him.

Somebody presents a role to me

The representation on that show

worked in two important ways, I think.

One is that kids who were Latino,

kids who were Mexican, kids who were black,

were seeing themselves represented

in public television. Mm-hmm.

And then on the other side, for a white kid like me

coming up in the suburbs,

you were the first Mexican I knew.

You know, Gordon was probably... Yeah.

...one of the first black people I knew. Really?

And I think there's something so powerful

about what it means to see everyone.

Yeah. You know, I think,

how have you seen representation change

over your years in the industry

in terms of who we're actually getting to see?

You know, when I first started out in Hollywood,

yeah, there had been, you know,

Latinos and Latinas on movies and television --

the big people, you know, like Anthony Quinn

and Cesar Romero and all those guys.

I mean, they'd been around for a long time.

But then everything was changing,

and there really wasn't any representation

of actual people, you know?

Most of the roles that I went out for

were either for bandits or, you know,

gang members or whatever, you know.

And the women were prostitutes or maids or whatever it was.

Those were the only parts that were around for us. Right.

Things have changed a little bit,

but it's still got a long way to go, I think, today.

Has a very long way to go, which we will see

when we get to the breakdowns, but we won't go there just yet.

Don't get me started! [ Laughs ]

Somebody presents a role to me

I think the celebrity that comes from "Sesame Street"

is so different than your basic movie stars

in that you were really part of four generations' worth,

or three generations' worth, of humans

developing educationally in the United States.

Boy, I couldn't have said it better myself, I tell you. Thank you.

[ Laughing ]

And I'll tell you that over the years

I also went out into the world,

doing little shows here and there

and meeting people and families,

and people your age and even older that watched the show.

As soon as they see us, they revert to 5-year-old...

Absolutely.

...because it was such an important part

of their life, you know?

-Yeah. -Latchkey kids.

I mean, they come up to me and say,

"You're the only person that I saw during the day

because my mom was working,"

or, "my dad was working," or whatever, you know, so,

"We saw your show, and you were our friends,

you know, and you taught me this,

and you taught me that."

So, yeah, we were part of the family, and we still are.

I can remember a couple of instances.

One of them was this young woman came up,

and she looked Mexican American,

and she was crying, you know,

and she said, "I'm from Colorado in this little town" --

I can't remember the name of the town --

"up in the mountains.

Our family was the only Mexican family in the whole town. Yeah.

And when I turned on the TV,

you were the only other person that looked like me."

Yeah.

"You were the only one, and I couldn't wait

to turn on 'Sesame Street' just so that I could see you."

I mean, that alone was amazing, you know.

Somebody presents a role to me

So since you are Mexican American,

I thought we would look today at what sort of language

pops up in the casting world for Latino,

and specifically Mexican roles.

-Ooh boy. Yeah. -Yeah. Get ready.

Ay. This language, of course, comes from breakdowns,

and breakdowns are little bits of text

that are used in the casting world

to define what a project is looking for.

First I thought we would look at some character names.

There's no shortage of creative monikers.

"Coyote" ["Coy-yo-tay"], or "cai-oh-tee."

[ Laughing ] Yes.

"Mexican bandito," ["ban-dee-toe"]

or it should be "bahn-dedo," come on.

"El Caboose." There you go.

-Ay. -[ Laughing ] "Ay"!

-I've run into those. -I bet.

And do make sure you've honed your counting skills.

"Thug number 1." Ay.

"Bandits number 1, 2, 3."

[ As Count von Count ] Ah-ha-ha!

[ Normal voice ] Writers seem particularly

interested in your manliness...

"A tough-looking guy."

"Very macho-looking." [ Laughs ]

"Lots of testosterone."

"Plenty of attitude."

...though this shouldn't come as a surprise,

given the lifestyle you'll be asked to play.

"Hotheaded thug."

"Gangster look."

"Look, or could look, like gang members."

"A true cholo." Okay.

I love the "look or could look like gang" --

isn't, as actors, we're supposed to

possibly look like many things?

-"Look, or could look." -Yeah.

If we just do a little bit more,

like, maybe put a gold chain on him.

That's right, or more mustache.

But don't worry.

Sometimes you will get to play against type.

"He's a killer... with a heart."

In general, it seems Mexican actors

can expect to portray characters from one particular industry.

"A cartel middleman." Of course.

"A drug lord." Lot of those.

"Formerly a drug mule." Formerly.

Yeah, formerly. So what's he do now?

And if you're lucky, you just might be

the best in the biz.

"A legendary drug smuggler.

His particular skill involves hiding product..."

[laughing] "inside of himself."

Whatever picture that conjures up.

Oh, I don't want to picture anything.

[ Laughs ]

These things come up.

They sent me a script one time where literally they had

this one guy who was supposed to be a Latino of some kind,

and said that he wore pointed shoes

so that he could kill the cockroaches in the corners.

Oh, come on!

That was in the script.

As the character description?

As the character description.

And I read that, and I looked at it, and thought,

"Nah. This is what I would never do, you know?"

Yeah. I just called the agent

and said, "Tell them to change that,

or just do nothing with this thing.

This is ridiculous, you know?" Yeah.

How often do you say no,

or have you had to say no to things?

I've said no sometimes, yeah, before.

Because of this sort of representation issue?

-Because of that, yeah. -Yeah.

They're ethnic slurs.

I mean, they're stereotypes of people,

not the way people really are,

or my people really are, you know? Yeah.

I mean, we're like -- Luis and Maria.

See, they're a perfect family on "Sesame Street," you know?

Here they are -- they have a family.

They run a business together.

They're part of the neighborhood.

They're friendly. They work. Yeah.

I mean, you know, regular people, right? Yeah.

But if somebody presents a role to me

where he's gonna be a drug smuggler or a bandito

or he's doing ugly things to kids,

I'm not gonna do that. Yeah.

Luis: L-O-V-E, man -- you know,

that says "love," and that's a good word.

-Love? -Right.

What is love?

Well, you see, you wouldn't understand what it means

because you're a machine, you know,

and it's a human thing,

but love is like when you like somebody a lot,

and, you know, you want to hug them and kiss them,

and you feel kind of good and warm inside.

So you've had a career that has lasted now 40+ years.

What sort of roles are you going out for now,

and how has that changed over the years?

Yeah, well, it seems because of my age now --

of course, time has passed --

that I'll be doing a lot of grandfather roles...

-Mm-hmm. -...Grandpa and what have you.

That's fine, you know. I'll go right along with it.

But, of course, the good parts

in terms of film and television

seem to be a little sparse right now.

But I'm always looking forward

to doing an excellent role somewhere.

But theater -- in terms of theater --

I get to do all kinds of different kind of roles,

you know? It's interesting.

I've seen television do better

in terms of trans representation,

ethnicity representation, disability representation... Mm-hmm.

...is doing better, currently, than theater is.

But it's interesting that, in terms of age representation,

theater does seem to offer more opportunities.

I think so, you know.

Especially for somebody like me,

the age that I'm at right now,

it's, you know -- like, television and film,

if they ask for somebody in their 60s,

you got to look like somebody in their 60s.

Now, if I say that I'm 79, which I am,

and the part calls for somebody who's 60,

they're just gonna toss it out the window, you know,

'cause just by looking at the number.

But if I show up and I can look like I'm in my 60s,

why not, you know? Yeah.

But it doesn't work like that all the time.

I think you look like you're in your 50s.

-Really? -Yes.

-Ooh, thank you. -You and my dad.

I know I -- I knew you were a good friend of mine.

That's why.

Look, you can pay me later.

I'm so happy to have you here, and it is such an honor.

The 5-year-old inside of me is consistently amazed

that we are friends now. Yes.

But thank you so much for being here with me today.

-You're very welcome. -I love you very much.

-It's a pleasure to be here. -Thank you.

Thank you for watching.

Take care of each other, and be professional.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

Somebody presents a role to me

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