Bob McGrath, Beloved Original Resident on ‘Sesame Street,’ Dies at 90

Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Bob McGrath, an actor who spent more than half his life playing a resident on Sesame Street, putting a human face on the beloved children’s show across 47 seasons of broadcast television, died on Sunday, his family said. He was 90.

In a Facebook post announcing McGrath’s death, his relatives wrote that he had “died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family.” A cause of death was not given.

“Words cannot begin to express what Bob meant to me: a role model, a mentor, a friend,” fellow Sesame Street star Alan Muraoka, who joined the show in 1998, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday evening. “His kindness and wicked sense of humor were such a joy, and I loved him so much… Rest well my friend. You did good.”

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Cast to play the cheery neighborhood fixture Bob Johnson, McGrath was one of Sesame Street’s four non-puppet characters when its pilot episode broadcast for the first time in 1969. The fictional Bob was an affable music teacher fond of breaking into song, and performed more than 150 musical numbers over the course of his tenure on the show, including “People in Your Neighborhood,” “Rubber Duckie,” and “Hi Friend.”

“As soon as I started singing on Sesame Street, I got calls from symphonies to do family pops concerts,” McGrath recalled in a 2016 oral history of the show for Billboard. “It’s a great gig when they say, ‘Please welcome Big Bird’s best buddy, Bob!’ and you get a standing ovation from the introduction.

McGrath was also known for his onscreen relationship with Oscar the Grouch, a frenemy who liked to rib him with names like “blue eyes” and “high tonsils” on the show. The pair enjoyed an dynamic reminiscent of The Odd Couple, he said in a 2004 interview, explaining, “Oscar was always having a rotten day, and I’m ‘Mr. Nice Guy.’”

Besides Oscar, McGrath enjoyed acting alongside many of the show’s notable celebrity guests. Asked once who his favorite had been, he replied cheekily, “I’d have to flip a coin: Getting a hug from Fred Rogers or a peck on the cheek from Beyoncé—I’ll let you figure out which one I enjoyed more.”

McGrath would continue to star on Sesame Street until 2016, though his role shrank considerably in the years leading up to his departure, often showing up in only a handful of episodes every season. After leaving the show, McGrath continued to make appearances at related events, including the premiere of the 2021 documentary Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street.

Born on an Illinois farm in 1932, Robert Emmett McGrath wanted to be a singer long before he ever considered trying his hand at acting. As a young boy, McGrath would sing along as his mother played the piano, and had begun performing in community theaters by age 5, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

He jumped from being a high schooler with his own radio show to a voice major at the University of Michigan, eventually going on to obtain a Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music by 1959. Just over a year later, McGrath joined the chorus of Sing Along With Mitch, a weekly NBC sing-along show hosted by conductor and record executive Mitch Miller.

The series was eventually canceled in 1964, “a victim of changing musical tastes,” the Television Academy Foundation once opined. Soon after, McGrath, by that point a featured male soloist on the show, discovered that he was a near-cult figure in Japan, which had been airing Sing Along With Mitch on a local network.

Known there as “Bobu Magulas,” McGrath was able to tour Japan, releasing a number of successful albums of folk songs and ballads in Japanese, which he revealed as his “secret” on a 1966 episode of the game show To Tell The Truth. He never learned to speak Japanese, he told The New York Times the next year, but managed by learning his song lyrics phonetically.

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McGrath found his way to Sesame Street through a chance meeting with an old fraternity pal, and nearly passed on the opportunity until he saw what magic Muppeteer Jim Henson was cooking up for the show.

“And I thought, ‘Never mind those silly teenagers,’” he told NJ.com last year, referring to his fans overseas. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

McGrath couldn’t believe his luck when he was cast, believing the producers would wise up and kick him off the show before long. “All through the first season, I would go home to my wife and I said, ‘They’re not going to keep paying me for just doing nothing, just being myself,’” he recalled.

His luck held, however, and his fame grew, especially among the preschooler set. “I had a little boy in a store one time and he grabbed my hand—I thought he had mistaken me for his father,” McGrath remembered to the Television Academy Foundation. “I said, ‘Hi,’ he said, ‘Hi.’ I said, ‘Do you know my name?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Bob.’ I said, ‘Do you know where I live?’ He said, ‘Sesame Street.’”

“I said, ‘Do you know any of my other friends on Sesame Street?’ He said, ‘Oh, the number seven,’” McGrath continued, quipping, “I figure, I’m right up there with the numerals.”

McGrath is survived by his wife Ann, to whom he was married for 64 years; his three daughters and two sons; and eight grandchildren.

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