Bob McGrath, the smooth-voiced tenor and actor best known for his nearly 50-year run on “Sesame Street,” where he was a founding cast member, died Dec. 4 at his home in New Jersey. He was 90.
The Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces “Sesame Street,” remembered Mr. McGrath as “a beloved member of the Sesame Street family,” writing in a statement Sunday: “A founding cast member, Bob embodied the melodies of Sesame Street like no one else, and his performances brought joy and wonder to generations of children around the world, whether teaching them the ABCs, the people in their neighborhood, or the simple joy of feeling music in their hearts.”
Mr. McGrath joined the inaugural cast of “Sesame Street” in 1969 as Bob Johnson, the affable neighborhood music teacher, alongside three other human characters who sang, lived, worked and learned alongside their fluffy, fuzzy — and occasionally grouchy — Muppet counterparts.
But the role almost didn’t happen. Mr. McGrath had spent much of the 1960s performing on TV and working as a folk singer in Japan. He was back in the United States when he bumped into his fraternity brother Dave Connell, who had worked on the children’s show “Captain Kangaroo,” Mr. McGrath recounted in a 2004 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. Connell asked whether Mr. McGrath was interested in auditioning for a new children’s program he was working on.
“No, not in the least,” Mr. McGrath recalled. “I thought, ‘Hmm, here’s another silly kiddie’s show that doesn’t mean that much.’ ”
Mr. McGrath auditioned and landed the role he would continue until 2017.
As Johnson, Mr. McGrath helped young viewers cultivate kindness and curiosity about the world around them through songs like “People in Your Neighborhood” and “Morningtown Ride.”
The show also tackled death and loss with gentleness, such as in a 1983 episode in which Bob and other characters explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper, the grocer, had died, following the real-life death of Will Lee, the actor who had portrayed Mr. Hooper since 1969.
“They wrote this beautiful script,” Mr. McGrath said in the Television Academy interview. “When we saw it, we wondered, are we ever going to get through this? And we barely did.”
In the scene, Bob holds back tears as he acknowledges to Big Bird that things will never be the same now that their beloved friend had died.
“But you know something?” Mr. McGrath’s character said. “We can all be very happy that we had a chance to be with him, and to know him and to love him a lot when he was here.”
Robert Emmett McGrath was born June 13, 1932, on a farm with no electricity in Ottawa, Ill., a town about 80 miles southwest of Chicago.
Mr. McGrath described his mother in the 2004 interview as “tremendously musical” and credited her with his success in the music business, where he spent his early years performing in radio competitions.
He studied music at the University of Michigan, where he was a soloist in the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, and graduated in 1954. After college, Mr. McGrath spent two years in the Army, then received a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
In 1958, he married Ann Sperry. In addition to his wife, survivors include five children; a sister; and eight grandchildren.
After two years of freelance music work that ranged from Gregorian chants at funerals to commercial radio jingles, Mr. McGrath joined the televised “Sing Along With Mitch,” hosted by Mitch Miller, singing as a featured soloist for the American bandleader for four years, before becoming a popular draw in Japan.
But the bulk of Mr. McGrath’s fame stemmed from “Sesame Street,” on which he appeared in more than 460 episodes. Fans were outraged when in 2016, Mr. McGrath and two other longtime cast members — Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon, and Emilio Delgado, who played Luis — were fired; their contracts were not renewed ahead of the program’s move to HBO in 2015 for first-run broadcast rights.
Mr. McGrath was sanguine through it all, telling attendees at the comic convention Florida Supercon later that year that he welcomed the chance to spend more time with family. “I’d be so greedy if I wanted five minutes more,” he said.