Michael Jeter, the diminutive actor who delighted children as “Sesame Street’s” Mr. Noodle and earned a Tony for the Broadway musical “Grand Hotel” and an Emmy for his role as assistant coach in Burt Reynolds’ television series “Evening Shade,” has died. He was 50.
Jeter was found dead Sunday in his Hollywood home by his life partner, Sean Blue. Publicist Dick Guttman said Jeter had been ill, but the cause of death has not been determined.
In a 1997 interview for “Entertainment Tonight,” Jeter disclosed that he was HIV-positive. He had been a dedicated fund-raiser for AIDS Project Los Angeles for the last decade.
Guttman said that the actor recently completed his work on Robert Zemeckis’ yet-to-be-released film “The Polar Express,” starring Tom Hanks, and that filming was suspended Monday because of Jeter’s death. Jeter earlier worked with Hanks on the film “The Green Mile,” in which he played a hapless, mouse-loving condemned murderer.
Lauded for his ability to evoke laughter as well as tears, Jeter has been called “an actor’s actor” by Los Angeles magazine.
Versatile as he was, Jeter never considered himself a dancer. Yet when he danced for director-choreographer Tommy Tune in the 1990 musical “Grand Hotel,” he earned not only a Tony but an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award and the Clarence Derwent Prize for his role as the dying bookkeeper off for one final fling in Berlin.
Two years later, Jeter earned an Emmy for his work as Herman Stiles, the wimpy assistant to Reynolds, who played a pro football player turned coach. Jeter was nominated twice more for Emmys for that series and two more times for guest roles on the series “Picket Fences” and “Chicago Hope.”
Audiences loved Herman, Jeter told The Times in 1993, because “he is not perfect. He doesn’t have a model’s face. He is not perfect in any sense of the word. Everyone is a Herman on some level.”
Jeter didn’t mind imperfection any more than Herman, and he was well aware that middle age brought him his greatest success.
“I know that I am not what one normally would think of as, let’s say, fit for fantasy,” he said 10 years ago. “I am not a romantic lead and that’s fine. I am actually quite glad. There was a time in my life when I hated myself for being so sort of squirrelly looking and odd. I never quite fit my age. Now I’m starting to grow into my body.”
Born on Aug. 26, 1952, in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., Jeter began medical studies at Memphis State University, but also discovered a love for acting.
After graduation, he moved to New York and worked as a law firm secretary until he won his debut role in Milos Forman’s film adaptation of the musical “Hair.”
Among Jeter’s stage plays were “Alice,” “G.R. Point,” “Cloud 9,” “Greater Tuna,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Zoo Story,” “Waiting for Godot” and “The Boys Next Door.”
Although better known for his stage and small screen work, Jeter also had memorable roles in several films. Among them were his homeless cabaret singer with AIDS in Terry Gilliam’s “The Fisher King,” starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in 1991, Whoopi Goldberg’s comic sidekick Father Ignatius in “Sister Act 2" in 1993 and the nerdy computer whiz in the Wesley Snipes action film “Drop Zone” in 1994. Other films included “Waterworld,” “Air Bud,” “Mouse Hunt” and “True Crime.”
In 1998, Jeter found a ready audience among children when he joined lovable Elmo on “Sesame Street” as Mr. Noodle, who couldn’t seem to do anything right.
In 2000, Jeter declared the bumbling Mr. Noodle his favorite role in 20 years, telling the New York Post: “It’s simply pretend. Anything going on in my life, and therefore stressful, goes away.”
In addition to Blue, Jeter is survived by his parents, Dr. William and Virginia Jeter; a brother, William; and four sisters, Virginia Anne Barham, Emily Jeter, Amanda Parsons and Laurie Wicker.
Services are pending. Memorial donations can be made to AIDS Project Los Angeles.