David L. Smyrl, Mr. Handford on 'Sesame Street'

David L. Smyrl
David L. Smyrl
Posted: March 26, 2016

David Langston Smyrl, 80, of Bala Cynwyd, a writer, singer, voiceover artist, and actor best known for his role on TV's Sesame Street as Mr. Handford, owner of Hooper's Store, died Tuesday, March 22, of lung cancer at Lankenau Medical Center.

"He was a funny man, a good man, and he always had jokes for you," said his wife, Cheryl Pajil Smyrl. "He was loved by everyone, and very creative."

Mr. Smyrl grew up in North Philadelphia. He began his career as a coffeehouse poet in the 1960s in Greenwich Village. His delivery was powerful and mesmerizing, said his sister-in-law, Maria Pajil Battle.

Mr. Smyrl found his first job in television in New York in the 1970s on a show called Express Yourself.

In 1978, he appeared in the Broadway musical Working, and then left for California, where he became a writer for the TV sitcom Benson. His work on the show earned Mr. Smyrl a People's Choice Award.

He next landed a job as a gag writer, audience warm-up man, and actor on The Cosby Show, playing contractor Sam Lucas in five episodes. He was with the show for five years, according to a biography on blackamericaweb.com.

After Cosby, Mr. Smyrl moved into film, with a small role in The Preacher's Wife opposite Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. He starred as Jesse B. Simple in The Dream Keeper, a documentary about the poet Langston Hughes.

Perhaps his best-known role was the genial, singing store owner on Sesame Street from 1990 to 1998. He was an eight-time Emmy Award winner for his contributions to children's TV programming.

Leonard Jackson had played Mr. Handford as a grumpy old man in Season 21, but when Mr. Smyrl took over the part later that season, he made the character cheerful, friendly, and young at heart.

"You may recognize him from all those times he sold birdseed milkshakes" at Hooper's, the website ToughPigs.com said in marking Mr. Smyrl's death.

An active voice-over performer, he recorded commercials for Texaco, McDonald's, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, 501 Jeans, Canada Dry, Delta Air Lines, and GMC cars and trucks.

Mr. Smyrl and his wife lived in Connecticut before returning to the Philadelphia area in 2004. He volunteered his time to perform in shows at schools, colleges, and penal institutions.

Besides his wife, he is survived by stepson Pancho Scott.

A viewing from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, March 28, at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, will be followed by a funeral service from 1 to 2 p.m. Burial will be private.

Donations may be made to the American Cancer Society via www.cancer.org.

bcook@phillynews.com

610-313-8102

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