The seasoned actress, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award at Sunday’s 43rd Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, tells PEOPLE that life has been “wonderful” – albeit a little less furry – since she retired from the show last summer.
“This is the best year of my life, and at the pace I’m going it might be my last,” Manzano, who portrayed Maria for 44 years, joked. “I swear, I’m doing so many things and traveling around and promoting books. It’s wonderful.”
Manzano says she does miss her cast mates though – both real and puppet – and notes, “we always got along so well.”
“I think that was a real reason the show was such a success because it was real chemistry amongst all of us,” she shared on the red carpet of the Los Angeles-set ceremony. “So that certainly I miss. We’re going to make up for it tonight, let me tell you, because we’re all together in one spot, and we’re going to talk and be together.”
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Manzano first joined the long-running children’s show in 1971 and later began writing for the show. As part of Sesame Street‘s screenwriting team, she won 15 Daytime Emmy Awards and was nominated twice for outstanding performer in a children’s series.
The actress, 65, says she stuck around for so long because of the constantly changing cast of new children and ongoing positive message the series put out.
“They wanted me to be as I was. I didn’t have to do an accent,” she says. “I didn’t have to be a Latin joke. They really wanted my heart and soul, and that was important to me. I watched a lot of TV as a kid when there were no Latinas on it, and I know what effect that has on people.”
Not always comfortable in front of the camera, Manzano says she eventually got used to working with people like famed puppeteer Frank Oz (best known as Cookie Monster, Bert and Grover) and Jim Henson.
“I was first on the show, and I was a nervous wreck. I was doing a scene with Frank Oz, and I kept looking down at the puppeteer and not at the puppet,” she explains. “And finally Frank Oz says, in his Grover voice, ‘Stop looking at that man down there and talk to me.’ Then I had to get used to talking to these puppets.”
She continues, sharing another anecdote, “The best Muppet experience was when Big Bird‘s on the set, he’s played by an elderly man with white hair. He takes the top half of his suit off because he doesn’t know there’s a kid nearby, and the kid says to me, ‘Maria, does Big Bird know there’s a man in him?’ ”
Sesame Street is streaming now on on HBO Go.