As the long time children’s television series “Sesame Street” prepares to be honoured at the Kennedy Center for their 50 plus years of entertaining and educating children, news comes that an integral member of the cast has died.
Known only as the voices of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, puppeteer Caroll Spinney died December 8 after a long illness in his Connecticut home less than three weeks before his 86th birthday.
By Luigi Novi, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11796575
Spinney took on the roles of Big Bird and Oscar in 1969 when PBS first aired the children’s program and continued to portray the characters including climbing into the Big Bird costume well into his 80’s.
Speaking on his choice of career as a puppeteer Spinney said, “before I came to ‘Sesame Street,’ I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important. Big Bird helped me find my purpose.”
By Henry Bellagnome from Troy, New York, United States – Tourism Gnome meets Big Bird on Sesame Street, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68970549
As with many actors who work behind a mask, Spinney’s name was never a household word unlike the names of the characters he played. In his memoir saying, “I may be the most unknown famous person in America. It’s the bird that’s famous.”
“Sesame Street” owners Children’s Television Workshop spoke on Spinney saying, “Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define ‘Sesame Street’ from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending.
Spinney’s characters were polar opposites with the kind and gentle giant yellow canary Big Bird and the crusty and ornery trash can dwelling green grouch of Oscar. But everyone who worked with him noted that Spinney was Big Bird through and through.
But operating Big Bird was no easy task, a five foot nine Spinney occupied and operated an eight foot two inch bird by strapping a TV monitor to his chest, using his raised right hand to operate the big head, and his left had to operate the arms. After 50 years, Big Bird incurred quite a slouch as the toll of the heavy costume took its toll.
In 2015, Spinney retired from operating the characters but continued to give them their voices. Spinney retired from “Sesame Street” in 2018.
This is not the first time Spinney…or Big Bird…have had to deal with the death of a fellow member of “Sesame Street”. In 1983, the show’s storekeeper Mr. Hooper died and it was Big Bird who was chosen to try and learn how to accept the event and asking who was going to work in the store, make his birdseed milkshakes, and tell him stories. And in 1990 when Muppet creator and the force behind the launch of “Sesame Street” Jim Henson died suddenly, it was Spinney as Big Bird who took the stage to sing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (Kermit’s signature song). Spinney later noted that he didn’t know how he made it through the song and that he was in tears under the costume.
He may be the most unknown famous person in the world, but he was not ignored; Spinney earned four Daytime Emmy Awards for his portrayal as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. He was also awarded the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
Spinney was seldom found sans his Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch sidekicks, but he occasionally made an appearance as himself of television including the game shows “To Tell the Truth” and “Hollywood Squares”, “Presenting Susan Anton”, award shows, and documentaries.
“Sesame Street” was not the only place where Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch appeared; the duo showed up in over 100 film and television productions including game shows, talk shows, “Sesame Street” related films and television specials, “The Muppet Show”, “The Muppet Movie”, “The Great Muppet Caper”, “Big Bird in China”, “Follow that Bird”, “Big Bird in Japan”, “Shalom Sesame” (the Israeli “Sesame Street”), “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland”, “The West Wing”, “Scrubs”, late night talk shows, “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”, “Portlandia”, and “Supernatural”. His final television appearance was on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” as Oscar earlier this year.
He was born Caroll Edwin Spinney on December 26, 1933 in Wiltham, Massachusetts. He got his first puppet – a monkey – when he was eight years old when his mother made him a puppet theater. After high school he joined the Air Force where he spent four years before returning to puppeteering…and television. He spent time on the Massachusetts show “Bozo’s Big Top” with Judy Valentine before moving to Utah and a puppet festival where he met Jim Henson. Henson liked what he saw and asked Spinney to join him on what would become a world wide phenomenon.
He is survived by his second wife of over 40 years Debra, children, and grandchildren.
feature photo credit: By Montclair Film Festival – https://www.flickr.com/photos/montclairfilmfest/14112271501/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32610523