Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street,” did a Reddit AMA session on Friday, where he answered questions about his decades-long career with the children’s television show PBS.
The 81-year-old performer opened up about Mr. Snuffleupagus, the show’s standout episode ‘Farewell, Mr. Hooper’ and, in general, what it’s been like to play the 8ft yellow bird ever since. 1969. Here are some of the actor’s best answers:
Q: What was your most meaningful interaction with a child during filming? Or maybe someone who grew up watching you and told a poignant story?
Alright, here’s one.
It’s a very sad story, but it’s real.
I received a letter from a fan who said that his little boy, who was 5 years old, was named Joey, he was dying of cancer.
And he was so sick till the little boy knew he was dying.
So the man, in his letter, asked me if I wanted to call the little boy. He said the only thing that comforted him in his fading state was seeing Big Bird on television.
So occasionally he didn’t see Big Bird on certain days, because he wasn’t necessarily on all the shows. So he asked if I could call him and talk to the boy, tell him what a good boy he was.
So I took a long time looking for a phone, because that was before cell phones. And they got a long cord to bring a phone to the boy.
And I asked Big Bird to say “Hello! Hello Joey! It’s me, Big Bird!
So he said “Is that really you, Big Bird?”
“Yes it is.”
I chatted with him for a while, about ten minutes, and he said, “I’m glad you’re my friend Big Bird.”
And I said “I better let you go now.”
He said “Thank you for calling me Big Bird. You are my friend. You make me happy.
And it turns out his mom and dad were sitting with him when the phone call came in. And he was very, very sick that day. And they called the parents because they didn’t know how long it would last.
And so his dad wrote to me right away, and said, ‘Thank you, thank you’ – he hadn’t seen him smile since October, and that was March – and when the phone hung up, he said “Big Bird called me! He’s my friend.”
And he closed his eyes. And he died.
And I could see that what I say to children can be very important.
And he said, “We haven’t seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled as he died. It was a gift for us. Thanks.”
Q: What do you think of the episode “Goodbye Mr. Hooper”? We could see the expressions on everyone’s face during this scene, but I’m curious how it affected you. Was it difficult to imitate the emotions everyone else’s faces showed using a puppet?
Editor’s note: On Thanksgiving Day in 1983, “Sesame Street” aired an episode that sought to explain death to a child when Will Lee, playing shopkeeper and Big Bird friend Mr. Hooper on the show, died of a heart attack. In an unprecedented move for a children’s show, the producers decided to use Mr. Hooper’s death as a teachable moment for children. In “Farewell, Mr. Hooper”, the other Sesame Street adults explain to Big Bird why his friend wasn’t coming back.
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Well, I feel like I can show all kinds of emotions through Big Bird, through this puppet. I myself am very emotional. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house during that scene, including me. When I finished the scene, it was a pretty long scene but shorter in the movie, it’s just… after I do a long scene, the first thing I do is walk out, and my face was wet from tears, and so all the actors. The woman named Elena, who played Olivia in the film, she is now dead, but she said “When Big Bird said ‘But that’s so SAD!’ “That’s it, I just lost it.” I started bawling my head.
Because we loved him. It’s losing Will Lee. What a charming man he was.
Q: Why did Snuffy go from someone only Big Bird can see to everyone who sees him?
Well, for a while a lot of people objected to the fact that people didn’t believe in Big Bird. Because you have to believe, and kids don’t lie (I don’t think that’s always necessarily true – when I was a kid, even though I was trying to be a good kid) – anyway they have decided it was better for everyone to see it. Because Snuffy was REAL.
The only problem, in my opinion, was that if you missed the Thursday show, everyone missed you seeing Big Snuffy. So Friday, he was up and talking to everyone, and they were like, “What happened!?” if they didn’t watch it on Thursday. I think they should have introduced 1 or 2 of them to Snuffy, to explain what it’s like not to be believed when you see something you know to be true.
For more water, Spinney, dressed as Big Bird, sang Kermit’s “Bein’ Green” at Jim Henson’s funeral at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City on May 21, 1990. Spinney ends the song by saying “Thank you, Kermit.
Video by YouTube user Peter Schultz
The actor also has a documentary, titled “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” which will be released on May 15.