Caroll Spinney, “Sesame Street” puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, dies at 85



Caroll Spinney, who gave Big Bird his warmth and Oscar the Grouch his growl for nearly 50 years on “Sesame Street,” died Sunday at the age of 85 at his Connecticut home, according to the Sesame Workshop.

L’Atelier Sésame said in a report that the legendary puppeteer lived for some time with dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions.

Spinney has voiced and operated the two main Muppets since their inception in 1969, when he was 36, and he performed them almost exclusively until he was 80 on the PBS children’s TV show which then went on. at HBO.

“Before I came to ‘Sesame Street’ I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important,” Spinney said when he announced his retirement in 2018. “Big Bird helped me find it. my objective.”

Thanks to his two characters, Spinney gained immense fame which earned him international tours, books, record albums, movie roles and visits to the White House.

“Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from his early days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be endless. Said the Sesame. Workshop, the association responsible for the production of the show.

But Spinney never became a household name.

Caroll Spinney has been the puppeteer and voice behind Big Bird on “Sesame Street” for decades.

(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

“I am perhaps the most unknown famous person in America. It is the bird that is famous.

Caroll Spinney

“I am perhaps the most unknown famous person in America,” Spinney said in his 2003 memoir. “It’s the bird that’s famous.”

Spinney gave “Sesame Street” his emotional yin and yang, infusing the 8ft 2in Big Bird with a childish sweetness often used to deal with sad subjects, and giving the Oscar of the trash, whose voice Spinney is based on a New York cab driver, a street cynicism that masked a tender core.

“I like to be miserable. It makes me happy, ”Oscar said many times. “But I don’t like to be happy, so it makes me miserable.”

To his colleagues, there was no doubt what character the kind Spinney looked like.

“Big Bird, that’s him and he’s Big Bird,” former “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles said in a 2014 documentary on Spinney.

It wasn’t easy being Big Bird. To play the role, Spinney attached a TV screen to his chest as his only eyes outward. Then the giant yellow bird body was placed on top of him. He constantly held his right arm in the air to actuate the head and he used his left hand to actuate both arms. The bird tended to sag more as the years took their toll.

In 2015, Spinney was content to provide the voices of the characters. That year, the long-running PBS show signed a five-year pact with HBO that gave the premium cable channel the right to air new episodes nine months before they aired on PBS.

Big Bird builder Kermit Love has always insisted his design was a puppet, not a costume. But for many children, he was neither. He was real.

“Eight-year-old children discovered with horror that he was a puppet,” Spinney told The Associated Press in 1987.

Born in 1933 in Waltham, Mass., Spinney had a deeply supportive mother who built him a puppet theater after purchasing his first puppet, a monkey, at the age of 8.

He spent four years in the US Air Force after high school, then returned to Massachusetts and broke into television. He teamed up with fellow puppeteer Judy Valentine for their own Daily Series, then worked on a Boston version of the clown show “Bozo’s Big Top”. Spinney at this time had three children, Jessica, Melissa and Benjamin, all from her 1960-1971 marriage to Janice Spinney. He then married his second wife, Debra, in 1979, and the two were almost inseparable for the rest of his life.

It was after a disastrous performance at a puppet festival in Utah that Spinney met Muppet master Jim Henson, who came backstage and said, “I liked what you were trying to do. do, ”Spinney remembers in his memoir.

Spinney would join the Muppet team when “Sesame Street” was about to transform them from a popular phenomenon into an American institution. Henson brought his iconic character, Kermit the Frog, to the show. His right-hand man, Frank Oz, would become famous via Grover and Cookie Monster. Together, they create Bert and Ernie.

But Big Bird would go on to become the biggest star on the show, with his name and image synonymous with not only “Sesame Street” but PBS and children’s television as a whole. The character was typically used for comedy, but his innocence and questioning were also helpful when serious matters needed to be addressed. When “Sesame Street” shopkeeper Mr. Hooper passed away, Big Bird had to be taught a lesson in accepting death, stating in the momentous 1983 episode, “He has to come back.” Who will take care of the store? Who’s going to make my birdseed milkshakes and tell me stories? “

When Henson passed away suddenly in 1990 at the age of 53, leaving the world of Muppets devastated, Big Bird played the same role in real life. At the funeral, Spinney appeared on stage alone in Big Bird costume and sang “It’s Not Easy Bein ‘Green,” Kermit’s signature song.

“It was extraordinarily moving,” Oz said in the documentary Spinney. “It tore people apart.”

Spinney said he was crying under his feathers, but he walked through the song looking at the sky and saying, “Thanks Kermit” before walking away.

Sesame Workshop co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said on Sunday that Spinney, his longtime colleague and friend, “not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he also gave a lot of himself.”

“We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel immense gratitude for all he has given to Sesame Street and to children around the world,” she said.



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