The day – Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who brought Big Bird and the “Sesame Street” Oscar to life, dies at 85



Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who brought to life Big Bird, the towering yellow bird of “Sesame Street” on television who accompanied generations of young people in the arduous but wonderful work of growing up, died on December 8 in her home of Connecticut. He was 85 years old.

His death was announced by production company Sesame Workshop, which said he suffered from dystonia, a neurological disorder affecting movement. Further details were not immediately available.

Decades before the advent of smartphones and tablets, when the ‘nipple tube’ was the bogeyman of parents and child psychologists who worried about what is now called screen time , Spinney brought his puppets to a television show that aspired to have an educational influence on preschoolers. -age and younger. It would become the longest-running children’s program on American television.

“Sesame Street” made its public television debut in 1969, its program drawing on research from the Children’s Television Workshop co-created by television producer Joan Ganz Cooney. The show featured a racial cast of live cast, along with entertainment and Jim Henson’s Muppets. He used advertising techniques, including jingles and nursery rhymes, to teach children the alphabet and numbers, how to tie their shoes and brush their teeth, how to love a new sibling and deal with a bully, and how to live in community. .

Spinney, who said he was teased as a child for his fascination with what his tormentors made fun of “dolls”, met Henson at a puppet convention and first donned the 4,000 yellow feathers. Big Bird’s canary for the show’s opening season. In thousands of episodes spanning nearly half a century, he’s given voice and movement to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, the shaggy green trash dweller who has shown kids that they don’t. didn’t need to be always happy and that it was okay to like things. others non – trash, for example.

The Muppets also included the thoughtful Bert and his playful friend Ernie, the voracious Cookie Monster and the giggling Elmo, who became a fan favorite, especially among younger “Sesame Street” viewers in the later years of the series. But Big Bird, who most often interacted with human actors, remained the centerpiece of “Sesame Street,” a creature often bewildered by a world too small for him, just as children are confused by a world too big.

Spinney brought to his character “a sensitivity to what childhood is, to its challenges, to its adventures,” said Kathryn A. Ostrofsky, a media history scholar who has studied the history of “Sesame. Street “.

Big Bird has become “the most human character of all Muppets, the most nuanced, the most complex, the most rounded,” she added. She attributed these qualities to Spinney’s acting ability, which she said “is something people often take for granted when they think of puppeteers.”

Henson, who died in 1990, originally conceived Big Bird as a “funny, stupid country idiot,” Spinney said, recalling that he persuaded the show’s creators to recast the character into a curious 6-year-old. year. In creating Big Bird, Spinney said he drew on memories from his childhood.

“I was very insecure, shy, I didn’t know what to say to people,” he once told the Washington Post, also recalling that he was the smallest child in school. “One time my teacher was asked what ‘puny’ was and she thought for a moment and said ‘Caroll. He’s puny. It’s probably just as bad to be too fat, like Bird.’

Like many children, Big Bird had an invisible friend, called Snuffleupagus, although the woolly mammoth-like creature was eventually made visible to avoid suggesting to young viewers that their perceptions were invalid.

Often times, Big Bird would make mistakes so that the kids on the other side of the screen could learn from them, or gleefully correct them, said Robert W. Morrow, author of “‘Sesame Street’ and the Reform. of Children’s Television “. Other times he asked questions that were unnatural for the other characters to ask, the ones the children searched for answers the most ardently.

In a memorable 1983 episode, viewers of “Sesame Street” learned of the death of Mr. Hooper, the bowtie shopkeeper played by actor Will Lee, who died of a heart attack. The show’s creators considered retiring Mr. Hooper to Florida, but ultimately decided to be honest with the kids who loved him.

“Big Bird, don’t you remember? We told you, Mr. Hooper is dead,” a human actor reminds Big Bird, who, carrying a gift for his friend, had forgotten.

“Well, I’ll give it to him when he comes back,” Big Bird replies.

“Big Bird, Mr. Hooper is not coming back,” says another actor. “When people die, they don’t come back.”

Slowly, Big Bird understands.

“It won’t be the same,” he laments, his head bowed, his beak tilted to the ground.

Distributed internationally, “Sesame Street” has become “one of the most recognized cultural products the United States is known for in the world,” according to Ostrofsky, with Big Bird as a symbol.

For much of his career, even when he was summoned as a character to the White House or to China with comedian Bob Hope or to direct the Boston Pops, the bearded Spinney could go almost anywhere without being recognized. . Big Bird, meanwhile, was a celebrity everywhere. And that’s how Spinney wanted to keep him.

Children’s television host Fred Rogers once invited Spinney to appear on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a show that preceded “Sesame Street” on national television by a year, to explain how the Big Puppet worked. Bird.

The costume measured 8 feet 2 inches. Spinney, who was 5ft 10in, stretched his right arm through Big Bird’s neck, his hand moving the beak and his pinky finger working Big Bird’s eyes. A camera hidden inside the costume helped Spinney navigate the scenery. The costume was hot and so heavy that Spinney, his arm outstretched under the 6 pound weight of Big Bird’s head, had to break every 10 to 15 minutes during filming.

But Spinney had no desire to explain such details to an audience of children. “If you want me, Big Bird is real,” he recalls telling Rogers. “Caroll Spinney doesn’t do television.

Later in life, Spinney revealed more of himself to the public, appearing in the 2014 documentary film “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story”, directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker. From the accounts of his “Sesame Street” colleagues, Spinney was almost indistinguishable from Big Bird: he was childish in his innocence, perhaps a little fragile and unyielding in his loyalty to “Sesame Street”.

As for Oscar, Spinney said he modeled the character after a Bronx cab driver who drove Spinney to a meeting with Henson and spent their commute complaining about then New York Mayor John Lindsay. . “Who could be more of a Grouch than a Bronx cab driver?” Spinney joked.

He observed that, for the actor who played Big Bird, it was “therapeutic to move on to Oscar, to live for a while with the exact opposite attitude about life.” But it was Big Bird, he said, that he loved the most.

Carol Edwin Spinney was born in Waltham, Mass. On December 26, 1933 – Boxing Day, hence “Carol”. He later changed the spelling of his name.

Growing up in Acton, further northwest of Boston, he was fascinated by puppets from an early age. His mother, who had designed clothes before raising two sons, made several of his first puppets. He recalled his father, who worked in a watch factory, as volatile and abusive.

Spinney said he was ridiculed in his youth for his female-sounding name and big ears. But with the puppets, “you can hide what you are right now and only be what they can see,” he once told The New York Times. “And you could make the adults laugh.”

He made money throwing birthday parties and putting on shows, pocketing the proceeds for college. After attending art school in Boston, he served in the Air Force, then worked in Boston on a TV show featuring Bozo the Clown before joining “Sesame Street”.

Spinney said playing Big Bird had supported him through difficult times in his life, including his divorce from his first wife, Janice, an event that he said made him consider suicide. In 1979 he married Debra Gilroy, who was secretary of “Sesame Street”. He had three children from his first marriage, Jessica, Melissa and Benjamin. Complete information on the survivors was not immediately available.

Big Bird’s appeal was such that NASA asked Spinney to fly into orbit in a suit, to get young people interested in space exploration. Spinney agreed to go, but it was ultimately determined that the space shuttle was too small to accommodate the Big Bird suit. New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe took her place and was killed along with the rest of the crew when the Challenger shuttle exploded in 1986.

As Spinney grew, Big Bird noticeably leaned forward. Due to balance issues, he stopped making puppets for Big Bird, although he continued to provide the voice of the bird, in 2015. Spinney retired from the series in 2018, date to which he had won numerous awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. Emmys in 2006

“Sesame Street” has inspired much of the children’s television that followed it – most notably “Blue’s Clues” and many video series on YouTube, said David Kleeman, children’s media expert and former president of the American Center for Children and Media. Big Bird, for its part, has become the face of public television, especially in perennial political battles over federal funding.

“I like Big Bird,” Republican candidate Mitt Romney said during a 2012 debate with President Barack Obama in an exchange that was widely mocked among liberals on social media. “But… I’m not going to keep spending money on borrowing money from China to pay it off.”

Big Bird – but not Spinney, who has stayed away from politics – arrived days later on “Saturday Night Live,” yawning and telling Seth Meyers, host of the Weekend Update news sketch. , that it was “seven hours after my bedtime”.

Spinney, who succeeded Big Bird by apprentice Matt Vogel, has appeared in dozens of “Sesame Street” films, videos and recordings.

Many children, he realized, believed in Big Bird as intensely as they believed in Santa Claus. He considered it his sacred duty to preserve the illusion, for as long as possible.

“If they come on set I end up being ‘deBirded’ and some take it really hard,” he told The Post years ago. “I saw a lot of disappointment. I know it’s going to happen sooner or later, but I hate it. Childhood fantasy is precious and short-lived time, don’t take it away. going to be obvious too soon. “



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