Obituary: Caroll Spinney, puppeteer who was Big Bird, the most famous Muppet on Sesame Street

Caroll Spinney with his characters Oscar The Grouch. Picture: AP
Caroll Spinney with his characters Oscar The Grouch. Picture: AP
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Caroll Spinney, puppeteer. Born: 26 December, 1933 in Waltham, Massachusetts, United States. Died: 8 December 2019 in Woodstock, Connecticut, aged 85.

Caroll Spinney, who gave Big Bird his warmth and Oscar the Grouch his growl for nearly 50 years on Sesame Street, has died at the age of 85 at his home in Connecticut.

The legendary puppeteer lived for some time with ­dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions, the Sesame Workshop said in a statement.

Spinney voiced and operated the two major Muppets from their inception in 1969 when he was 36, and performed them almost exclusively into his 80s.

“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 my purpose.”

Through his two characters, Spinney gained huge fame that brought 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 its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending,” the Sesame Workshop said.

But he never became a household name.

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

Spinney gave Sesame Street its emotional yin and yang, infusing the 8ft 2in Big Bird with a childlike sweetness often used to handle sad subjects, and giving the dustbin-dwelling Oscar – whose voice Spinney based on a New York cabbie – a streetwise cynicism that masked a tender core. “I like being miserable. That makes me happy,” Oscar often said. “But I don’t like being happy, so that makes me ­miserable.”

To colleagues there was no question which character the kindly Spinney resembled.

“Big Bird is him and he is Big Bird,” former Sesame Street head writer Norman Stiles said in a 2014 documentary.

It wasn’t easy being Big Bird. To play the part, Spinney would strap a TV monitor to his chest as his only eyes to the outside. Then the giant yellow bird body was placed over him. He held his right arm aloft constantly to operate the head, and used his left hand to operate both arms. The bird tended to slouch more as the years took their toll.

In 2015, Spinney switched to just providing the characters’ voices.

Big Bird’s builder, Kermit Love, always insisted that his design was a puppet, not a ­costume. But to many ­children, he was neither. He was real.

“Eight-year-olds have ­discovered to their horror that he’s a puppet,” Spinney said in 1987.

Born in 1933 in Waltham, Massachusetts, Spinney had a deeply supportive mother who built him a puppet theatre after he bought his first puppet, a monkey, at the age of eight. 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 in this period had three children, ­Jessica, Melissa and Benjamin, all from his 1960 to 1971 marriage to Janice Spinney. He later married his ­second wife Debra in 1979, and the two were nearly 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 told him, “I liked what you were trying to do,” Spinney remembered Henson saying, in his memoir.

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

But Big Bird would become the show’s biggest star, his name and image synonymous with not just Sesame Street but children’s television in the US.

The character was usually used for comedy, but his innocence and questioning was also useful when serious ­subjects needed to be addressed. When Sesame Street shopkeeper Mr Hooper died, Big Bird had to get a lesson in accepting death, saying in the memorable 1983 episode that, “he’s gotta come back. Who’s gonna take care of the store? Who’s gonna make my birdseed milkshakes, and tell me stories?”

When Henson died suddenly in 1990 at age 53, leaving the Muppet world devastated, Big Bird played the same part in real life. At the funeral, Spinney appeared alone on stage in full Big Bird costume and sang It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green, ­Kermit’s signature song.

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

Spinney said he was crying under the feathers but he got through the song, looking at the sky and saying, “Thank you Kermit,” before walking off.