Big Bird puppeteer Caroll Spinney called out a dying boy

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Caroll Spinney, the actor who played Big Bird and Oscar on “Sesame Street,” died on December 8 at the age of 85. His cultural impact has been huge, but a backstage phone call he recounted in this 2015 story shows the depth of his legacy.

Caroll Spinney, the actor who played Big Bird and Oscar on “Sesame Street,” said he viewed his phone call to a boy dying of cancer as the most significant interaction he has had with a child during filming.

Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird, will always remember the day he reached out to a dying boy.Danny Moloshok / Reuters

“I got a letter from a fan that said her little boy, who was 5, was named Joey, he was dying of cancer,” Spinney wrote in 2015, during his Ask Me Anything session on Reddit. “And he was so sick, the little boy knew he was dying. So the man, in his letter, asked me if I would call the little boy. He said the only thing there was ‘encouraged in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television. “

The father, Spinney said, asked the actor to tell Joey how good a boy he was. Spinney said he had obligated himself and found a landline – as this was a time before cell phones were popular – to try and cheer Joey up.

“I had Big Bird say, ‘Hello! Hi Joey! It’s me, Big Bird!’,” Spinney recalls. “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 Big Bird friend.’ And I said ‘I’d better let you go now.’ He said ‘Thanks for calling me Big Bird. You are my friend. You make me happy.’ “

Spinney said Joey’s parents were by the boy’s side during the phone call.

TODAY Show: Caroll Spinney has been breathing life into Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscarthe Grouch since his inaugural season in 1969. Spinney is now 81 and hopes he’ll never grow up.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

“[Joey’s father] I hadn’t seen him smile since October, and it was March – and when the phone hung up, he said “Big Bird called me! He is my friend.’ And he closed his eyes. And he passed away. “

It was then that Spinney realized the emotional impact of his work.

“I could see that what I tell children can be very important,” he wrote. “And [Joey’s father] said ‘We haven’t seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled as he died. It was a gift for us. Thank you.'”

Spinney shared other moving stories in the days surrounding the release of his new documentary, “I Am Big Bird”. For more, check out her recent conversation with TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager.

Follow TODAY.com writer Chris Serico on Twitter.



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