Big Bird Puppeteer Caroll Spinney Retires From ‘Sesame Street’ After Nearly 50 Years


Caroll Spinney hangs up her big yellow bird costume.

After portraying the iconic Big Bird on “Sesame Street” for nearly 50 years, the 84-year-old puppeteer announced Wednesday that he is stepping down from the show at the end of this week.

“Before coming to ‘Sesame Street,’ I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important,” Spinney said in a statement released by Sesame Workshop. “Big Bird helped me find my purpose. Even if I leave my roles, I feel that I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while!

“They gave me great joy, led me to my true calling – and my wonderful wife! – and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.”

Spinney, who also played Oscar the Grouch, began his famous children’s television series in 1969 when cast by legendary Muppet creator Jim Henson.

He met his 45-year-old wife, Debra, in 1973 on “Sesame Street” while working for Children’s Television Workshop.

Caroll Spinney (aka Big Bird) retires
Puppeteer Caroll Spinney is retiring after nearly 50 years playing iconic characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on ‘Sesame Street’. Getty Images

In 2015, Spinney quit puppetry due to physical demands, but continued to do the voices of Big Bird and Oscar, The New York Times reported.

Sesame Workshop has announced that Big Bird will now be played by Matt Vogel, who has been Spinney’s apprentice since 1996.

Throughout his run as one of television’s most recognizable characters, Spinney felt Big Bird’s personality reflected a part of himself.

Caroll Spinney (aka Big Bird) retires
Caroll Spinney in 2015. “Big Bird has taken me to so many places, opened my mind and fed my soul,” he said. Getty Images

“I was one of those kind of kids who wanted to do the right thing, so that’s what Big Bird always tries to be, is try to be a good kid,” he told Jenna Bush Hager on TODAY in 2015. “It’s so much fun to play something that you know when the kids see it, they melt in the right way.”

Big Bird was originally meant to be an adult character until Spinney suggested a change.

“He wasn’t a kid,” Spinney told Hager. “A script came up, and I said, ‘You know, I think the way it could be played out is that Big Bird is a kid. “”

big bird
Spinney as Big Bird at the memorial service for Jim Henson, creator of “The Muppets,” at St. John The Divine Cathedral in New York City on May 21, 1990. PA

He has been recognized for his work with six Emmy Awards as well as two Grammy Awards. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2006.

Playing Big Bird took him all over the world and almost into space, which Spinney recounted in a 2014 documentary called “I Am Big Bird: the Caroll Spinney Story”.

He said NASA approached him in the 1980s about a possible space shuttle trip to get kids more interested in space, but the plan was dropped. NASA confirmed in 2014 that it was considering putting Big Bird on the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger mission, but never got around to putting it on the passenger list.

Caroll Spinney (aka Big Bird) retires
Caroll Spinney also played another famous “Sesame Street” character, Oscar the Grouch. Getty Images

A schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, was chosen instead and was part of the crew of seven who were all killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in midair in 1986.

“We all started crying,” he told Hager. “We knew it was a disaster. It made my scalp crawl to think I was supposed to be on this.”

When he wasn’t playing Big Bird, Spinney had the chance to adopt a different persona in Oscar the Grouch.

“Oscar is pretty cool,” he told TODAY. “It’s fun to play against someone very different on the one hand. On the other hand, Big Bird is my child. In some ways, I like him the best.”

Playing Big Bird took him to many foreign countries and led to appearances on TV shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The West Wing”.

“Big Bird has taken me to so many places, opened my mind and fed my soul,” Spinney said in the press release.

It also led to Spinney having deep interactions with children, such as a 5-year-old who was dying of cancer. Spinney recounted during an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit in 2015 that he chatted on the phone with a boy named Joey who told him the only thing that comforted him in his condition was watching Big Bird on TV.

“(Joey’s dad) 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,” Spinney wrote.

“I could see that what I say to the kids can be very important. And (Joey’s dad) said, ‘We haven’t seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled as he died. It was a gift for us. Thank you.'”


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