The legendary Muppeteer who played Sesame Street residents Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are deceased. How did Caroll Spinney die?
Caroll Spinney died on December 8, 2019 at her home in Connecticut. He battled an illness that forced him to retire in 2018. He was 85 years old.
There aren’t a lot of kids’ shows and characters that the Muppets like that much. Of Sesame Street To The puppet show to the most recent Muppets, people of all ages have fallen in love with “the most sensational, inspiring, mutational” characters and the shows that featured them. And one of the main people responsible for bringing so much joy to so many people was the puppeteer Caroll Edwin Spinney.
For nearly 50 years, he played the adorable big yellow bird, Big Bird, and the equally adorable neighborhood grumpy, Oscar. Let’s take a look at everything we know about his life and death.
1. He bought his first puppet at the age of 8
Caroll Edwin Spinney was born December 26, 1933 in Waltham, Massachusetts. His mother named him Caroll because he was born on Boxing Day. When he was five he saw a performance of Three little kittens and his love of puppets was born.
When he was eight years old, he bought a monkey puppet at a clearance sale and put on a puppet show. The following Christmas he received a Punch and Judy puppet theater. He hosted puppet shows throughout his childhood and adolescence, performances that helped pay for his education.
2. He made his debut as a professional puppeteer in the 1950s.
In 1955, Spinny moved to Las Vegas to star in the show Naughty bunny. He returned to Boston in 1958 to work as a puppeteer for The Judy and Goggle Show, in which he played Goggle.
In the 1960s he performed on The capital of Bozo. In 1969, Spinney presented a performance featuring actors and live puppets at the Puppeteers of America festival in Utah. Jim Henson was in the audience.
3. He met and blew up Jim Henson
Although Jim Henson was part of the Puppeteers of America festival audience in 1969, Spinney and Henson first met seven years earlier in 1962 at another puppet festival. At the time, Henson asked Spinney if he would like to “talk about the Muppets.”
Henson designed this as a job offer, but Spinney didn’t realize it at the time. When Henson and Spinney reconnected in Utah in 1969, Henson again asked Spinney about the Muppets. Spinney eventually joined Henson on Sesame Street in 1969.
4. He was on Sesame Street for 50 seasons
Spinney has joined Sesame Street for his first season in 1969. As Big Bird and Oscar, Spinney has not only delighted legions of children (and their parents) for decades, he has also toured China with Bob Hope, danced with the Rockettes, celebrated his star in Hollywood. Walk of Fame and was named “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress.
He played Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and a few other more minor Muppets until 2018, when the disease he was battling – a neurological condition called dystonia, causing uncontrollable contraction of the muscles – forced him to withdraw. His last performances as Big Bird and Oscar came in the 50th season of the iconic show which was filmed in 2018 and aired in 2019.
5. The documentary I am a big bird: the story of Caroll Spinney concerns his life
In 2014, Spinney was the subject of the documentary I am a big bird: the story of Caroll Spinney. The film explored his life, friendship, and decades-long collaboration with Jim Henson, as well as the inspiration behind Big Bird.
And according to the documentary’s website, it features “incredible footage of Spinney’s early collaborations with Jim Henson as they trace Caroll’s journey from bullied child to famous performer.”
6. He leaves behind his wife and children
Spinney married Janice Spinney in 1960. They had three children before divorcing in 1971. He married his second wife, Debra Jean Gilroy, in 1979 and remained married to her until her death.
7. He suffered from a neurological disorder
Spinney died at his home on December 8 after living for a time with neurological movement dystonia. Dystonia causes involuntary muscle contractions, cramps, and other symptoms. It was this illness that forced him to retire in 2018 when he was 84 years old.
8. Sesame Workshop has released a statement
Sesame Workshop issued a press release about Spinney’s death. He said in part:
“[Spinney’s] enormous talent and an outsized heart were perfectly suited to play the larger than life yellow bird that has brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages across the world, and its adorably cranky cantankerous gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while. Caroll Spinney gave the world something really special. With the deepest admiration, Sesame Workshop is proud to carry his memory – and his beloved characters – into the future. “
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Amy Lamare is a Los Angeles-based writer spanning entertainment, pop culture, beauty, fashion, fitness, tech, and the intersection of tech, business and philanthropy. You can find it on Instagram and Facebook.