You didn’t know his name, but you certainly knew his voice and his alter ego.
Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for nearly 50 years on Sesame Street television, died Sunday at his Connecticut home. He was 85 years old.
The Sesame Workshop, which produces the show, said Spinney suffers from dystonia, a condition that causes involuntary muscle movements.
Spinney introduced Big Bird and Oscar in the first episode of Sesame Street in November 1969. Young audiences of the series immediately embraced both characters.
The yellow-feathered Big Bird was two and a half meters tall and had a child’s worldview – it was filled with curiosity, questions and innocence.
Oscar lived in a trash can and was perpetually dirty and miserable. But he was still adorable even when he grumbled at anyone who lifted the lid of his box. Oscar taught young children that it’s okay to be angry sometimes.
“Before I came to Sesame Street. I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important. Big Bird helped me find my goal,” Spinney said.
Spinney, born in Massachusetts, was interested in puppetry from an early age and, after serving in the US Air Force, brought his television skills to the Boston area.
The Muppets’ troupe founder Jim Henson discovered Spinney at a puppet festival and helped develop Spinney’s trademark characters for the new non-commercial children’s series that set the standard for educational television.
In addition to Sesame Street, Spinney played Big Bird on game shows and variety shows and in stage shows. The character is on the Library of Congress’s Living Legends list.
Playing Big Bird was physically exhausting work. Spinney had to attach a TV screen to his body to see what was going on outside of the huge costume he was to wear. He had to constantly raise his arm to operate on Big Bird’s mouth.
Spinney gave up wearing the bird costume at the age of 82, but continued to give the voice of Big Bird until his retirement last year.
There is no retirement in sight for Big Bird or Oscar.