Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who brought childlike vulnerability to the hulking, yellow-feathered character Big Bird for 50 years on the groundbreaking children’s TV show “Sesame Street” and even made lovable Oscar the Grouch, a lover of garbage, died Sunday at age 85, the Sesame Workshop said.
Pinney, who suffers from the movement disorder dystonia, had only provided Big Bird’s voice since 2015 while another puppeteer was in the costume.
“We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel immense gratitude for all he gave to Sesame Street and children around the world,” show co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said Sunday. in a press release.
Big Bird, Oscar and Spinney were part of “Sesame Street” when it debuted on November 10, 1969, with the aim of entertaining and educating young children, especially those from low-income families.
Spinney announced his retirement at 84 in October 2018 after completing episodes that were due to air in 2019 to mark the show’s 50th anniversary.
With Spinney in, Big Bird danced with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, sang at Carnegie Hall, passed out at the Emmys, appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and toured China with Bob. Hope. He’s played with everyone from Johnny Cash to Michael Jackson.
Spinney’s career inside the Big Bird costume was featured in the 2015 documentary “I Am Big Bird.” The film covered some of his darkest moments, including suicidal thoughts after his first wife left him and took their children, and the jealousy he felt when the character of Elmo became more popular. than Big Bird.
The beloved Big Bird was a fluffy, pear-shaped mass of yellow-dyed turkey feathers sitting on spindly legs and standing over 8 feet tall. At first he was a jerk, but Spinney turned him into a character children could relate to – an excitable naive with the sensitivity of a 6-year-old who learned letters and numbers just like youngsters viewers who adored him.
Big Bird was often pissed off but persevered with the help of his neighbors on Sesame Street, where puppet creatures and humans lived side by side.
“Through Big Bird, I learned life-changing things, lessons that stayed with me even when I wasn’t in puppetry,” Spinney said in his book, “The Wisdom of Big Bird ( and Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch)”. “I’m sure being a bird has made me a better person.”
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In a statement announcing his retirement, Spinney said, “Even if I leave my roles, I feel like I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while.”
Spinney said Big Bird’s voice was actually his own, just a bit higher, but bringing it to life was physically demanding. He had to keep his right hand straight inside Big Bird’s head while his left arm was in the left wing of the suit. He operated the right wing by pulling a cord and used an interior video monitor to see what was happening in front of him.
Spinney was close with Jim Henson, the man behind “Sesame Street” and the Muppets puppet troupe, and he wore the full Big Bird costume when he sang the Muppets anthem “Bein’ Green” at the funeral of Henson in 1990.
Big Bird and Death was also part of one of “Sesame Street’s” most memorable moments. Actor Will Lee, who played storekeeper Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, and it turned into a lesson for children as the show’s cast gathered around Big Bird to explain the loss of the l friend who made him bird seed milkshakes.
“When we finished, there were tears on everyone’s face,” Spinney said in an interview with Sesame Street. “When I came out of the costume, I had to get a towel because I had been crying.”
Spinney also brought to life the antithesis of Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, the furry green creature who offered his curious opinions on the happenings of Sesame Street. Oscar lived in a dumpster and sang about his love of trash – “anything dirty, dull or dusty, anything ragged, rotten or rusty”.
Spinney said the gravelly voice he gave Oscar was an imitation of the tough-talking New York taxi driver who took Spinney to the studio on the day he was to debut the character.
Spinney grew up in Acton, Massachusetts, and developed her interest in puppets as a child. He said he never wanted to be seen by the public.
He pursued puppetry in his spare time while in the Air Force by launching a children’s show for a Las Vegas television station. Once back in Boston, he was part of the “Bozo the Clown Show” before Henson brought him to Sesame Street.
Spinney credited his 1979 marriage to Debra Gilroy, who worked for the company that produced “Sesame Street,” for changing his life.