LOS ANGELES — Caroll Spinney, who gave Big Bird his heat and Oscar the Grouch his growl for nearly 50 years on “Sesame Street,” died Sunday at age 85 at his Connecticut home, according to the Sesame Workshop.
The legendary puppeteer lived for some time with dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions, the Sesame Workshop said in a statement.
Spinney voiced and exploited the two main Muppets since their inception in 1969, when he was 36, and performed them almost exclusively until his 80s on the PBS children’s television show which later moved at HBO. His death comes the same day that “Sesame Street” is honored for his lifetime artistic achievements as a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.
“Before coming to ‘Sesame Street,’ I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important,” Spinney said when he announced his retirement in 2018. “Big Bird helped me find my purpose.”
Thanks to his two personas, Spinney gained enormous fame which earned him international tours, books, record albums, film roles and visits to the White House.
“Caroll was an artistic genius whose caring and loving outlook on the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its beginnings in 1969 for over five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be endless” , said the Sesame Workshop. noted.
But he never became a household name.
“I’m perhaps the most unknown famous person in America,” Spinney said in his 2003 memoir. “It’s the bird that’s famous.”
Spinney gave “Sesame Street” its emotional yin and yang, infusing the 8-foot-2 Big Bird with a childlike sweetness often used to deal with sad topics, and giving the trash-dwelling Oscar, whose voice Spinney is based on a New York taxi driver, a street cynicism that masked a tender heart.
“I like being miserable. It makes me happy,” Oscar often said. “But I don’t like being happy, so it makes me unhappy.”
For his colleagues, there was no question of which character the nice Spinney resembled.
“Big Bird is him and he is Big Bird,” former “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles said in a 2014 documentary about Spinney.
It wasn’t easy being Big Bird. To play the part, Spinney strapped a television monitor to his chest as his only eyes outward. Then the body of the giant yellow bird was placed on top of him. He constantly held his right arm up to operate the head and used his left hand to operate both arms. The bird tended to sag more over the years.
In 2015, Spinney was content to provide the character voices. That year, the longtime PBS show signed a five-year pact with HBO that gave the premium cable channel the right to air new episodes nine months before they air on PBS.
Big Bird builder Kermit Love always insisted his design was a puppet, not a costume. But for many children, he was neither. He was real.
“Eight-year-olds discovered to their horror that he was a puppet,” Spinney told The Associated Press in 1987.
Born in 1933 in Waltham, Massachusetts, Spinney had a deeply supportive mother who built him a puppet theater after he bought his first puppet, a monkey, when he was 8 years old.
He spent four years in the US Air Force after high school, then returned to Massachusetts and broke into television. He teamed up with fellow puppeteer Judy Valentine for their own daily series, then worked on a Boston version of the clown show “Bozo’s Big Top.” Spinney at this time had three children, Jessica, Melissa and Benjamin, all from his 1960 to 1971 marriage to Janice Spinney. He then married his second wife Debra in 1979, and the two were almost inseparable for the rest of his life.
It was after a disastrous performance at a puppet festival in Utah that Spinney met puppet master Jim Henson, who came backstage and said, “I liked what you were trying to do,” Spinney recalled, telling Henson, in his memoir.
Spinney would join the Muppets team when “Sesame Street” was set to transform them from a popular phenomenon into an American institution. Henson brought his signature character, Kermit the Frog, to the show. His right-hand man Frank Oz will become famous via Grover and Cookie Monster. Together they created Ernie and Bert.
But Big Bird would go on to become the show’s biggest star, his name and image being synonymous not only with “Sesame Street,” but also with PBS and children’s television. The character was typically used for comedy, but his innocence and questioning were also useful when serious matters needed to be addressed. When “Sesame Street” shopkeeper Mr. Hooper died, Big Bird had to learn to come to terms with death, saying in the memorable 1983 episode that “He has to come back. Who’s going to take care of the store? Who’s gonna make my birdseed milkshakes and tell me stories?”
When Henson died suddenly in 1990 at the age of 53, leaving the Muppet world devastated, Big Bird played the same role in real life. At the funeral, Spinney appeared alone on stage in full Big Bird costume and sang “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”, Kermit’s signature song.
“It was extraordinarily moving,” Oz said in the Spinney documentary. “It tore people apart.”
Spinney said he was crying under the feathers but he walked through the song, looking up at the sky and saying, “Thank you Kermit”, before walking away.
Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said Sunday that her longtime colleague and friend Spinney “not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he also gave a lot of himself.” .
“We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel immense gratitude for all he gave to Sesame Street and children around the world,” she said.