Caroll Spinney, puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the grouch poses for a photograph about the doc “I Am Big Bird…”, in Toronto on Monday, April 28, 2014. Spinney, who gave Big Bird his warmth and Oscar the Grouch his growl for nearly 50 years on “Sesame Street,” died Sunday at the age of 85 at his home in Connecticut, according to the Sesame Workshop. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Caroll Spinney, puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the grouch poses for a photograph about the doc “I Am Big Bird…”, in Toronto on Monday, April 28, 2014. Spinney, who gave Big Bird his warmth and Oscar the Grouch his growl for nearly 50 years on “Sesame Street,” died Sunday at the age of 85 at his home in Connecticut, according to the Sesame Workshop. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney dies at age 85

He gave Big Bird his warmth and Oscar the Grouch his growl

Caroll Spinney, who gave Big Bird his warmth and Oscar the Grouch his growl for nearly 50 years on “Sesame Street,” died Sunday at the age of 85 at his home in Connecticut, according to the Sesame Workshop.

The Sesame Workshop said in a statement that the legendary puppeteer lived for some time with dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions.

Spinney voiced and operated the two major Muppets from their inception in 1969 when he was 36, and performed them almost exclusively into his 80s on the PBS kids’ television show that later moved to HBO.

“Before I came 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.”

Spinney grew up in Massachusetts, but told The Canadian Press in a 2014 interview that his father was born in New Brunswick and his mother grew up in Cape Breton, N.S.

Through his two characters, Spinney gained huge fame that brought international tours, books, record albums, movie roles, and visits to the White House.

“Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending,” the Sesame Workshop said.

But he never became a household name.

“I may be 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 handle sad subjects, and giving the trashcan-dwelling Oscar, whose voice Spinney based on a New York cabbie, a street-wise cynicism that masked a tender core.

“I like being miserable. That makes me happy,” Oscar often said. “But I don’t like being happy, so that makes me miserable.”

To colleagues there was no question which character the kindly Spinney resembled.

“Big Bird is him and he is Big Bird,” former “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles said in a 2014 documentary on Spinney.

It wasn’t easy being Big Bird. To play the part, Spinney would strap a TV monitor to his chest as his only eyes to the outside. Then the giant yellow bird body was placed over him. He held his right arm aloft constantly to operate the head, and used his left hand to operate both arms. The bird tended to slouch more as the years took their toll.

In 2015, Spinney switched to just providing the characters’ voices. That year, the longtime PBS show inked 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’s builder Kermit Love always insisted that his design was a puppet, not a costume. But to many children, he was neither. He was real.

“Eight-year-olds have discovered to their horror that he’s 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 theatre after he bought his first puppet, a monkey, at age 8.

He spent four years in the U.S. 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 in this period had three children, Jessica, Melissa and Benjamin, all from his 1960 to 1971 marriage to Janice Spinney. He later married his second wife Debra in 1979, and the two were nearly inseparable for the rest of his life.

It was after a disastrous performance at a puppet festival in Utah that Spinney met Muppet master Jim Henson, who came backstage and told him, “I liked what you were trying to do,” Spinney remembered Henson saying, in his memoir.

Spinney would join the Muppet crew when “Sesame Street” was about to turn them from popular phenomenon into an American institution. Henson brought his signature character, Kermit the Frog, to the show. His right-hand man Frank Oz would become famous via Grover and Cookie Monster. Together they created Ernie and Bert.

But Big Bird would become the show’s biggest star, his name and image synonymous with not just “Sesame Street” but PBS and children’s television. The character was usually used for comedy, but his innocence and questioning was also useful when serious subjects needed addressing. When “Sesame Street” shopkeeper Mr. Hooper died, Big Bird had to get a lesson in accepting death, saying in the memorable 1983 episode that “he’s gotta come back. Who’s gonna take care of the store? Who’s gonna make my birdseed milkshakes, and tell me stories?”

When Henson died suddenly in 1990 at age 53, leaving the Muppet world devastated, Big Bird played the same part 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 up.”

Spinney said he was crying under the feathers but he got through the song, looking at the sky and saying, “Thank you Kermit,” before walking off.

Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said Sunday that Spinney, her longtime colleague and friend, “not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well.”

“We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to Sesame Street and to children around the world,” she said.

— With a file from The Canadian Press

Andrew Dalton, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Students from SD62 stepped up to help members in the community with the annual 10,000 Tonight food drive. This year’s organizers had to adapt during the campaign as COIVD-19 public health orders changed. (Black Press Media file photo)
West Shore students step up to make sure community members don’t go without

Students of SD62 are this year’s recipient of the Youth Volunteer Award

A cat died in this house fire in Sidney afternoon. The fire started on the house’s deck and spread from that point. Sidney Volunteer Fire Department Chief Brett Mikkelsen said the permanent presence of crews at the Community Safety Building prevented worse damage. (Photo courtesy of Clayton Firth)
Sidney house fire kills cat, causes extensive damage

Official says fire started on deck and damage to the house could have been worse

Millstream Village is welcoming a new Marshalls location March 9. (Photo courtesy GWL Realty Advisors)
New Marshalls store in Langford brings boost to women in need

Retailer will hold opening ceremony in Millstream Village March 9

Abstract Developments is donating $75,000 to support community programming at The Cridge Centre for the Family. (Courtesy of The Cridge Centre)
Victoria developer builds support for community programs

Abstract Developments donates $75,000 to The Cridge Centre for the Family

SD 62 (Sooke) has announced a COVID-19 exposure at David Cameron Elementary in Colwood. Potential exposure dates are Monday, Feb. 22; Tuesday, Feb. 23; and Wednesday, Feb. 24. (Black Press Media File).
COVID-19 exposure at Colwood’s David Cameron Elementary

Potential exposure dates are Monday, Feb. 22; Tuesday, Feb. 23; and Wednesday, Feb. 24.

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, start with the vaccination of police officers in internal police vaccination centers. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
B.C. officials to unveil new details of COVID vaccination plan Monday

Seniors and health-care workers who haven’t gotten their shot are next on the list

A boat caught fire in Ladysmith Harbour on Saturday morning. (Photo submitted)
Search underway for missing woman after boat catches fire in Ladysmith harbour

A large boat caught fire on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 27

Lone orca from a pod that made its way north from Georgia Strait and into Discovery Passage on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Photo by Ella Smiley/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Comoxvalleywildlifesightings/?ref=page_internal" target="_blank">Comox Valley Wildlife Sightings </a>
Island wildlife viewers thrilled by close view of passing Orca pod

Group gives wildlife photographers a classic opportunity to view them off Campbell River shoreline

An investigation is underway after a man was shot and killed by Tofino RCMP in Opitsaht. (Black Press Media file photo)
Man shot and killed by RCMP near Tofino, police watchdog investigating

Investigation underway by Independent Investigations Office of British Columbia.

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Tuesday December 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C.’s compromise on in-person worship at three churches called ‘absolutely unacceptable’

Would allow outdoor services of 25 or less by Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack churches

Baldy Mountain Resort was shut down on Saturday after a fatal workplace accident. (Baldy Mountain picture)
Jasmine and Gwen Donaldson are part of the CAT team working to reduce stigma for marginalized groups in Campbell River. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Jasmine’s story: Stigma can be the hardest hurdle for those overcoming addiction

Recovering B.C. addict says welcome, connection and community key for rebuilding after drug habit

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Most Read