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

Supporters gather during a rally against measures taken by government and health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the Whistle Stop cafe in Mirror Alta, on Saturday May 8, 2021. The Whistle Stop was shut down by AHS for not complying with COVID-19 rules. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Police hand out tickets to dozens leaving anti-lockdown protest in Alberta

Hundreds gathered outside the Whistle Stop Café in the hamlet of Mirror, Alta.

Oval Race track at Central Alberta Raceway. (Photo Submitted)
Central Alberta Raceways in Rimbey delays opening after health restrictions expand

Central Alberta Raceways had originally planned to open for the season at the end of May

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Alberta leads the Prairie provinces in being the first to take COVID-19 vaccine bookings for pre-teens. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta leads Prairie provinces in accepting COVID vaccine bookings for pre-teens

The province begins accepting appointments for kids as young as 12 starting today

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
File photo
Arrest made for armed robbery in Millet, Wetaskiwin RCMP continue to investigate

Wetaskiwin RCMP are investigating an armed robbery took place May 4, 2021 in Millet, Alta.

Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
10 years later: Former Slave Lake mayor remembers wildfire that burned through town

Alberta announced in 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman travelling from Alberta found dead in B.C. park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel’s approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

Wolf density in Jasper is low enough that the animals would not be expected to be a major threat

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Canada’s chief public health officer is reminding Canadians even those who are fully vaccinated are not immune from transmitting the COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s top doctor warns full vaccination does not equal full protection from COVID-19

Post-inoculation, Theresa Tam says the risk of asymptomatic infection and transmission is far lower but not obsolete

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman’s restaurant is located in the tiny community of Field, which relies on tourism

Most Read