Caroll Spinney, Big Bird Muppeteer for Nearly 50 Years, Dies at 85

Big Bird-Caroll Spinney-Getty-Split-H 2018
Theo Wargo/WireImage; Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for AWXII

He also played Oscar the Grouch after joining 'Sesame Street' at the very start in 1969.

Caroll Spinney, the big-hearted Muppeteer who climbed inside a claustrophobic feathered costume to play the beloved Sesame Street character Big Bird for almost a half-century, died Sunday, Sesame Workshop announced. He was 85.

Spinney, who also operated and voiced Oscar, Big Bird's grumpy trash can-dwelling neighbor, before retiring from the iconic kids program in October 2018, died at his home in Connecticut after "living with dystonia for some time," according to the show's statement. 

Spinney collected five Daytime Emmy Awards for his contributions to Sesame Street and received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2006, entrancing hundreds of millions of kids along the way.

"He managed to learn to speak directly to the hearts of probably anything from 2-year-olds to 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds — and to grown-ups, as a matter of fact," fellow Sesame Street veteran Bob McGrath said in the 2015 documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. "It was most apparent to us the first time we got out and really performed for kids. Anytime you mentioned Big Bird, the place erupted. It was like a mini Woodstock."

Performing as the 8-foot-tall Big Bird, it turns out, requires quite a bit of physical ingenuity. Spinney would hold up the costume's five-pound head by hoisting it straight above his own head with his right arm. That arm operated the mouth, while his right pinkie worked a lever to raise and lower Big Bird's eyebrows. Spinney's left arm went directly inside the left wing, which had a fishing wire connecting it to the right one as a counterbalance. Spinney taped his script to the inside of his costume.

"Inside, it is completely disorienting because everything inside glows yellow," said Matt Vogel, the longtime Big Bird apprentice who has taken over for Spinney. "But you have a monitor on your chest that shows you what people see at home." (Spinney referred to that monitor as an "electronic bra.")

Caroll Edwin Spinney was born on Dec. 26, 1933, in Waltham, Massachusetts. He had an early obsession with puppets, and that made him a target of bullies, he said. A contentious relationship with his father pushed him to join the Air Force at age 19.

After four years in the service, Spinney made his way to Bozo's Big Top, where he portrayed a number of characters and drew animation for the TV show as well. "He just has a knack for creating characters and making them come alive," Frank Avruch, aka Bozo the Clown, said in I Am Big Bird. "He is very creative, a wonderful artist."

Spinney eventually left the show — "I had such a grand time," he said, "but on the other hand I realized I had to do something more important in puppeteering" — and created a multimedia act for a puppet festival in Salt Lake City. As he prepared to go onstage, he heard that Muppets creator Jim Henson was in the audience.

During the act, technical glitches caused by the lighting made it impossible for Spinney to complete his performance. Frustrated, he went behind a screen and pantomimed pulling his hair out before calling the whole thing off.

Henson visited him backstage and, despite the mishap, told Spinney, "I liked what you were trying to do." Henson invited Spinney to meet with him about working together, and Spinney landed a job on the new Sesame Street, which bowed on PBS on Nov. 10, 1969.

Spinney struggled during his first year on the kids program and was walking to Henson's office to resign when he was stopped by Kermit Love, the puppetmaker who had built Big Bird. Love convinced him to hold out for another month in hopes the situation would improve.

It did. "Big Bird, at first he was a very goofy guy, kind of a country yokel," Spinney recalled. "I said, 'You know what, maybe he should be a kid. He just happens to be a big kid.' The producers agreed. The scripts suddenly were all Big Bird and Oscar, and they were terrific. I couldn't even imagine how I could have thought about leaving such an opportunity, and I really got into it. The second year, I began to sail."

Spinney appeared on thousands of episodes — more than any other castmember — during his 49 years on the show. (He was making a reported $300,000 when he retired.) He also starred on the 1983 NBC special Big Bird in China, which was shot on location shortly after the country opened up to the West, and Follow That Bird (1985), the last Muppets feature released before Henson's death in May 1990.

"Caroll Spinney's contributions to Sesame Street are countless," Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said in a statement. "He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well."

Follow That Bird director Ken Kwapis could appreciate Big Bird's star power.

Kwapis' 2009 romantic comedy He's Just Not That Into You "had many famous actors in it [Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck among them], but to be honest," he told The Hollywood Reporter in a 2015 interview, "I'm not sure any of them is as well-known to the world as Big Bird is."

Spinney was invited to travel on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 to promote interest in science among children, only to stay behind when it was determined there was not enough room for his costume. Spinney, along with millions of others, was watching on TV when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crewmembers aboard.

Spinney stopped getting inside Big Bird in 2015, when it had become too physically demanding for him to work the costume, but he continued to provide the voice for that character and Oscar until his retirement.

"Big Bird has always had the biggest heart on Sesame Street, and that's Caroll's gift to us," Jeffrey Dunn, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, told The New York Times in October 2018. "I think it's fair to say that Caroll's view of the world and how we should treat each other has shaped and defined our organization."

The Henson family honored Spinney after his passing, describing his meeting with the Muppets creator as "a moment of creative destiny."

In a statement, they wrote: "It was a moment of creative destiny when Caroll Spinney met Jim Henson. The gentle performer who would bring to life two of the most beloved residents of Sesame Street could perfectly convey the humor and heart in our father's creations. Big Bird was childlike, without being childish. And Oscar the Grouch reflected universal feelings we all share, no matter our age. Those of us privileged to work alongside him and call him friend saw first-hand that he cared so deeply about what these characters represented and how they could truly create change. Caroll's decades-long commitment to bettering the lives of children all around the world is his true legacy. That he could do this work so brilliantly, responsibly, and with such infectious love and joy, is his gift to us all."

Survivors include his wife, Debra — they met in 1972 when she was working for Children's Television Workshop — and his children Jessica, Benjamin and Melissa.