Caroll Spinney, the man who played “Sesame Street” icon Big Bird for 50 years, died on Sunday at his Connecticut home at the age of 85. His passing was announced by Sesame Workshop.
“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 in lengthy statement on their website. “His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while.”
Spinney received five Daytime Emmy Awards during his career on “Sesame Street,” where he played the shy but curious Big Bird in a full-body puppet suit and performed more traditional puppeteering as the trashcan denizen Oscar the Grouch. He also received a lifetime achievement award in 2006 from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Born in Massachusetts on the day after Christmas, Caroll Spinney received his name from his mother as a nod to his birth during the holiday season and developed a lifelong passion for puppeteering after seeing a performance when he was 5-years-old. At the age of 19, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he served until 1955.
After leaving the service, Spinney got his professional puppeteering career started, performing on the Boston broadcast of “Bozo’s Big Top” while taking a side job as an animator. In 1962, he first met Jim Henson, and seven years later, he took a job with the Muppets creator and became part of the inaugural cast of “Sesame Street.”
From 1969 to 2018, Spinney would play Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street,” as well as side characters like Big Bird’s grandmother, Granny Bird, which was made from a spare puppet of Big Bird. Among the many legendary moments in Spinney’s career was one of the most emotional segments in “Sesame Street” history, when original cast member Will Lee passed away in 1982.
Lee’s character, Mr. Hooper, had been a popular character on the show and one of Big Bird’s closest friends. Instead of writing out Mr. Hooper, the “Sesame Street” team decided to turn his passing into a teaching moment in which the other human residents tell Big Bird that Mr. Hooper had passed away. At the end of the episode, Big Bird hangs a picture of Mr. Hooper drawn by Spinney next to his nest, where it has remained ever since.
In 2015, Spinney stopped wearing the Big Bird suit after it became too physically demanding, but continued to do voice work for the show. Spinney also lent his voice to several charity projects, making phone calls as Big Bird to children in hospitals. In 2015, while promoting a documentary on his life called “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” he recounted how he called a young boy dying of cancer, speaking with him for 10 minutes.
“I had Big Bird say, ‘Hello! Hello Joey! It’s me, Big Bird!’” Spinney remembered. “So he said ‘Is it really you, Big Bird?’ ‘Yes, it is.’ I chatted a while with him, about ten minutes, and he said ‘I’m glad you’re my friend Big Bird.’ And I said ‘I’d better let you go now.’ He said ‘Thank you for calling me Big Bird. You’re my friend. You make me happy.’”
Spinney retired from “Sesame Street” in October 2018, having been previously diagnosed with dystonia, a movement disorder in which a person’s muscles contract uncontrollably. He handed over Big Bird’s role to puppet captain Matt Vogel, who also now provides the voice of Kermit the Frog.
He has been celebrated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a U.S. postage stamp, and named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress.
Spinney is survived by his wife, Debra, three children and four grandchildren.