Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who brought Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch to life on Sesame Street for almost 50 years, has died. He was 85.
Sesame Workshop, the non-profit that produces Sesame Street, said in a statement, "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. 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 joined Sesame Street in 1969 when the show first started airing. Caroll wasn't just the man inside the Big Bird suit or the voice of Oscar—he travelled the world performing as the beloved feathered character, visiting China with Bob Hope, dancing with the Rockettes, getting a U.S. postage stamp and a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. He received six Daytime Emmys, a Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, two Grammys, and was given a "Living Legend" award from the Library of Congress. He also performed as Bruno the Trash Man, Granny Bird and Elmo at different points over the years.
"I always thought, how fortunate for me that I got to play the two best Muppets?" Spinney told the Times in 2018 in a piece announcing his retirement from voicing Big Bird and Oscar (he had stopped doing the puppeteering for Big Bird in 2015). "Playing Big Bird is one of the most joyous things of my life." (Just last month, Spinney and Big Bird visited the Empire State Building together.)
Spinney, who appeared in thousands of episodes of the show, said at the time that the physical requirements of performing the characters had become difficult for him. His family said in a statement that he had been living for some time with dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions.
In that wonderful Times interview, Spinney also said, "I’ve been playing a 6-year-old for 50 years," and "I don’t get to play [Big Bird] — I get to live his life." He also mentioned that he was originally asked to play the role as "a funny, dumb country yokel." After a few episodes, he made a suggestion: "I said, I think I should play him like he’s a child, a surrogate. He can be all the things that children are. He can learn with the kids."
We highly recommend you check out the 2014 documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. And as some companion material, there was also this sweet Reddit AMA he did in connection with the film, in which he reflected on talking to children about death. And check out this AV Club article about the landmark "Farewell, Mr. Hooper" episode, in which Big Bird comes to accept Mr. Hooper’s death, and Slate's article collecting some of Spinney's greatest performances.