‘Big Bird’ puppeteer retires after 50 years
Caroll Spinney, whether you recognize his name or not, has touched our childhoods in ways we probably can’t even measure. Since the late 1960s, the puppeteer has given life to the characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the famed children’s television series “Sesame Street.” Now, almost two months away from his 85th birthday, Spinney announced that he’s finally hanging up his orange Big Bird legs and his metal trash can and retiring from “Sesame Street” after sticking with it for nearly 50 years.
Spinney, interested in puppets since a young age, was thrust into “Muppeteering” stardom when he happened to meet Jim Henson at a puppeteering festival in Salt Lake City and was invited to go to New York be a part of the Muppets. From there, Spinney was on the Street since day one, playing Big Bird in the debut of “Sesame Street” in 1969. Originally, the character was more of a country-yokel, village idiot type, but Spinney suggested that Big Bird be like a little kid, turning him into the eight-foot tall, six-year-old yellow bird we all know and love.
Shortly thereafter, Oscar the Grouch was introduced as the fuzzy green monster living in Sesame Street’s trash can. Oscar, also performed by Spinney, represented the polar opposite of Big Bird. Together, the two of them depicted the value of people with different perspectives. During his time on “Sesame Street,” Spinney got to meet the likes of Michael Jackson, Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal, and he even got to go China twice – once with Bob Hope in 1979 and again in 1982 for “Big Bird in China.” In 1985, Big Bird made his theatrical debut with “Follow That Bird” at the pinnacle of the character’s popularity. And while Spinney’s characters have since been surpassed by Muppets like Elmo and Abby Cadabby, they are still very much part of the image and heart of “Sesame Street.”
With Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson and the rest of the cast either replaced or dearly departed, Spinney remains the last of the original Sesame “Muppeteers;” but it won’t remain that way for long. His age has been catching up with him, making it harder and harder for him to endure the physical demands of the job, which involve long periods of standing and holding up the head of the puppet.
For the past few years, he’s only been doing the voice of Big Bird and Oscar while another performer syncs to his dialogue. For Big Bird, that performer is Matt Vogel, understudy for the character since 1996. Vogel, who has since taken up the mantles of Kermit the Frog and Count Von Count, has been gradually taking over the role of Big Bird and will soon be his sole puppeteer. In the case of Oscar, Eric Jacobson has been the alternate performer for the green grouch since 2015, having previously taken over most of Oz’s characters – Bert, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Grover and others.
For his decades of work on “Sesame Street,” Spinney has received a Grammy, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress and six Emmy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. In 2014, Spinney was the subject of the documentary “I Am Big Bird,” covering his humble beginnings in Massachusetts, his life in the Air Force, his pre-“Sesame Street” roles and his life since. The documentary received high praise from critics, endearing its viewers to the man they’d only known as a grouch and a bird.
The 84-year-old “Muppeteer” has since recorded his final lines for Big Bird and Oscar for the 50th season of “Sesame Street,” which began production in September 2018 and will premiere on HBO sometime next year.