Caroll Spinney may not be a name that you’re familiar with, and there’s a chance you may have never seen his face. But you’ve undoubtedly seen his work, and he might have even shaped your childhood. Spinney is the puppeteer behind Sesame Street character Big Bird, as well as the grumpy Oscar the Grouch. After 50 years with the show, hired personally by Jim Henson himself, Spinney retired last fall, and this year he said his final farewell, having passed away at 85 years old.
Sesame Workshop made the announcement of Caroll Spinney dead after living with Dystonia for some time. He died at his home in Connecticut, and his longtime television home released this statement in his honor:
“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.
Welcomed to Sesame Street by Jim Henson, Caroll thrived under a mentorship that led to a decades-long great friendship. Caroll’s unparalleled career saw Big Bird visit China with Bob Hope, dance with the Rockettes, be celebrated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a U.S. postage stamp, and named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. A favorite highlight for Caroll was conducting symphony orchestras and performing with them across the United States, Australia, and China, allowing him to personally connect with families everywhere through the music of Sesame Street. Caroll Spinney gave something truly special to the world. With deepest admiration, Sesame Workshop is proud to carry his memory – and his beloved characters – into the future. Our hearts go out to Caroll’s beloved wife, Debra, and all of his children and grandchildren.”
When retiring from Sesame Street last year, Spinney fondly remembered the half century he spent at Sesame Workship, telling The New York Times, “I always thought, ‘How fortunate for me that I got to play the two best Muppets. Playing Big Bird is one of the most joyous things of my life.”
Several generations were taught many lessons from Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Playing Big Bird required him to suit up in big orange bird leg pants, and then get covered with Big Bird’s upper body. Through his hands, wires, and a TV monitor strapped to his chest, he was able to maneuver around the set and interact with all the other puppets and human characters on the show.
Aside from bringing those two characters to life, Spinney also occasionally played who at times also played Bruno the Trash Man, Granny Bird and Elmo on Sesame Street as well. The puppeteer also traveled around the world to play the character in front of live audiences, even conducting orchestras and meeting political leaders.
Puppeteering was a dream that Spinney had since he was young, starting off by playing a character named Rascal Rabbit on TV in 1955, as well as working on a show called Bozo’s Big Top in Boston. But it was his encounter with Jim Henson at a puppeteer festival in Salt Lake City in 1969 that would put him in entertainment’s history books by joining the cast of Sesame Street in 1969.
Spinney has one Daytime Emmys, two Grammys, a Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000 and was also giving a Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2006.
If you’d like to know more about the life and career of Caroll Spinney, check out the documentary I Am Big Bird.
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