Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who gave life to two of Sesame Street’s most beloved and iconic characters for 49 years, has died. The news was confirmed in a press release by Sesame Workshop, which said that he had been living with Dystonia—a condition that causes involuntary muscle contractions—for “some time.” In kind, curious, self-conscious Big Bird, Spinney created a figure that generations of preschoolers the world over instantly identified with, while also playing a character who was nearly Big Bird’s polar opposite in irascible Oscar the Grouch. Spinney was 85.
Sesame Street’s original concept called for short Muppet segments that would be introduced by the human cast members. But the characters’ creator, Jim Henson, quickly realized that the human cast needed Muppet characters to interact with. According to Brian Jay Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography, he envisioned Big Bird as a, “silly, awkward creature that would make the same kind of dumb mistakes that kids would make.” Henson and writer/producer/director Jon Stone also commissioned a more cynical character—“We didn’t want to let it get too sweet,” Stone later said—and Oscar was born.
Frank Oz (who was already playing Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster for the series) was considered for both roles, but he considered full-body costumes claustrophobic and refused. Mere months before Sesame Street was to start shooting, Henson saw Spinney at a puppeteers’ convention, where the 35-year-old puppeteer was performing a show where puppets interacted with an animated background. The performance was a disaster, as a spotlight washed out the animation, and neither audience nor performer could follow the story. Despite this, Henson appreciated Spinney’s ambition and offered him a job with the Muppets—an invitation he’d actually extended several years prior, by way of suggesting the puppeteer come to New York and talk about joining the troupe. Spinney hadn’t realized this at the time. “Jim never just wanted to chat. If he said he wanted to talk about something, it meant he wanted to do it,” he wrote in 2003’s The Wisdom Of Big Bird (And The Dark Genius Of Oscar The Grouch).
Henson and Stone may have conceived of the characters, but Spinney made them the bird and grouch beloved by generations of kids. Spinney and Stone originally clashed over Oscar: Spinney believed Oscar shouldn’t be written as a villain, and that “he fundamentally has got a heart of gold.” Stone insisted, “there’s no heart of gold. The guy is a shit, right to the core.” Eventually, the grouch wound up somewhere in between. Big Bird, meanwhile, was conceived as a dimwitted adult, but Spinney began playing him as a wide-eyed child, making him a better audience surrogate for the preschoolers at home. As such, Bird became the public face of the show, to the point where a presidential candidate called him out by name when attacking PBS’ funding. When Sesame’s audience came to grips with death, they did so through Big Bird’s eyes, and when Sesame moved to the big screen for the first time, Big Bird had top billing.
While Henson, Oz, and Muppet regulars Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Fran Brill split their time between Sesame Street and other productions, the show was Spinney’s full-time job. As Henson juggled a myriad of projects right up until his death in 1990, and Oz turned his attention away from Muppets and towards directing films, Spinney was content to perform his two iconic characters through five decades, telling the Associated Press in 2008, “I can’t imagine willingly walking away from Big Bird and Oscar.”
He would, however, in 2018, passing Big Bird to former apprentice Matt Vogel and Oscar to Eric Jacobson. Spinney’s final performances on the show have been airing on HBO this year, and will appear on PBS in 2020. For his work on Sesame Street, Spinney won five Daytime Emmy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He was also the subject of 2015 documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.
Born in 1933 in Waltham, Massachusetts, Spinney was artistic as a child, and fell in love with puppeteering with encouragement of his mother, Margaret, who introduced him to the slapstick antics of Punch and Judy. Before meeting Henson, Spinney already had a history in children’s television. After attending the School of Practical Art in Boston, he created the TV show Rascal Rabbit in Las Vegas. In 1958, he worked as a puppeteer on The Judy And Goggle Show in Boston, performing Goggle, also a bird. When that show ended, the station re-hired Spinney to work on Bozo’s Circus, playing both puppets and costumed characters. In the ’60s, he animated a cartoon series called Crazy Crayon, created two cat puppets, Picklepuss and Pop, whom he performed on stage and on television.
With Spinney’s death, Bob McGrath is the only original cast member remaining on Sesame Street. Spinney is survived by his wife Debra, three children from his first marriage, to Janice Spinney, and four grandchildren.