He also played Oscar the Grouch after joining ‘Sesame Street’ at the very start in 1969.
Caroll Spinney, the big-hearted Muppeteer who climbed inside a claustrophobic feathered costume to play the beloved Sesame Street character Big Bird for almost a half-century, died Sunday, Sesame Workshop announced. He was 85.
Spinney, who also operated and voiced Oscar, Big Bird’s grumpy trash can-dwelling neighbor, before retiring from the iconic kids program in October 2018, died at his home in Connecticut after “living with dystonia for some time.”
Spinney collected five Daytime Emmy Awards for his contributions to Sesame Street and received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2006, entrancing hundreds of millions of kids along the way.
“He managed to learn to speak directly to the hearts of probably anything from 2-year-olds to 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds — and to grown-ups, as a matter of fact,” fellow Sesame Street veteran Bob McGrath said in the 2015 documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. “It was most apparent to us the first time we got out and really performed for kids. Anytime you mentioned Big Bird, the place erupted. It was like a mini Woodstock.”
Performing as the 8-foot-tall Big Bird, it turns out, requires quite a bit of physical ingenuity. Spinney would hold up the costume’s 5-pound head by hoisting it straight above his own head with his right arm. That arm operated the mouth, while his right pinkie worked a lever to raise and lower Big Bird’s eyebrows. Spinney’s left arm went directly inside the left wing, which had a fishing wire connecting it to the right one as a counterbalance. Spinney taped his script to the inside of his costume.
“Inside, it is completely disorienting because everything inside glows yellow,” said Matt Vogel, the longtime Big Bird apprentice who has taken over for Spinney. “But you have a monitor on your chest that shows you what people see at home.” (Spinney referred to that monitor as an “electronic bra.”)
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