Caroll Spinney, better known to multiple generations of curious kindergarteners and their parents as Sesame Street’s Big Bird, died today. He was 85. Spinney had the longest run of the show’s original actors, starting with the show’s 1969 debut until his retirement in 2018.
Spinney portrayed not only Big Bird, the giant canary whose childlike curiosity helped the writers and actors of Sesame Street explain the world to the show’s pre-school audience, he was also the voice and puppeteer for Oscar the Grouch, an irascible gremlin who lived in a trashcan next to Mr. Hooper’s corner candy store.
“Playing Big Bird is one of the most joyous things of my life,” Spinney told The New York Times last year, a quote reprinted in today’s obituary. In 2010, he also told Yankee magazine that “I’ve gotten used to the fact that Big Bird’s super famous and I’m a nobody. I’m glad I’m not recognizable.”
An art school dropout who enlisted in the Air Force in the 1950s, Spinney performed on children’s television programs broadcast locally in Boston in the 1960s. At the end of the decade, he joined Jim Henson’s Muppets ensemble as it collaborated with the Children’s Television Workshop to launch Sesame Street on the Public Broadcasting Service.
Sesame Workshop, as CTW is now known, tweeted news of Spinney’s death and a tribute to the actor this afternoon.
Caroll Spinney, the legendary puppeteer behind beloved Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died today, December 8th 2019, at age 85 at his home in Connecticut, after living with Dystonia for some time. https://t.co/9nQ8H9iUES pic.twitter.com/8BoXn9rge3— Sesame Workshop (@SesameWorkshop) December 8, 2019
In roles he performed for nearly 50 years, Spinney as Big Bird traveled to China, wrote and sang in numerous read-along and sing-along albums and books, and even conducted the Boston Pops. On Sesame Street, Big Bird, with his dour imaginary friend Snuffleupagus explored the mysteries of the ABCs and 123s.
In 1983, following the death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, Spinney as both Oscar and Big Bird mourned their friend with unflinching honesty, creating a landmark moment of American television history. The performances won Spinney a special citation for Outstanding Individual Achievement in the 1984 Daytime Emmy Awards. He earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2006.
In a 2012 debate between presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, Romney professed an appreciation for Big Bird but said that, if elected, his administration would cut Big Bird’s funding. The next weekend Big Bird appeared on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to deliver a special commentary on the semi-controversy, getting numerous audience applause breaks despite his characteristic cornball jokes.
In 2000, for a lifetime of creative contributions to American life, Spinney’s Big Bird was honored as a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, joining luminaries such as Ray Charles, Dolly Parton and Larry Bird (no relation).