40 Years as a Bird and a Grouch

Sesame Street celebrated its 40th birthday on Nov. 10, 2009. The children’s television show kicks off its 40th season on Nov. 12, 2009, with an appearance by First Lady Michelle Obama.

Puppeteer Carroll Spinney has been with this award-winning TV series for the duration. Learn how Spinney landed the plum roles of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and why the show means so much to him in our exclusive interview.

By Deirdre Wilson

Big Bird & Carroll SpinneyCarroll Spinney never thought of himself as a singer, certainly not one who’d be crooning from the stage of the nation’s most famous concert hall.

But a career inside an 8-foot puppet covered in 4,000 yellow feathers takes you places. And for Spinney, one of the ultimate destinations was New York’s Carnegie Hall.

“I was asked to sing ‘People’ on stage with [composer] Jules Styne,” says Spinney, the puppeteer of two enduring Sesame Street characters, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

“So there I was [as Big Bird] on stage. I’m reaching the top of the song and I could see the top of Carnegie Hall as I leaned back and sang, ‘People who need people,’” Spinney says, pausing to belt out the words in Big Bird’s unmistakable voice. “I thought, my God, look where I am! Look where Sesame Street has brought me!”

In the 40 years that Spinney has been with Sesame Street, his beloved characters have taken him many places – from appearances on the Emmy Awards show and Hollywood Squares to performances in Europe, Australia and China. As Big Bird, he has met every First Lady since Nancy Reagan and worked with celebrities such as Bob Hope, Flip Wilson and Rosie O’Donnell. Spinney has at least four Emmys, two Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress.

All of this figures into why Spinney has remained in the roles of Big Bird and Oscar for so long. But he’s got a more visceral reason for spending 35 years on the Sesame Street set.
“I just can’t imagine walking away from Big Bird. He’s like my kid,” says Spinney, now 75. “I don’t feel I am him; I just can’t imagine not being with him.”

Humble Beginnings

Spinney has always been a puppeteer, performing in festivals and even working on Bozo’s Big Top, a popular kids’ TV show in the 1960s. At one puppet festival, he presented an innovative performance involving a film screen with moving backgrounds behind the live action of his puppets. Just before the show, Spinney learned that Muppets creator Jim Henson was in the audience.

In his autobiography, The Wisdom of Big Bird and The Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch (Villard, 2003), Spinney describes that performance as a disaster – a bright stage light washed out the images on the screen behind his puppets. But Henson approached him after the show and told him he admired what he was trying to do. Henson invited him to New York to talk about the Muppets, and the rest is history. Spinney has played Big Bird and Oscar ever since.

Two Opposite Characters

Big Bird was initially cast as a clumsy, country-bumpkin character. But Spinney came to believe that children would relate better to Big Bird if the bird himself was a child. Henson agreed.

“He’s very realistic in a sense. Big Bird is pretty much a human child,” Spinney says, noting that, as a bird, he doesn’t have to be a particular race of child. He is simply childlike.
Oscar, on the other hand, is a grumpy, trash-loving, hermit-like monster (modeled after a New York cabbie Spinney had met) who has occasionally been miscast as very unkind by Sesame Street writers and producers.

“With Oscar, at times, I felt they got off base a bit,” Spinney says. “Once in a while, he was actually mean – and there’s a difference between being mean and being a grouch. He once made Telly (another Muppet) cry. He called Gordon ‘chrome dome.’ I told the producers I didn’t think he should do the name-calling stuff or make someone cry.

“The best explanation of why Oscar is on the show is that it takes all kinds to make the world,” Spinney adds. “He certainly goes against the grain of what it used to be with children’s shows – a pretty nice little world. But Oscar isn’t the keeper of the crypt, either. Don’t lose track of what he is: he’s a grouchy guy. And once in a while, he’ll say to Susan, ‘Uh, don’t tell anyone I said this, but – oh, this is hard – thanks!’”

More Ups Than Downs

Spinney’s career hasn’t been without discomfort, or even danger. He has come close to being seriously burned during accidents on the set. He has also fallen a few times as Big Bird because his view inside the giant puppet is limited. He operates primarily through the use of a tiny TV monitor inside the bird suit.

His job has also had a personal, emotional side, particularly since Spinney is also a father and a grandfather. One of his three children was once teased for having a dad who worked “on a baby, sissy show.” When the boy later appeared on Sesame Street riding a bicycle in the background, his peers excitedly told him they had seen him on the show.

Spinney was amused that his son could retort, “Oh? I thought you didn’t watch that sissy show!”

His grandson, Wyatt, was 10 when Spinney revealed to him that he was, in fact, Big Bird.

“He was crushed,” Spinney recalls. “He had a unique relationship with Big Bird where he would call me on the phone and say, ‘Hi Grandpa, is Big Bird there?’ and Big Bird would come to the phone. I actually regret telling him because I think it still bothers him.”

But Spinney describes his job as the best in the world and one that he is thankful for. And he’s also not bothered by the relative anonymity of being a puppeteer. “I love playing a role where no one sees you. You can be anything that’s on your arm.”

Updated August 2012