Caroll Spinney, Sesame Street legendary puppeteer, died in his Connecticut home at the age of 85 after a long battle with dystonia, which is a movement disorder.
Spinney began voicing the characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch in 1969. Under the direction of Jim Henson, he brought the puppets to life for over 50 years.
“Caroll Spinney’s contributions to ‘Sesame Street’ are countless. He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well. We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to ‘Sesame Street’ and to children around the world,” Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said.
In addition to bringing the characters to life on the PBS television show, Spinney also performed as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch in live concerts at various venues, including the White House and China, throughout the past five decades. Other high points in Spinney’s career as the yellow canary included dancing with the Rockettes, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and being honored with a U.S. postage stamp.
At 5 foot, 10 inches, Spinney struggled at times to maneuver the 8 foot, 2 inch yellow canary around the sets during filming or live performances, but he managed by using a system of wires and a TV monitor strapped to his chest as a guide, according to a New York Times report. Before becoming Big Bird, Spinney attended the Art Institute of Boston, but he dropped out to join the Air Force. In 1955, Spinney brought “Rascal Rabbit” to life on TV in his first professional job as a puppeteer. He also portrayed various characters on Bozo’s Big Top.
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/q7FVDul5WT pic.twitter.com/CvWBD0NQyp
— Sesame Street (@sesamestreet) December 8, 2019
Throughout his career, the puppeteer won several awards and honors, including six Daytime Emmys, two Grammys, and a Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000. In 2006, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded Spinney a Lifetime Achievement Award.
An author, Spinney penned a memoir in 2003 called The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons From a Life in Feathers with J. Milligan. A 2014 Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker documentary titled I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story detailed his life.
“There’s something about Caroll,” said Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. “Not many people have it. He can go back in time almost, and re-create the feelings and thoughts and the questions and the fears of a youngster.”
On the show, longtime Big Bird apprentice Matt Vogel took over for Spinney in 2018 to continue bringing the yellow canary to life for children for years to come on Sesame Street. For Spinney, portraying Big Bird was one of the biggest joys of his life, and he felt that he got to play two of the best Muppets in Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Spinney is survived by his wife, Debra Jean Gilroy, and his children — Jessica, Melissa, and Ben — whom he shared with his first wife, Janice, along with several grandchildren.