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4 June 2015

How Big Bird got to Sesame Street

Caroll Spinney has been playing Sesame Street's star for 46 years. I Am Big Bird shows the man behind the feathery mask.

By Erica Wagner

I was about five years old, in the supermarket with my mother, about a block or so from our apartment building on the Upper West Side of New York. Someone called out my name across the aisles. “Hello, Erica! How are you?” The voice was unmistakable; not someone, Big Bird. The shop fell silent. There was no giant yellow bird anywhere to be seen, just a gentle-looking man with a beard and a shopping trolley smiling at me. This was Caroll Spinney: our upstairs neighbour, and Big Bird.

Spinney, who is now 81, has been playing the character for 46 years and has performed in more than 4,000 episodes of Sesame Street. A new documentary, I Am Big Bird, directed and produced by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, aims to tell his story.

Sesame Street first arrived on American television screens in 1969 and marked a revolution in children’s TV programming, populated by Jim Henson’s Muppet characters – none of which was more recognisable than Big Bird. In the film, Henson – who died from a bacterial infection aged 53 in 1990 – refers to Big Bird as “the best-known children’s character in the world”.

“It’s hard to take in,” says Spinney when I speak to him, down the line from the Connecticut home he shares with his wife, Debra. “But I know it’s true. I’ve travelled all over the world. People say, ‘What do you do?’ And I say, ‘Do you watch Sesame Street? Well, I play Big Bird and Oscar,’ and they’re astonished.” He laughs. “I’ve been described as the most unknown famous person in the world.”

My own connection to the Muppets grew deeper. Like millions of children all over the world, I loved Sesame Street. I learned to read from a Sesame Street book, The Diamond D and the Dreadful Dragon. Shortly after the encounter at the supermarket, Henson hired my mother to answer the Muppets’ fan mail. After her first season, in 1976, her part-time job became a full-time position. Thousands and thousands of letters arrived at our two-bedroom apartment. I earned my pocket money helping out.

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Henson first met Spinney in 1964 when he performed at a puppeteers’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. Spinney had planned a performance that involved a projection screen; but thanks to the way the stage was arranged he couldn’t see what he was doing. Luckily, Henson saw through the mishaps. Of Sesame Street’s original crew – Henson, Spinney and Frank Oz – Spinney is the only remaining full-time puppeteer. Oz, who played Bert and Grover in the early days of Sesame Street, Miss Piggy and Fozzie in the original Muppet Show and Yoda in Star Wars, and who is now an acclaimed film director, speaks highly of Spinney’s work. “It’s funny, Jim really took a chance on Caroll,” he told me. “Jim wanted somebody for this Big Bird, but Caroll was really an unknown. He made Big Bird the star of the show.”

Spinney’s relationship with his characters is extraordinary. In the documentary, he calls Big Bird “my child” (he has three human, grown-up children) and says: “I don’t own him, but I own his soul.” Talking not only about Big Bird but also about Oscar the Grouch, he says he feels lucky “just to have known these characters for going on five decades”.

“I don’t know many people who are actors – I used to call myself a puppeteer, not an actor, but then I’m not a bird, either! – who get to play the same character, beloved by children, for that long. And now a lot of grandparents watch it as well, after 45 years. When we started, we knew that maybe nine to 12 million children a day would watch it, so that means maybe hundreds of millions of children by now.”

He speaks of the letters he still receives: “‘Dear Big Bird, you’re my best friend. Can you come over and play with me? How about next Thursday?’” He laughs. “Now I get a lot of letters from grown-ups, too, saying how much the show meant to them. ‘I had a rough childhood, and the show was my one consolation, and I could escape with Big Bird.’”

And maybe that’s what I love most about Big Bird – and all of the Muppets. Because although I know I feel a special closeness to the characters, I also know that people all over the world feel the same way.

I Am Big Bird uses some of the hundreds of hours of home video that Spinney and Debra filmed over the years. It is full of surprises. There are dark moments in it: Spinney’s father was abusive, for one thing. Then in 2005 a local woman was found murdered on the Spinney property. The crime was committed by a caretaker the couple had hired. They built a garden in the dead woman’s memory. Over and again, you get the sense that Spinney’s kindness brings him, and us, towards the light.

“We’ve done a lot of question-and-answer sessions after screenings,” he says. “People say that, after seeing the film, they want to be closer to their husbands and wives. They say, ‘I’m going to go home and call my dad.’ I’m so pleased by that.”

Spinney has absolutely no plans to retire. He loves his work – who wouldn’t, given its appeal to people of all ages? Sesame Street’s sophistication has ensured that.

“I had that experience with my little girl, Jessie,” he says. “When she was about 12, she said, ‘My friends are coming over. Please don’t embarrass me by doing the voice or telling them what you do.’ And then, one day when she was about 14 and a half, she said she and her friends had been watching Sesame Street again, and they realised there were a lot of jokes they weren’t getting before. So then she said, ‘My friends are coming over for the weekend. Will you do the voices?’”

I Am Big Bird is available now on DVD in the UK