Caroll Spinney, the “Sesame Street” puppeteer behind legendary characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, has died, Sesame Workshop said Sunday. He was 85.
Spinney had been living with dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions, for some time, Sesame Workshop said. He died at his home in Connecticut.
“Since 1969, Caroll’s kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street,” Sesame Workshop said in a statement. “His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky every once in a while. In these characters, Caroll Spinney gave something truly special to the world … We will miss him dearly.”
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
Sesame Workshop said they would continue his beloved characters into the future. Spinney’s longtime apprentice, Matt Vogel, took over as puppeteer for Big Bird in 2015 when it became too difficult for Spinney to perform the role, while Spinney continued doing voice work until 2018, when he retired completely. Eric Jacobson took over the role of Oscar the Grouch.
Spinney was the subject of a documentary entitled “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” which was released in 2015.
He told “CBS Evening News” in 2015 that he would perform the roles for 50 more years if he could.
Spinney was part of “Sesame Street” starting with its premiere in 1969 and performed in more than 4,000 episodes. The Henson family said in a statement it was a moment of “creative destiny” when Spinney met Jim Henson.
“The gentle performer who would bring to life two of the most beloved residents of ‘Sesame Street’ could perfectly convey the humor and heart in our father’s creations,” the Henson family said. “Big Bird was childlike, without being childish. And Oscar the Grouch reflected universal feelings we all share, no matter our age. Those of us privileged to work alongside him and call him friend saw first-hand that he cared so deeply about what these characters represented and how they could truly create change.”
Spinney said Oscar the Grouch was inspired by a grouchy waiter at an old seafood restaurant in Manhattan and he took the voice from a New York City cabbie whose cab he once rode in.
“I always thought, ‘How fortunate for me that I got to play the two best Muppets?'” he told The New York Times in 2015. “Playing Big Bird is one of the most joyous things of my life.”
Since Big Bird stands 8 feet, 2 inches tall, Spinney’s head only went to the bottom of Big Bird’s neck. He operated the mouth with his right arm.
His wife, Debra, told “CBS Evening News” that contrary to his other famous character, Spinney wasn’t very grouchy, even going back to their first date in 1973.
“When he first asked me out I went home, I really did do cartwheels,” she said. “I mean I’m dating Big Bird for Pete’s sake!”
Spinney’s characters were beloved by generations of children. He told “Evening News” that the parents of a 5-year-old boy named Joey, who was dying of cancer, asked him to call. Spinney said he called and said in Big Bird’s voice, “Hello Joey, this is me Big Bird. And I’ve heard you’ve had a hard time and I just thought I’d call and say hello.”
The boy’s father later told Spinney his son Joey hadn’t smiled in months but died with a smile on his face thanks to Big Bird’s call. In Joey’s final moment, the father described to Spinney, Joey said, “Big Bird called me. He’s my friend.”