Caroll Spinney, the puppet performer behind “Sesame Street’s” indelible Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, was remembered by friends and colleagues as a gifted artist who dedicated his professional life to the show’s mission of educating pre-schoolers.
Spinney died Sunday at his home in Connecticut at the age of 85. He limned the Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch characters from the inception of “Sesame Street” on PBS in 1969. Spinney had become friendly with Muppet master Jim Henson earlier in the 1960s through puppeteering circles. When Henson began working on would become the most ground-breaking children’s program in TV history, he recruited Spinney for two of the show’s most important characters. Henson died in 1990 at age 53.
“It was a moment of creative destiny when Caroll 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 wrote in a statement posted Sunday on Facebook.
“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,” the family stated. “Caroll’s decades-long commitment to bettering the lives of children all around the world is his true legacy. That he could do this work so brilliantly, responsibly, and with such infectious love and joy, is his gift to us all.”
Spinney was a warm and unassuming presence around the Manhattan offices of “Sesame Street” producer Sesame Workshop, recalled Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners who earlier in his career spent 22 years with Sesame Workshop and its predecessor, Children’s Television Workshop.
Knell noted that Spinney was also a talented visual artist and painter. His commitment to his work as a performer on “Sesame Street” was remarkable.
“He would get into those costumes and become those characters,” Knell recalled. “You could walk on the set and get yelled at by Oscar the Grouch. I never thought of it as Caroll Spinney yelling at me — it was always Oscar.”
Big Bird remains the heart of “Sesame Street” — the character that gives voice to the feelings and curiosity of the show’s young viewers. Spinney felt strongly the Oscar character was important to help kids understand that growing up means getting along with all different kinds of people.
“It was a way of showing kids that there are going to be some curmudgeonly people in the world and some of them aren’t necessarily going to be nice,” Knell said. “It was a part of the show’s way of depicting the world outside of the fairy-tale nature where everything is always sunny and perfect.”
Spinney spent 49 years with “Sesame Street,” stepping down only last year. His longevity in the role of Big Bird in particular was notable because the costume is heavy and complicated to maneuver, Knell said. (Spinney gave up wearing the costume in 2015.)
“That is a very physically demanding character,” Knell said. Spinney and his wife Debra often relocated to Hawaii after filming on “Sesame Street” wrapped in order for him to recover and focus on his visual art. “He was a tireless guy,” Knell recalled.
Spinney was humble about his legend and his accomplishments.
“He represented a whole movement in the annals of American television and in education,” Knell said. “Big Bird is an icon for early childhood education to this day. There’s still a glow around that character that for 50 years has never been tarnished. That’s quite something.”