Caroll Spinney, Puppeteer Behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Dies at 85

Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for 49 years at “Sesame Street,” died Sunday in Connecticut after living with dystonia. He was 85.

Sesame Workshop announced his death, calling him an “artistic genius” whose “legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending.” Spinney’s death came on the same day “Sesame Street” is to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, D.C.

“His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world,” the announcement continued, “and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while,” Sesame Workshop said.

Spinney was with “Sesame Street” from the beginning in 1969, and continued working as Big Bird and Oscar through 2018, though he stopped performing inside the Big Bird costume in 2015 when it became too physically demanding. He first met Jim Henson in 1962 at a puppeteering festival, but the idea of working for him did not come about until they reconnected at another festival in 1969. As Big Bird and Oscar, he conducted several orchestras, including the Boston Pops, across the United States, China, and Australia.

His work on “Sesame Street” earned Spinney five Daytime Emmy awards, beginning in 1974 with individual achievement in children’s programming for “Sesame Street.” His most recent win was in 2007 for performer in a children’s series for Oscar the Grouch. He was also nominated for a Grammy award for the album “Merry Christmas from Sesame Street” in 1976. In 2006, Spinney was awared the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

Before joining “Sesame Street,” Spinney worked at “Bozo’s Big Top” in Boston following his service in the Air Force, which he joined at 19. He portrayed several characters including Kookie the Boxing Kangaroo and Mr. Lion, though he eventually left the show, winding up in Salt Lake City, performing at the fateful festival where he met Henson.

Spinney appeared in “The Muppet Movie,” “The Great Muppet Caper,” “Big Bird in China,” and “Follow that Bird.” He also appeared in 2009’s “Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian” as Oscar the Grouch. Documentarians Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker created a film about Spinney, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” in 2014.

“He managed to learn to speak directly to the hearts of probably anything from 2-year-olds to 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds — and to grown-ups, as a matter of fact,” “Sesame Street” performer Bob McGrath said in the doc. “It was most apparent to us the first time we got out and really performed for kids. Anytime you mentioned Big Bird, the place erupted. It was like a mini Woodstock.”

“Sesame Street” co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said of her longtime colleague and friend, “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.”

Spinney is survived by his second wife, Debra, along with children and grandchildren from his first marriage.

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