Caroll Edwin Spinney (December 26, 1933 - December 8, 2019) was a puppeteer who performed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street for nearly 50 years. He described his experience as Big Bird as "a lot like growing up to be Mickey Mouse... only taller!"
Spinney was born in Waltham, Massachusetts and was an accomplished artist before he started working as a live performer. After graduating from high school in 1951, he attended The Art Institute of Boston's College of Art & Design. While in the military, he created a comic strip under the name Ed Spinney. In the early 1960s, he created an animated cartoon series called Crazy Crayon under the same name.
In 1955, Spinney headed to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he created the show Rascal Rabbit. He returned to Boston in 1958, appearing on the summer series The Judy and Goggle Show, performing the puppet character Goggle the bird opposite Judy Valentine.
When Judy and Goggle was moved out of its slot for station WHDH-TV's returning programming, both Spinney and Valentine were offered a berth on the Boston broadcast of Bozo's Big Top in 1959. Spinney played a variety of hand-puppet creations, usually in one-off skits, and also played Bozo's grandmother Grandma Nellie (in full clown-make-up) and several recurring costumed characters. These included Flip-Flop the Rag Doll, Kookie Kangaroo (a failed boxer), and Mr. Lion, "the fastest draw alive." The latter role combined Spinney's performing and cartoonist skills, creating quick sketches for the kids.
In the 1960s, Spinney created two puppet cats, Picklepuss and Pop, who he performed in various venues, including stage shows and some Bozo broadcasts. Picklepuss and Pop would later go on to perform with the Muppets just once, in the 1988 Jim Henson Play-Along Video volume Wow, You're a Cartoonist!. In 1969, Spinney met Jim Henson at the Puppeteers' of America Festival at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, following an ambitious experimental presentation (hosted by Picklepuss), which combined different live-puppetry techniques with film projections. The show went awry due to various technical issues and other problems, but afterwards, Henson told him that he "liked what you were trying to do." Henson then asked Spinney if he wanted to work with him on a new children's show being developed. Spinney went on to star as the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
As Big Bird, Spinney traveled the world -- in the specials Big Bird in China and Big Bird in Japan, as well as in special Sesame Street episodes that took him to New Mexico and Hawaii. He has also starred in the first Sesame Street feature film Follow That Bird.
Spinney has guest starred as his characters on many other programs, including The Flip Wilson Show, Scrubs, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, 1 vs 100, The Muppet Show, and over 141 episodes of Hollywood Squares.
Spinney wrote a 2003 autobiography titled The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers. He also wrote and illustrated How to Be a Grouch, a 1976 picture book that explains the world from Oscar's point of view. He drew the picture of Mr. Hooper that Big Bird drew after Mr. Hooper died, and designed one of his characters, Bruno the Trashman. His artwork was featured in a 2010/2011 exhibit at ToonSeum. A documentary about Spinney titled I Am Big Bird premiered in 2014, chronicling the life of Spinney and his wife Debra.
In 2015, Spinney ceased puppeteering Big Bird and Oscar due to physical setbacks, but continued to supply their voices on the series for seasons 46 and 47, in select commercials and online videos, and the special Once Upon a Sesame Street Christmas. Afterwards, Spinney entered semi-retirement, and his understudies Matt Vogel (Big Bird) and Eric Jacobson (Oscar), who had performed his characters in occasional appearances and media for years, fully assumed the roles.
Spinney announced his official retirement from Sesame Street on October 17, 2018. The following day, he recorded his final performances as Big Bird and Oscar as part of Episode 5022 from Season 50 (though his vocals were not used in the broadcasted episode). Following several months of convention appearances after his retirement, Spinney passed away in his Connecticut home on December 8, 2019, after living with the movement disorder dystonia for some time.
- Sesame Street: Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bruno the Trashman, Granny Bird, Granny Fanny Nesselrode, Shivers the Penguin, Sam the Robot (occasional), Lefty the Salesman (occasional), and several AMs and other minor characters
- See also Big Bird filmography and Oscar the Grouch filmography for films, guest appearances and specials
- Spinney explained in a 2007 interview that when there's a scene with both Big Bird and Oscar that "if I'm doing the Bird, I'll have my assistant move Oscar, but I'll do both voices. Usually, we pre-record the one that my assistant is moving. Once in a while, if it's Oscar's scene and he has a lot more words than Big Bird, then I have my assistant stand in for Big Bird and I record Big Bird's voice, digitally. That way, they can be talking to each other."
- While Sesame Street was still in planning stages, Spinney suggested to Jim Henson that the show have unscripted conversations between Muppets and real-live children.
- Spinney almost left Sesame Street before the second season, due to a low salary, the expense of living in New York, and an offer to produce his own Picklepuss show in Boston during the break between seasons. However, Kermit Love convinced Spinney to give the show another month before deciding to quit, and soon decided to stay on the show.
- For some time, his name was spelled as Carroll Spinney, with two r's in his first name.
- During the first two seasons of Sesame Street, Spinney would often perform right-hands and one-time characters, but didn't really enjoy it, so he eventually stopped, limiting his performing primarily to Big Bird and Oscar, with only a handful of other recurring characters later on (Bruno, Shivers the Penguin, Granny Bird).
Awards & Honors
- As Big Bird, Spinney was honored with a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- As Big Bird, Spinney was awarded the Library of Congress Living Legend Award in April 2000. According to the Library of Congress website, "the award is selected by the Library's curators and subject specialists to honor artists, writers, activists, filmmakers, physicians, entertainers, sports figures and public servants who have made significant contributions to America's diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage."
- Daytime Emmys Lifetime Achievement Award
- Outstanding Performer In A Children's Series (tie): Kevin Clash as Elmo, and Caroll Spinney as Oscar the Grouch (transcipt)
- As a part of the Sesame Street 50th anniversary celebration, the Empire State Building was lit on November 10th in green and yellow. Two days prior, on November 8th, Spinney and Big Bird participated in a lighting ceremony, where, by mayoral proclamation, the day was named "Caroll Spinney Day" in the City of New York.
- Caroll Spinney Artworks
- Caroll Spinney character transitions
- Caroll and Debra Spinney Cameos
- Caroll Spinney characters
- The Muppet Show Fan Club Newsletter volume 3, number 6, page 4
- Street Gang, pages 101-102
- Spinney, Caroll The Wisdom of Big Bird, page 21-25.
- The New York Times "Original Big Bird, Caroll Spinney, Leaves Sesame Street After Nearly 50 Years" by Dave Itzkoff, Oct. 17, 2018
- Caroll Spinney at Steel City Con in 2017 (at 10:08)
- @sesamestreet Oct 19, 2018
- Sesame Workshop "Remembering Legendary Puppeteer Caroll Spinney" December 8, 2019
- Twardzik, Cathleen. Meet the man behind Big Bird, Parents and Kids. February 19, 2007.
- Spinney, Caroll. The Wisdom of Big Bird, page 132.
- Spinney, Caroll. The Wisdom of Big Bird, pages 63-65.
- Jim Henson's Red Book entry, 8/1969 – P. of A. Festival. Salt Lake City – met Carroll Spinney. Asked him to join us.
- Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones, page 159
- Library of Congress website.
- Associated Press: NYC honors Big Bird puppeteer, Sesame Street at 50 (YouTube video)