I wanted to call this piece Remembering Caroll Spinney, but you may not know him. But odds are you know at least one of his alter egos.
I don’t want to ignore Oscar The Grouch — or all of the other characters that the late Caroll Spinney brought to life…but Big Bird did it for me.
So I was saddened to learn of Spinney’s death yesterday at his home in Connecticut, at the age of 85. According to a statement from the Sesame Workshop, he had long lived with dystonia, a disorder that hinders movement and causes involuntary muscle contractions. Spinney is survived by his wife and two children.
Very oddly, news of Spinney’s death broke just after I’d complimented a guy’s t-shirt at a concert. It was a vintage Sesame Street t-shirt, and featured Big Big & Oscar, along with their buddies, Ernie, Bert, Elmo, Grover, and even Little Bird.
Yeah, there was once a Little Bird, and I met him and his big buddy when I was four years old back in 1969. I was in Sesame Street’s inaugural class.
I still remember sitting with my legs folded in front of me, on the goldenrod shag carpeted floor of our living room, staring at our state-of-the-art, top of the line 25 inch color console television, as the ubiquitous Sesame Street theme song kicked in. “Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away…”.
I also remember being initially scared of Big Bird, as he was very aptly named; with Spinney’s long arm extending his neck, that bird stood well over seven feet tall. But very quickly, Big Bird’s warmth and wit drew me in.
Just like Spinney’s did just three years ago when I met him in Sacramento at Comic-Con. I was scared then, too, as you don’t often meet your heroes. But after growing up with Big Bird, and raising my own two girls with him, my five minute chat with Spinney will never be forgotten. I got to thank him for the indelible characters he brought to life, especially Big Big — and, ok…Oscar The Grouch.
Muppet creator Jim Henson once recalled meeting Spinney in 1969, just before Sesame Street’s debut.
“He’s a very talented performer and he had a great sense of ad-libbing,” Henson recalled to NPR. “And he was doing this strange-looking cat on local television in Boston. And so we started talking at that point about doing [Sesame Street], and I asked Caroll if he’d enjoy coming and being part of this very strange bird.”
For a sample of Spinney’s magic, check out the Sesame Street episode in which Big Bird learns about death. Or watch his appearance at Henson’s funeral in 1990.
Or, as it’s the holiday season, check Big Bird out on 1987’s A Muppet Family Christmas. It’s a relatively little-known television special that includes the Muppet casts of all of Henson’s universes, including Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock…and even Muppet Babies! Big Bird and Swedish Chef have a hysterical, then heartwarming chat in the kitchen, before Henson — in his only appearance in a Muppet special or movie — comments that he loves it when everyone comes together.
We do too, Jim.
We’ll all miss Big Bird — ok, and Oscar — and I know they’ll both live on, but a part of me is glad Spinney is comfortable now…as comfortable as he made little 4-year-old me, all of those years ago, sitting on that goldenrod shag carpeted floor.
RIP Caroll Spinney.