R.I.P. Caroll Spinney, the Muppeteer who performed Big Bird for half a century

By: Start TV Staff     Posted: December 9, 2019, 9:55AM    Tags: Obituaries

Image: The Everett Collection

In the 1960s, talented and rising puppeteer Jim Henson was asked to create a creature to promote canned Chinese food. The towering La Choy dragon appeared in commercials for Chow Mein — "Quick cooked in dragon fire." At the end of the decade, as Henson was designing characters for a new children's television program called Sesame Street, he used the La Choy dragon costume as the basis for his main star, Big Bird.

Caroll Spinney was the man inside the Big Bird costume. He played the character from its first season in 1969 through 2018. He appeared as Big Bird on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. He acted as Big Bird on the game show Hollywood Squares. He soared to the big screen in the 1985 film Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird.

That was not his only contribution to our collective childhood memories. Spinney also performed Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street from the very beginning, using a more traditional manual puppeteering technique.

The puppeteer had to become ambidextrous in the first season of Sesame Street. Spinney was right-handed, but due to the set up of Oscar's trash can on the curb in those early episodes, he was forced to perform the Grouch with his left hand. In subsequent seasons, the set was reconfigured to better accommodate the performer. Spinney portrayed Oscar until 2015. 

His mother named him Caroll because he was born the day after Christmas. A few years later, his mom gifted him a Punch and Judy puppet theater for Christmas, sparking a love of puppeteering that would last a lifetime. 

Spinney honed his craft as Goggle in The Judy and Goggle Show during the late 1950s. In the early 1960s, he appeared as various characters (Kookie the Boxing Kangaroo, Mr. Lion) on Bozo's Big Top, the Boston iteration of the popular clown show.

In 1962, Spinney met Henson at a puppeteering festival. The friendship and creative partnership would last a lifetime. Spinney won five Daytime Emmy Awards for his work on Sesame Street and earned a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in 2006. At Henson's funeral in 1990, Spinney performed as Big Bird, singing the signature Kermit the Frog song "Bein' Green."

Spinney was also responsible for working a clever M*A*S*H reference into Sesame Street, which was born from meeting Gary Burghoff on the set of Hollywood Squares.

On Sunday, December 8, Spinney passed away, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 85.