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“I used to say I’d move on to something greater,” said Caroll Spinney, who died Sunday at the age of 85. “I wouldn’t leave this for anything. I’d like to keep doing it until I can’t hold that bird’s head up.”
In a lively urban Manhattan neighborhood, the Robinson and Rodriquez families spend nice days on the stoop of their brownstone at 123 Sesame Street. The families have come to terms with some of the neighbors, many of whom are animals and monsters there’s no getting rid of. That’s part of New York City’s charm.
Long ago, Gordon and Susan Robinson accepted their apartment’s bird’s nest view and got to know the towering yellow canary, who in the early days of his roost on Sesame Street was a little rough for having lived outside—the feathers on his head were sparse, and he wasn’t as full and round as he became in the subsequent 49 years he spent on the show. He’s prone to the same misunderstanding of the adult world as are the children around him, but learning the alphabet isn’t for the birds. Instead, he sings and draws, sometimes roller skates along with the others on the street—once he got on a horse backwards and wondered where the horse’s head was. At the end of the day, the lessons he learns are pearls of wisdom for the kids who know him.
“He’s a six-year-old who hopes to be liked. Typical kid,” said the man who lived inside Big Bird and gave him life for 49 years. (Spinney retired from Sesame Street in 2018; Big Bird, of course, is immortal.) “He’s just a little slower than the kids who are watching, which I thinks helps them urge him along.”
In the same interview, Spinney explained Big Bird’s evolution from oaf into a “surrogate child” on Sesame Street: “Well, he was just a goofy guy. And the first bird looked pretty terrible, and he had almost no feathers above his eyes, so he looked not too keen,” he said of the earliest incarnation of the character. “I said, you know I really think I should be playing this as a child. And I think he should be a kid—he doesn’t know his alphabet, yet. Or know what a square is, how to count to ten.”
Big Bird was a four year old for a minute, but his abilities were a few years ahead, so he became a six year old, and there he remained. A man over 70 years older and a different species than the character he played demonstrated quite the range for an actor who joined Sesame Street in 1969 as“an attempt to find a good way to make a living.”
Spinney (whose mother, in a festive mood, named her son Caroll because he was born the day after Christmas) knew Big Bird inside and out, but Big Bird began as the creation of genius puppeteer Jim Henson, who spied Spinney and asked him to audition for the two iconic characters he was destined to play on Sesame Street, the second being Oscar the Grouch. “I knew who Jim Henson was,” Spinney said. “To me it’s very much like some fellow came up to me and I was a drummer, and said, (English accent) ‘I’ve got a little band from Liverpool. Would you like to be me drummer, then?’”
Spinney was charged with animating Big Bird. At 8’2”, “he’s as tall as I can reach,” Spinney said.
To be clear, Big Bird is a puppet—one of the Muppets—not a costume, because Spinney manipulated Big Bird’s head with his right hand. His arm was Big Bird’s neck. Spinney’s pinky finger triggered the bird’s eyes while his thumb powered the jaw, so Big Bird could speak. Spinney’s left hand held a string that moved Big Bird’s left wing, Inside Big Bird’s barrel body, Spinny had a microphone, a script, and a closed-circuit television guiding him as he moved through Sesame Street, a precarious endeavor, considering Big Bird has ridden a unicycle.
Fences make good neighbors, and a makeshift divide created out of old doors separated Big Bird’s nest from Canadian-born 43-year-old street urchin Oscar the Grouch’s trash can residence—the best real estate in Manhattan for a guy without a nose. Oscar’s home might appear small at street level, but that’s just the entrance. There’s a mansion of garbage and waste under the spiral staircase he uses to get to the lid. He’s got all the charm and patience of a gruff New York City taxi driver, but he’s nice to children and to his girlfriend, Grungetta.
“A lot of people are rather surprised that I’m the one who does Oscar,” Spinney said. “You know, it’s refreshing to get to be Oscar after being so sweet all day.“ In fact, he went on to say, he “enjoyed the contrast of the characters. Only once or twice, I've opened a character's mouth, and the wrong voice has come out."