Caroll Spinney is not a name that trips lightly off the tongue when people are asked to name their beloved childhood TV characters. And that is okay with Spinney, the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, who doesn't want children to lose the wonder of believing that the puppets are real.
But that is about to change — at least for adults — with last month's release of I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which tells the tale of how Spinney came to play the iconic, eight-foot, two-inch, yellow ball of feathers and the cranky, green, trash-can resident for 45 years.
I Am Big Bird is a documentary film that takes viewers back to where it all began with Spinney's mother introducing him to puppets, the difficulties he had as a child because of his name and his problems with his dad, to the day that changed his life when he met Sesame Street creator Jim Henson at a puppet convention. The film then follows Big Bird's journey to becoming an international star.
Even as he's busy filming a new season of Sesame Street, Spinney took time to explain why at 80 years old he has no plans to retire, what it was like to work with Jim Henson, how difficult it is to perform inside the Big Bird costume, what it's like to train his replacement, and more.
What keeps you going strong after all these years?
There's no other job like it on earth. I get to play a child, who happens to be a big, tall bird, and also a very different kind of character than myself, Oscar the Grouch. It's just so enjoyable and fun, and since I can still do it, I don't want to stop it. Also, I could use the money. I don't make Hollywood money, where you have endless amounts.
There was a point early on where you almost quit when you hit a rough patch. Do you ever look back at that and think, "I would have missed so much if I had made that decision?"
Yes. The one thing that wasn't put in the movie was I was heading up the stairs to quit when Kermit Love, who built Big Bird, saw my concerned face, and intercepted me. He pointed out that I hadn't measured in the fact that Jim Henson would have been up a creek without me working there three days later.
Speaking of which, what was it like to work with Jim Henson?
He was kind and gentle and a great humorist. If I came up with something he liked, like I wanted to have a farmer who just built a wooden birdhouse, I said, "Well, I know how to do a Maine accent." He loved accents. He would praise you for coming up with something he liked. It was just wonderful to work with him. He was so kind.
What I also gathered is that Big Bird's personality changed from his inception to the day it was realized that he should be played as a big kid. Was that when it got easier for you?
The scripts got to be more enthusiastic about what he was supposed to be and how he would be involved with stories that would help the children. Also, I love to emote. I'm a very emotional person. It was lovely to be able to have Big Bird be emotional, too. He's vulnerable. He always wants to help people and be liked, so he'd always try to help to the point of being almost annoying because he's just a kid.
Your career is truly a case of right time, right place, being that you met Jim Henson at a puppet convention. Do you think if you hadn't met Jim that you would still be a puppeteer?
Yes. I certainly do. I left a good job on the Bozo show in Boston, which actually paid better, to get this job. I took a big pay cut because I just wanted to work with Jim Henson.
I Am Big Bird shows how difficult it is being inside the costume. How long did it take you to get everything figured out so you could function?
I don't know how we got through the first year, when I was working pretty blind. We had a couple feathers that were held on with Velcro that I could see through, but that gave me a very unsatisfactory view. I had to try to crane my neck inside the bird costume to see the monitor to make sure that Big Bird actually looked like he was looking at Loretta or whoever he was talking to. I didn't feel I had full control.
But the second year [when I got the monitor in the costume], I could study Big Bird's face. The view I see is the same thing you see at home. It doesn't show me where I'm going very well, but I rehearse that without the bird on, and then I just have my dresser aim me carefully.
So, by now Big Bird must be like one of your children, and you're training your replacement, Matt Vogel — is that hard? Or is it great to know that Big Bird will live on?
About three years ago, we did this thing called Journey to Ernie, and Matt did that entirely, because in the summer, we try to have a month where we can go on vacation. So they said, "You can take your vacation if you don't mind Matt getting some training time." His voice was very close, although, we did notice a lot of little children said, "Big Bird sounds different."
Matt is an excellent puppeteer, so he didn't really need much training. He'd been with me so many years watching. It'd been 17 or 18 years when I chose him out of three or four puppeteers. Matt now does the bird a great deal, while I do the voice. He lip syncs to my voice, which gives me more freedom to not have to struggle with the character, so I can concentrate on the acting.
There's a book called Wisdom of Big Bird. In terms of the wisdom, is there something that you think that Big Bird especially gives children?
Well, I think he demonstrates things more than dictates. He demonstrates how he ends up feeling better and the kids empathize with him. I can tell from their reactions and letters that they empathize with Big Bird, and they feel sorry because they can identify with the problems that he's had. Life is not easy as a child. There are things that you're not in full control of. You wonder why you didn't measure up, or whatever your life's little problems are. Big Bird has conquered some of them, so the children watch that. I think that's where the wisdom comes, from learning how he manages to finally find the right way to do something.
Are you content to be the man behind the curtain, so to speak? So when you go out, you're not recognized.
Yes. Children don't know that there's a man inside Big Bird. It's something we've tried to hide all these years. I remember strongly how my brother ruined my sixth birthday and Christmas — they're practically one in the same — by telling me there is no Santa Claus, that mom filled the stockings.
When my own grandson was 10½, I had the impression that he had figured out that I do Oscar and Big Bird. But he thought Big Bird was real. I found that out only after I made a big mistake. I said to him, "When did you find out that I'm inside Big Bird?" He looked at me shocked, and said, "I didn't." Me and my big mouth.
He used to call and he'd say, "Hi, Granddad. Is Big Bird there? I'd like to talk with him." He would tell Big Bird things he wouldn't tell me, not that it was anything shocking. He would just chat a bit more with Big Bird because he felt on an even keel with him.
What do you think about The Muppets coming back to prime-time television this fall?
All of us puppeteers are elated. When Jim hired me back in 1969, he took the whole day off. We went and dined at Oscar's, where we got the idea for Oscar the Grouch. He told me he wanted to do a show called The Muppet Show. It was seven years later before he actually got to do it. The Muppet Show really clinched Jim's fame. Sesame Street opened the door, but The Muppet Show finished it.
I Am Big Bird is available on iTunes and VOD, as well as in select theaters.