A Conversation With the Man Behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch


Puppeteer Caroll Spinney (center, next to Oscar), "Sesame Street" co-founder and TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney, and "Sesame Street" cast members pose under a 123 Sesame Street sign at the "Sesame Street" 40th anniversary temporary street renaming in 2009. Big Bird, of course, perches at a nest at 123 1/2 Sesame Street. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

The puppeteer's name is Caroll Spinney. He's 84 years young. He arrived with a cane and seated in a wheelchair to our interview during Dragon Con 2018. He held his left arm close to his chest, just as Big Bird always does. Spinney showed signs of his age, with a mane of white hair and a lustrous white beard. As he spoke, his voice was soft and wispy until he slipped into the voices of Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch (both of whom he voiced since 1969), then it was like those characters were in the room with us, filling it with their presence as if by magic.

"On the first week I was working, Jim [Henson] had made Big Bird inexplicably a country yokel, and I realized that's not where he would be," Spinney recounted. "[Big Bird] would see children going to a day care center and want to go in with them. If he's a 34-year-old man, that doesn't work. And I made him a child. I wanted to make this a child so he'd be far more useful to the show. I made him a kid and decided he was 4 and a half so he could grow a little bit in the eyes of the children, and he grew to 6 and that was the end of it. I loved playing with that sense of wonder."

When he speaks as Big Bird, that's the only thing you hear in his voice and see on his face. (We'd supply audio from the session here, but we were asked to refrain from doing any audio or video recording.)

Spinney's wife, Debra, noted that her spouse really enjoys doing shows like Dragon Con because there was a forced anonymity to protect the children.

"We weren't allowed to be interviewed," Spinney explained. "A lot of people got to be Muppets in the early days and quit because they didn't like the forced anonymity. It's a lot of fun to be a bird. A 17-year-old kid, a football player would burst into tears meeting me, he's far older than someone watching the show would be. The character that came out as a bird flew into their hearts."

Spinney also talked about how much more ad-libbing they were allowed to do on "Sesame Street" in the old days. "Everything today is so much more scripted, and they don't like you going off the script. The scripts are great, but they don't like you going off of them."

When asked what he thought his favorite or best moment of "Sesame Street" was, he immediately pointed to the death of Mr. Hooper. "We dealt with that death on 'Sesame Street,' but in a sweet way. I always thought when we were making it it would be good to have people understand who Big Bird is and how he'd try to understand what death was." For the first time during the interview he slipped into the Big Bird voice, flawlessly talking about the death of Mr. Hooper, saying "Who's going to read me my stories? Or fix my bird seed milkshakes?" With those two simple statements, Spinney had complete command of the emotions in the room.

"I'm more like Big Bird than Oscar," Spinney added afterward. "And I like him better." But that doesn't mean he hasn't derived any meaning from playing Oscar. He recounted a story about a woman in her late 50s who approached him at a convention to tell him how Oscar the Grouch changed her life.

"She told me that she lived in a house with four very strong women [as a child]. ... One day she was in the house by herself, she turned the TV on and saw 'Sesame Street,' and Oscar was on. Oscar was saying no to a grownup, and she said she didn't know she could say no to a grownup, and it empowered her. So she took control of her life at that point. 'I became myself that day,' she told me."

And that was the message Spinney ended on — that it was rewarding to know that his life's work has meant something to people over the years and made their lives better. And if there's one thing Caroll Spinney should be certain of, it's that he's made a lot of sunny days on "Sesame Street" for a lot of people.


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