Caroll Spinney isnít being swarmed by adoring fans. Yet. As the man inside the beloved character suit of Big Bird and perched under Oscar the Grouch, this Massachusetts native has been able to keep a low profile. Things will change as the much-anticipated documentary†I am Big Bird hits the film circuit this month.
ďIím most comfortable being a puppet,Ē he recently confessed. ďYou can be quite zany and no one knows itís you. I can get lost in the characters. Big Bird is a fun child. And Oscar is nothing like me. Itís really strange and wonderful to play him.Ē
5 things you probably†never knew about the man who plays Big Bird
1. He started his puppeteer career as a character on Bozo the Clown.
2. He almost quit Sesame Street. (It didnít pay well and he was sleeping on couches to make†ends meet.)
3. In the í80s, he was invited by NASA to be a guest on an upcoming mission to get kids excited about space travel. Turns out, they couldnít fit Big Bird onboard the Space Shuttle†and sent a teacher instead.††(We donít want to give it away here, but watch the documentary for the full NASA story, which is jaw-dropping!)
4. He was born in Waltham, grew up in Acton, and now resides in Connecticut.
5. He has enough personal video and images to make 20 more movies (letís hope he does!).†††baystateparent†recently got a chance to speak with the 81-year-old Spinney, who just wrapped up filming his†46th†season of†Sesame Street.
Tell us about I am Big Bird.† How did it come to be?
The guys from Copper Pot Pictures approached Sesame Street to see if they would approve a film about the guy who plays Big Bird. I thought it sounded interesting. We met at Sesame Street headquarters and I liked them very much and agreed. Deb [my wife] told them we have an archive of films of all our times together ó all 42 years. We are madly in love after all these years; it never fades away. We were kind of surprised that the documentary was a bit of a love story, too.
What do you think kids ó† young and old ó† will find most compelling about the documentary?
I think Big Bird and Oscar and all of the Sesame Street characters mean a great deal to children, young and old. To see it presented in this way reminds them of what moved them when they were little. They used to watch with their mothers and fathers, and now theyíre watching with their grandchildren. When we started the show, 9 to 12 million kids were watching every day. We just finished filming our 46th year, so think about how many hundreds of millions of people have been affected by the show.
You said that your mom was a powerful influence in your life when it came to your future career. What would you tell moms out there about how they can positively influence their children?
My mother was an artist and she just constantly made things that made our lives more amazing and complete. She discovered I loved puppets when I was about 8. If [your child/ren] look like they are really intrigued by something it might lead to something for their future. Itís really great to aid them because they may not have access or knowĖhow to access things that would really help them grow. For what I wanted to do, my mother was perfectly suited. She was a refuge from my father, who was kind of scary ó which is funny because as he got older he was a sweet fellow. He lived until he was 91.
Why do you think Sesame Street has lasted as long as it has?
I think itís because it never stayed just the same. The show was called an experiment in television and it still is because when they find out that something isnít working, they try something else. They test everything on children and if it doesnít intrigue them, they drop it. I played a character the first year named Granny Fanny Nesselrode. She was funny, but it didnít test well. Frank Oz had a wonderful character called Professor Hastings. He would talk about things that were boring, but it was so boring, heíd fall asleep. The kids would fall asleep, too! That didnít test well. For instance, [during] a period in the í80s, weíd have break dancers on. Another year, Double Dutch was a big thing and weíd have kids in from Harlem. Theyíre always keeping up with the times. The new season is going to be fun to see.
Has your portrayal of Big Bird and Oscar evolved over the years?
Big Bird started as quite a different character. Jim [Henson] had always wanted to make some puppets that would actually live on the street and be on the show regularly. He always wanted to make a large, silly bird. And there was a grouchy waiter at a place he used to eat at called Oscars. The waiter was so grouchy, he was hilarious. That influenced Jim to make a character like that. Oscar hasnít changed much except he had started out orange. But Big Bird was scruffy looking and the feathers were put on half-hazardly and he had no feathers above his eyes so he didnít look like he had enough brain to manage. As we were doing the show in the first few months, along came a script where Big Bird saw these children going into a daycare center and he wanted to go play with them. But this was an 8-foot-tall goofy guy of indeterminate age. Why would an 8-foot guy, who could be dangerous, be with little children and follow them into a daycare? I said, ĎI think I should play this like Big Bird is a kid, forget the fact that heís 8-feet-tall and a bird.í Jim thought I should play him as a country yokel, but why would he be a country kid when he was living in the city? I lightened up his voice, but within two weeks I had lightened up his voice to sound much more like a purple dinosaur. It was just what the show needed because I pointed out that he could learn things like the alphabet along with the kids.
Itís a pretty grueling job because of the costume and all the mechanics.
Itís very physically demanding. You have to hold your hand over your head. [Big Birdís] head weighs 4.5 pounds. There was an urban legend [that] my right arm is twice the size of my left arm.
Is it true?
Not true at all. They are definitely the same size. Although itís definitely twice as strong.
What is it like behind the scenes at Sesame Street?
We have a read through and make final decisions about camera shots. Then we do rehearsal with characters in hand and theyíre timing it. Often weíll tape the rehearsal and sometimes thatís what youíll see as the final product because we did it well. We used to make two shows a day for years. Now it takes 1-3 days to do a show because the scripts are so elaborate. The cast and crew are very creative people. They love working on the show. There is a lot of laughter. One of the great things [about the show] is they decided when the show first started it should be as funny as it is educational. And it really worked.
How would you sum up your career?
Itís a long-lasting career doing exactly what Iím good at. And exactly what Iíve always wanted to do. Itís wonderful if you can find a way to make a living doing something you really love doing.
Is it kind of nice being a celebrity but without a lot of people recognizing you?
It never bothered me that people donít say, ĎOh, look who is coming.í Iím just another person.
†††† I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY
will open at the Brattle Theatre in Boston on May 15.
Were you pleased with how the documentary came out?
When we saw it for the first time in Toronto on a 60-foot screen, I wondered how my [home] movies would show on a big screen. They caught what we wanted to say. I think they did a wonderful job. We would hear from them regularly but we didnít help with editing and content. They decided what the story would be.
Why, after all these years, are the characters of Sesame Street, particularly Big Bird and Oscar,†so beloved?
Well, I think both children and grown-ups love familiarity. Iím the only person left playing the characters from the start and I still do it. I hope to do at least 50 years and more if Iím up to it.† I think itís kind of fun to see characters through the years and the parents are kind of excited to see the same things they were seeing with their kids. Itís a sharing thing. We always emphasized [to parents] if you have time, sit and watch the show with your child. Youíll get closer and share things together.