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He Was Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch: Farewell Caroll Spinney, Sesame Steet Muppeteer

Editor Picks | October 19, 2018

Caroll Spinney, Recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 33rd Annual Creative Arts EMMY Awards, with Oscar the Grouch (Photo by Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage)

You may not have know the name Caroll Spinney, but you are probably familiar with the role he played for 50 years. Spinney, the puppeteer -- or Muppeteer -- who portrayed both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died on December 8, 2019, at the age of 85. Spinney had been a cast member on Sesame Street from its beginning in 1969 through his retirement in 2018. Let us look back at the remarkable career for this maverick puppeteer and childhood icon. 

Spinney Became Fascinated With Puppets As A Child

Caroll Spinney, born in 1933, saw his first puppet show when he was just five years old, but he was fascinated by the show. He soon crafted his own puppets and started putting on his own little puppet shows. He got a Punch and Judy puppet theater for Christmas and further developed his puppetry skills. As a teenager, he even put on puppet shows as a way to earn money for college. 

Spinney Tried His Hand At Cartooning

After high school, Spinney joined the US Air Force. While serving in the military, he created a comic strip about military life and worked on several other cartoons, developing characters and storylines. This experience would help him later in his career.

Spinney Took His Puppet Shows To Vegas

In the mid-1950s, Spinney moved to Las Vegas and joined the Rascal Rabbit show as a puppeteer. A few years later, he relocated to Boston to join the cast of The Judy and Google Show. He also spent a number of years working on Bozo’s Big Top where he entertained kids as a costumed character. He even played Mr. Lion, who used the first names of kids in the audience to draw unique cartoons. 

Spinney Met Jim Henson… Twice

Caroll Spinney with Jim Henson

Spinney was attending a puppeteering convention in 1962 when he first met Jim Henson, the creative genius behind the Muppets. When Henson asked Spinney if he would like to "talk about the Muppets," Spinney didn’t realize that Henson wanted to talk to him about a job offer. The two met again several years later, at the 1969 Puppeteers of America Festival in Utah. After one of Spinney’s shows, Henson again approached him to discuss the Muppets. This time, Spinney listened. By the end of the conversation, Spinney had accepted a full-time position with Henson, the Muppets and Sesame Street

Spinney Was A Member Of 'Sesame Street' From The Beginning

Sesame Street debuted in 1969 and included two key puppet characters that Spinney helped to develop. One was Big Bird, an eight-foot tall, sunny-yellow, child-like bird who often learns new things right along with the children on the show. The other character is the curmudgeonly Oscar the Grouch, the dumpster dwelling foil to the perpetually upbeat characters on the show. Although he often portrayed and voiced other characters on Sesame Street, it was Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch that were Spinney’s mainstays. 

Spinney Really Embodied His Muppet Characters

Spinney and Big Bird in China

Spinney took his roles on Sesame Street to heart, knowing that the characters were setting examples for the young viewers who faithfully watched Sesame Street. He even took his characters away from Sesame Street from time to time. Big Bird has been the guest conductor for the Boston Pops and other orchestras across the country. Both characters have been frequent guests at the White House. And they have traveled all over the world. They have even gone to recording studios to record albums. 

Spinney Authored Books

As a ghostwriter for Oscar the Grouch, Spinney wrote How to Be a Grouch, a picture book for children. In 2003, he authored The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers. He even narrated an audiobook of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, which was written by Michael Davis. 

Spinney’s Work Earned Him Awards

For his portrayals of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Spinney won two Grammy Awards and four Daytime Emmy Awards. He was also honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. 

Spinney Called Playing Big Bird 'One Of The Most Joyous Things In My Life'

Upon announcing his retirement from Sesame Street, Spinney told the New York Times, “Playing Big Bird is one of the most joyous things of my life. How fortunate for me that I got to play the two best Muppets!” 

Spinney Retiring, But Big Bird Didn’t

Puppeteer Matt Vogel with be the new Big Bird

With his retirement, Spinney passed the big, yellow, feathery costume to a new puppeteer -- Matt Vogel, who worked with Spinney and Sesame Street since 1996. Vogel previously played Kermit the Frog and Count Van Count, and learned the nuances of Big Bird and Oscar from Spinney. 

Farewell, Carroll Spinney, and thanks for 50 years of Big Bird and Oscar.

Tags: 70s Kids | Big Bird | Career-Defining Moments | Caroll Spinney | Sesame Street | The Muppets

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.