March 20, 2012

By Graydon Gordian

Happy Birthday Big Bird: An Interview with Sesame Street’s Caroll Spinney

Big Bird in 1969, Sesame Street's inaugural year

It’s the first day of Spring. You know what that means? It’s Big Bird’s birthday! In order to celebrate Big Bird’s special day, we spoke with Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird, as well as Oscar the Grouch, on the show for 42 years.  During his time on Sesame Street, Mr. Spinney has touched the lives of millions of children. We want to thank him for taking the time to tell us about how he first got started on Sesame Street, how the character of Big Bird evolved and what his favorite memories from the show are.

Sesame Workshop: Tell me how you first got involved with Sesame Street.

Caroll Spinney: Jim Henson saw me doing my own puppet show and came backstage afterwards and asked if I wanted to join the Muppets. As a puppeteer I felt the Muppets were the Beatles of the puppet world. Jim said he wanted to build a goofy bird and also Oscar the Grouch, which was going to be a goofy purple thing that lived in a pile of trash.

On the very first show the writers gave a two minute period to say hello to Big Bird. I said, “What’s Big Bird like?” And Jim said, “I don’t know, what do you want him to be like?” I said I wanted him to be pretty human. As the show progressed, the writers didn’t know what he was, they hadn’t seen it. He looked like quite a different character. At first I played him like Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist dummy.  It wasn’t long before I decided that it should be a childlike character, not a goofy old guy. Since he couldn’t read or write, he was 4-years-old. By the end, he was writing little poems and stuff, so then he had to be six so he could read. He’s turning six and he always turns six. His birthday came about on a calendar on the early days of the show. Someone decided he should have a birthday and I decided it should be the first day of spring.

That’s 42 years ago.  I’d like to do it until I’ve had 50 years on the show. I’ll see if I can handle that.

SW: It sounds like you had a lot of freedom to shape Big Bird’s personality. Tell me more about how you crafted the character?

Spinney: When the script came along, it just seemed like Big Bird should be a child. He wanted to go into a daycare and couldn’t and was foot stomping. It definitely was accepted by the children at home as if he was a fellow child. I’ve got so many letters saying, “Dear Big bird, you’re my friend. Why don’t you come and play with me. How ‘bout next Thursday?”

In one way, I’m sort of a child actor. I act like a child. It’s wonderful because of the contrast between Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. I don’t think I am Big Bird. I help bring him to life. I think of him as my child.

Caroll Spinney in 1969

SW: Do you have any favorite “Big Bird” memories from your 42 years on the show? 

Spinney: It’s funny, there’s so many – 4,000 shows – it’s hard to pick out one. When I made our one movie, Follow That Bird, I worked with Waylon Jennings. I wasn’t a country fan particularly. I spent two days in a truck with him. Big Bird is hitchhiking. We just hit it off on a soul basis. He’s just the greatest guy. He became a great friend. We would go down and spend Christmas with him, or travel on his bus.

The saddest one we did was Big Bird discovering what death means when Mr. Hooper died. It used to be that Big Bird was going to be an artist when he grows up. The thing is, I am an artist. When Big Bird drew, I drew them myself. In that story, Big Bird has done a caricature of all eight humans that were active on the show. He gave one to Gordon and Susan and Luis and Maria. And I drew one of Mr. Hooper, or “Mr. Looper,” cause I couldn’t say the word.

They said, “Don’t’ you understand? Mr. Hooper has died.” And I said, “Yes, well when is he coming back?” They said, “Don’t you understand? Mr. Hooper is never coming back,” and quickly everyone is moved to tears. It was probably the most sensitive show we have ever done. When we finished there were tears on all the actors’ faces. When I came out of the suit, I had to have a towel because I had been crying.

I wouldn’t be an actor if it hadn’t been for Will Lee (Mr. Hooper).

SW: You’ve also performed as Big Bird away from the set of Sesame Street. Tell me about some of those instances.

Spinney: For 8 years, Big Bird did an introduction to the orchestra show. It started with the Boston Pops. It was strictly to bring the baton up and down. The first time I did it, it was so awesome to hear I nearly dropped the baton. I performed him in London with Julie Andrews, on the steps of the opera house in Sydney, Australia, the Great Wall of China with Bob Hope. It was very thrilling. Bob was a very charming guy. The reason why Bob Hope took us to China is that I had been a guest on one of his specials in beautiful downtown Burbank. I found out he’d never heard of Big Bird, or seen it, and the scripts weren’t right for Big Bird at all. I had to win him over. So when he came out, Big Bird said, “Boy I thought I had a funny looking beak.” I can’t tell you how fulfilling it was to see America’s greatest comedian laughing hysterically.

SW: What do you think made Big Bird and Sesame Street special?

Spinney: One of the gifts of the show was they made it as funny as it was educational. I think that’s’ one of the secrets of the huge success. They wanted to make it so grown-ups could sit there with their kids. Jokes that are aimed too low aren’t necessary — you don’t have to talk down to them — And we wanted to make it so grown-ups could sit there with their kids and enjoy it.

It’s had an awful lot of positive results. I remember the second year we did a scene, Mr. Hooper’s store had a minor fire, and Big Bird raises the alarm and gets everyone up. That week a boy saved his family because he got up to get a glass of water and got everyone up cause he saw what Big Bird did. He’s been a wonderful teaching tool. I’m so pleased to have such a chance to do something that was so positive.

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