Big Bird is familiar to countless people of multiple generations all around the world who grew up watching “Sesame Street.” But who”s the man behind (or inside, actually) the 8-foot-tall, perpetually six-years-old, 4,000-feathers-covered bird?
That would be Caroll Spinney, who has puppeteered Big Bird since the first “Sesame Street” episode aired in 1969. He also puppeteers Big Bird”s next-door neighbor, Oscar the Grouch. Now 81, Spinney still works on the PBS show as both characters and has no plans for retirement.
Spinney is the subject of new documentary “I Am Big Bird” (now available to VOD and iTunes in a limited theatrical release), a sweet, reverent tribute to the man behind the yellow feathers. The film puts a spotlight on both his joyous and difficult times on “Sesame Street” and features archival footage and interviews with Spinney, his wife and several “Sesame Street” cast and crew members.
Here are the highlights of things we learned from the documentary and when HitFix chatted with Spinney on the phone.
1. A New York taxi driver and Donald Duck are behind the sound of Oscar”s voice and Big Bird”s snore. On the way to a rehearsal, Spinney got the sound for Oscar”s voice when a New York taxi driver said to him, “Where to, Mac?” Big Bird”s voice is Spinney”s natural voice but higher. As for Big Bird”s memorable snore, Spinney tells HitFix that Donald Duck is owed some thanks for that. “I had a friend who could speak so much more clearly than Donald Duck could. It was beautiful. I don”t think I ever understood a single word that Donald Duck said,” Spinney explained. “I could do the sound of Donald Duck but not words.” Once he tried the Donald-esque snore on set, “I surprised myself,” he recalled. “And everybody liked it very much in the control room.”
2. There are no eye holes in the Big Bird suit. Spinney does not have a way to see directly out of the suit, but he does have a small monitor that”s attached to his chest that gives him a third-person view of his actions.
3. Spinney nearly quit “Sesame Street” in his first year on the show. The first few months on “Sesame Street” were rough for Spinney. New York was expensive, and living in trash-covered Spanish Harlem was a difficult transition for Spinney, who had grown up near Boston. He worried his performance wasn”t up to par with the rest of the cast, and “he didn”t fit in, and he knew it,” Frank Oz says in the documentary. Spinney had made the decision to quit, but a fortuitous encounter with Kermit Love, the Henson team member who had built Big Bird, made him change his mind. On his way up the stairs to Jim Henson”s office, Spinney ran into Love and let slip that he was about to quit, and Love said told him, “You”ll never get an opportunity like this again. It will get better. Give it another month.” He did – and 46 more years.
4. Big Bird wasn”t always a six-year-old. Spinney began having a much better experience on “Sesame Street” sometime after that chat with Kermit Love, in part due to changes he made to Big Bird. Originally, the character wasn”t a kid – he was an adult bird, a goofy country yokel. Spinney told HitFix that idea to play him as a big kid came to him when a script called for Big Bird to attempt to go into a daycare center, but then he”s told that he”s too old to go to daycare.
5. Snuffy”s first encounter with the adults of Sesame Street should have been scripted differently, says Spinney. For years, “Sesame Street” characters believed Snuffleupagus was an imaginary friend since no one but Big Bird ever saw him. (There were many just-missed encounters.) Eventually, a few kids and celebrity guests got to meet Snuffy. Then, finally, in the season 17 premiere in 1985, the adults of “Sesame Street” got to meet Big Bird”s long-lashed, furry-trunked friend. Spinney was pleased that adults could finally see Snuffy (the storyline was written in response to letters from parents saying that young viewers shouldn”t be encouraged to keep things from adults out of fear that they won”t be believed), but he tells HitFix that he would have written the big Snuffy reveal differently: “It would have been great if Bob [played by Bob McGrath] had seen him first since he was the biggest disbeliever that Snuffy was real,” Spinney said. “He could have gone running into Hooper”s Store saying, ‘I just saw him! This Snuffleupagus! He”s real!” and then people would tease him and say, ‘Bob, you”re seeing an imaginary friend too.””
(By the way, can we take a moment to appreciate the brilliance of Snuffy”s Twitter presence? Only Big Bird can view his tweets.)
6. Big Bird could have been on the Space Shuttle Challenger. An affecting segment of the documentary alleges that Spinney was at one point meant to be a passenger on Challenger, the NASA space shuttle orbiter that tragically broke apart 73 seconds into its flight in 1986, leaving all of the crew dead. In “I Am Big Bird,” Spinney says that NASA approached him about joining the Challenger crew as Big Bird to get more kids interested in space exploration. Spinney says he agreed to go up on the flight about a year and a half before the scheduled launch and then was told a month later that it wouldn”t work out since it would be too difficult to fit the Big Bird suit on the shuttle. According to the documentary, teacher Christa McAuliffe went in his place. The puppeteer tells HitFix that there was also discussion of filming segments with Big Bird”s teddy bear, Radar, going up in the shuttle, but that also fell through. In a statement emailed to HitFix, NASA explains, “A review of past documentation shows there were initial conversations with ‘Sesame Street” regarding their potential participation on a shuttle Challenger flight, but that plan was never approved.”
The story of Big Bird”s escape from a space travel demise is now emerging out with the release of the documentary, though Spinney did write about the experience for his 2003 memoir/inspiration book “The Wisdom of Big Bird” before RandomHouse decided to cut that section since that story was too negative and depressing for what they saw as a positive and uplifting book, Spinney explained to HitFix.
Spinney recalls watching the Challenger launch on the monitors on the set of “Sesame Street”: “It was such a horrible thing to know what the children [of McAuliffe] saw – their mother walking into the ship, and then a few minutes later, she”s gone,” Spinney said. As for the also frightening alternative of children of the world watching the space shuttle blow apart with Big Bird aboard, Spinney told HitFix that “it would have been quite depressing” for PBS to figure out what to do with Big Bird afterward “just because he”s an iconic character.”
7. Spinney relished getting to chat with Caroline Kennedy while filming “Don”t Eat the Pictures.” In 1983 one-hour special “Don”t Eat the Pictures,” Big Bird and other “Sesame Street” characters go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Production started each day at 11 p.m. after the museum had finished closing. Spinney told HitFix that he enjoyed taking a long walk around the museum with Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy”s daughter, who worked at the Met at the time. The Big Bird puppeteer fondly recalled talking with Caroline Kennedy about her grandmother, Rose, and a little story the younger Kennedy told about her: Every birthday, Rose Kennedy would ask her family how old she was, and once they”d told her, she”d reply, “Oh dear, why don”t I just turn 100 and get it over with?” She lived to see her 104th birthday.
8. Elmo may have stolen the spotlight from Big Bird, but Mitt Romney gave it back. Spinney doesn”t admit it himself in the documentary, but others in the film explain that once Elmo got popular in the '90s, the new red Muppet overshadowed Big Bird a bit. “I”m sure it was tough for Caroll because he was king of the road for a long, long time,” McGrath says. In the doc, Michael Davis, author of “Sesame Gang” contends that once “Sesame Street” became a show geared more toward two-year-olds and three-year-olds, Elmo got more screen time than Big Bird since “Elmo was a character a two-year-old could get.” But Big Bird got a resurgence in popularity from a surprising source: Mitt Romney. While running for president in 2012, the Republican candidate proposed changing the way PBS gets support saying, “We're not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird's going to have to have advertisements, all right?” That, of course, got a lot of media attention focused on Big Bird, including a “Saturday Night Live” appearance.
9. Spinney has a suggestion for another “Sesame Street”-centric documentary. Both Spinney and former Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash have gotten the feature-length documentary spotlight. When HitFix asked Spinney who else”s story should be told, he suggested Jerry Nelson, the late puppeteer behind Count Von Count. “He was a talented voice actor, and he was a great guy,” Spinney said. Nelson was also the first performer of Snuffleupagus and appeared on “The Muppet Show, “Fraggle Rock” and other Muppets specials and movies including “The Muppet Christmas Carol.”
10. Big Bird has a successor. Though Spinney has no intentions of retiring, he is preparing for the day he”s no longer able to puppeteer Big Bird. In 1996, “Sesame Street” began the search for the next Big Bird. It was an intimidating process for Spinney, and he was initially frustrated that no one who was auditioning had it quite right. But eventually a winner came along, and that was Matt Vogel. (Bonus: his last name means “bird” in German.) Since 1998, Vogel (pictured above, right, with Spinney), now 44, has been apprenticing with Spinney. In Vogel, “Sesame Street” found a skilled puppeteer and also someone who understood what”s at the heart of Big Bird, as he says in the documentary: “It”s that childlike sense of wonder and awe that Caroll has.”
“I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” is available to watch now on VOD and on iTunes. Following a film festival circuit, the film began its theatrical release this week at New York”s IFC Center. On May 15, the film will begin expanding to Los Angeles and other markets. “I Am Big Bird” is directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker.