Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Sesame Street’s Big Bird, dies at 85

He’s also the alter ego of Oscar the Grouch for nearly half a century

Caroll Spinney, the legendary Sesame Street puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for almost half a century, has died on Sunday at his home in Woodstock, Connecticut. He was 85.

Spinney’s death was announced by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces several educational children’s programs, including Sesame Street. While the cause of Spinney’s death was not disclosed, a statement from Sesame Workshop mentioned that the puppeteer had lived for some time with dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that causes excessive, involuntary muscle contraction.

“Caroll Spinney’s contributions to Sesame Street are countless. He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well,” Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said of her longtime colleague and friend in the statement. “We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to Sesame Street and to children around the world.”

Born in Waltham, Massachusetts on December 26th, 1933, Spinney’s was a shy, artistic child with interest in drawing, painting, and puppetry. At age 12, he had 70 puppets, made mostly by his mother.

Spinney studied at The Art Institute of Boston, but dropped out to join the Air Force. While serving in Las Vegas, Spinney played Rascal Rabbit on television in 1955, which was his first professional puppet show ever. He returned to Boston after being discharged from the military, and for 10 years, he played clown and puppet characters on the television show, Bozo’s Big Top. Fast forward to 1969, Spinney joined Sesame Street a few months after meeting The Muppets creator Jim Henson at a puppeteers festival in Salt Lake.

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Spinney started to provide the voices and personalities to Big Bird and Oscar in 1969. But after he began to have problem with his balance, Mr. Spinney stopped doing the puppeteering for Big Bird in 2015, and just started to only provide the voices for him and Oscar. Matt Vogel, Spinney’s apprentice as Big Bird since 1996, took over the role. Ultimately, ahead of the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street in October 2018, Spinney left the show for good.

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Caroll Spinney, the legendary puppeteer behind beloved Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died today, December 8th 2019, at age 85 at his home in Connecticut, after living with Dystonia for some time. Since 1969, Caroll’s kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street. His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while. In these characters, Caroll Spinney gave something truly special to the world. With deepest admiration, Sesame Workshop is proud to carry his legacy – and his beloved characters – into the future. Our hearts go out to his beloved wife, Debra, and all of his children and grandchildren. We will miss him dearly.

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During his almost five-decade stint on Sesame Street, Spinney won six Daytime Emmys, two Grammys, a Library of Congress Living Legend Award in 2000, and a Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2006.

Spinney and his first wife, Janice, who divorced in 1971, had three children together: Jessica, Melissa and Ben. In 1979, Spinney married Debra Jean Gilroy, who was working for the Children’s Television Workshop when they met in 1972. Besides his second wife and three children, Spinney is survived by several grandchildren.

Sources: The New York Times, Sesame Workshop

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