Being Big Bird - A Conversation with Caroll Spinney | The Fan Carpet Ltd • The Fan Carpet: The RED Carpet for FANS • The Fan Carpet: Fansites Network • The Fan Carpet: Slate • The Fan Carpet: Theatre Spotlight • The Fan Carpet: Arena • The Fan Carpet: International

Being Big Bird – A Conversation with Caroll Spinney

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Puppeteer and cartoonist Caroll Spinney has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street since the inaugural season back in 1969 – and shows no sign of stopping yet. Combining compelling interviews with fellow puppeteer cronies and fascinating material from Caroll’s personal archives, I AM BIG BIRD illuminates the dynamic portrait of an unknown man whose Sesame Street characters, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, have influenced generations of children.

An icon of popular culture for over 40 years, beak and feathers weaving a path through American history; Caroll’s stories are the stuff of legend. And, as the yellow feathers give way to grey hair, it is the man, not the puppet, who will steal your heart.

The Fan Carpet’s Marc Jason Ali had the pleasure of speaking with Caroll ahead of the release of I Am Big Bird: The Story of Caroll Spinney from Spectrum, the icon of Children’s entertainment tells us how he got started with the Muppets, shares his memories of the late, great Jim Henson and how it feels to be Big Bird…



I have many a fond memory with Sesame Street and, well, Big Bird. How did you first get involved and how is it working with the late great Jim Henson?

It was great. I started doing puppets when I was a child and I broke into television when I was 21 years old in 1955, I was just doing a show getting paid all of ten dollars a week. But at least I was on television, and television was only seven or eight years old in America at that time.

I had a period of time that I rested from television, just doing cartooning and comic strips. And then in 1960 I got back into television, and so I have been doing puppets for years.

And in 1969 I decided to leave the Bozo show I was on, it was a clown show and I decided to go to a big puppet festival that was coming and I realised I had to create a new show. I created a fancy new high tech show. And Jim Henson was in the audience.

Lucky for me he was scouting for someone to play Big Bird and Oscar which he hadn’t fill yet. And so I did my show, and a long complex thing but everything went wrong. I realised that in front of 900 people the show was becoming a bust but I was so funny in my desperation that I was dejected.

A couple of things worked with the effects I had hoped for and I was trying to create a new thing. I am an animator too, I animated films so I played animation, I was going to hop in front of the animation on the main screen and have puppets interact with the background animation but everything went wrong and I was dejected; I was packing up.

People liked the last scenes I did because at that point it was straighten out, and I hear this voice behind me saying, “I like what you were trying to do” and it was Jim Henson. And he said that, would I meet him at his lounge in the hotel. We were doing the show at this big dormitory at the university. And so I met him there and he said that he was gonna need two puppets for this show he was asked to work on called Sesame Street. Would I be interested in working for the Muppets? I was a puppeteer, my gosh! I almost fainted. Because this was just sixteen years before he did The Muppet show in England. So he wasn’t that famous at the time he spoke to me but I knew who he was and I got the job and I’m still doing it, forty six years later.


So you must have some incredible memories with working alongside Jim and the rest of the Muppet gang. Do any spring to mind, off the top of your head?

Yes, the very day I went down to New York, which was a hundred and fifty miles from here, I still live where I lived before I got the job. I loved living in the country, on the edge of a giant park which belongs to me and it goes on for miles. I don’t own all of that.

I bought it for forty dollars an acre and he asked me to move down there and I said, “I can’t.” He said, “Why not?” And finally he came up and he said, “Now I see why you won’t sell, because you’ll never find a place like this again.

And so for 45 years I have been driving back and forth to New York. Not every day we do shooting so I go down for the week, I have an apartment there, but he was nice, he described what he hoped to do in the future and he is hoping that Sesame Street would lead him to bigger things because he hadn’t done any international things very much at all, except some ads, advertisements on television which were very funny, and he described the Muppet Show.

This was 1969 and in 1976 Lord Lew Grade, saw his stuff and said, “we’ll put the show up” and Jim hadn’t had a lot of success selling it to networks in the United States, so it was Lord Lew Grade who really got it going.

The networks in the U.S. saw the success and were like “he was trying to sell to us, why didn’t we take it?” It was such a hit, that was a show that lasted five years. The only reason why it ended, it had done 100 shows, six episodes, but the puppeteers were mostly Americans, some were English and they mostly wanted to go home they were living away from their families for so many years, and he said he said, Okay.

So sadly for anybody who loved the Muppet Show it ended. It just got picked up again. Disney now owns the Muppet characters and so he wisely allowed people who know puppetry to be the decision makers and so I am looking forward to it being a success, I hope. It doesn’t have Jim Hanson behind it so whether or not it can make it that way, I don’t know.


Is Brian still involved?

Not really, no, he sold it to Disney some eight years ago or so. But they still keep the puppets in perfect shape for Disney as they do for Sesame Street. When I get my orders for special things it comes from the Henson Company. It’s called the Jim Henson Company and Paul McCartney does all his recordings in the States in the Jim Henson studios in Hollywood.


And so on the subject of Disney being that they now own the Muppets, that’s a good thing, I think, with the success they’ve had with like Star Wars and, well they have these new films now and with Marvel, they keep the creative teams intact…

Yeah, they seem to be on a very good track record lately.

They keep the creative teams in tact so it’s good to hear that they are doing that with the Muppets as well. Because then we can get more films, because I absolutely adore them.

I think so too, they have put out a couple of Muppet movies the last couple of years and the second one was pretty good and so we are looking forward to the ABC Network that recently bought it. So they are going to start with about 16 episodes to see how it flies.


And with the long running success of the Muppets and the Sesame Street, what do you think is attributed to its longevity?

Well just doing stuff, always people have said for years since Jim died the Muppets had died but that’s not the case.

The Muppet show was based on boardville really. I don’t know if anyone is gonna have that formal enough but I hadn’t seen any products recently. I am not directly involved with that because we don’t work with Disney. We just work with Sesame Street which has remained separate. When Disney wanted to buy it wasn’t available. They wanted to keep it separate. They don’t want other influences beside the people who control the show that they created, you know.


Absolutely, so going back to when you first became synonymous with Big Bird, was it love at first sight for you?

Yeah, I didn’t care for the way the first Big Bird looked, he was very raggedy and also Jim’s concept was to use just goofy and I really felt quickly on the show to see what the show was trying to do and so I think that Big Bird should really be a child and so I changed his character from a goofy yokel who was not at all sitting tight, but here I am, and to a child who was learning the alphabet and naïve and live a child’s life for the children to see and I think it worked better.

I frankly feel if it had remained just a goofy yokel that he would be not on the show anymore. I also do Oscar the Grouch as you you know.



Yeah, and he is a completely different character again, he is a bit more grouchy and manly character. So just switching over to Oscar, they seem to be polar opposite characters in a sense, how is it working with the two sensibilities?

You see, I know what Big Bird is like, he is like I kind of relive a little bit of my childhood. I know what a child feels like because I can remember my child life very well.

But Oscar thinks the exact opposite way of I think so I know what he likes, the opposite of what I like, and that makes a more rounded character because it’s just inverted like feeling. I’m a kind of optimist and I think a lot of grouches are perfectionists, he thinks his way of life is just right. I really enjoy being a grouch.[laughs] “who asked you Oscar?” “Just don’t talk back to me!” The two don’t get along together very well.

But I really feel that I know them both. People have asked me which is my favourite? I have no idea because they are so different. I love doing them both; I am an actor basically. A puppeteer acts at the end of his arm.


Yeah, and so you can’t really choose, it’s like choosing who is your favourite kid.



Because they are both your creation as well both yours and Jim’s, well I assume that he was a great collaborator.

Yeah, Jim was really a splendid fellow; he died much too soon, you know, we miss him, we always will miss him. And he would be now about 78 years old. So I am now 81, I was just a little bit older than him. And he died at only 59 and everybody wept when he died. He said “I just want to make the world a little better because I was here.” And I feel he accomplished that and I felt that a long time ago myself and so I am hoping that that will be my legacy as well.


Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, I am 31 and I remember watching Sesame Street when I was a kid and I mean its one of those shows that it seems to always have an audience because there are new kids being born every year so like there are new audiences that are falling in love with these characters.

Yeah, now the Muppets show has been picked up to be produced again. This time by the Disney people who own the Muppets. And I think that they have some great people working with them who know the Muppets so I think it’s going to be well done so I’m sure you will be seeing that eventually.


Yes, well I can’t wait because, I mean, I was at the press conference for The Muppets Most Wanted and you would not believe how excited I was about sitting in a room with Kermit the Frog!

Yes, isnt that something! Kermit is done by Steve Whitmire, a very nice fellow, who is the head of The Puppets for Disney. Jim would be delighted at what Disney does. Before he died he was trying to hook up with them then he suddenly died and that was the end of that.


Well it wasn’t, because the legacy lives on and, I mean, if one remembers him…

Yes and eventually, the Henson kids ran the Muppets because the Muppets were not a corporate thing. Jim and Jane had some and so when he died Jane gave their five children ownership because they inherited Jim’s side of it, she gave them her side of it so they had some kids ran both the Muppets and the Muppets show on Sesame Street. They were always two different businesses. They belonged to the Hanson families. So the Henson’s eventually sold it to Disney as Jim had tried before he died.



I Am Big Bird: The Story of Caroll Spinney Film Page


No Comment

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *