Caroll Spinney, the man who has played Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since their inception nearly 50 years ago, has announced he will be retiring from both roles at the end of this week.
Spinney, who is now 84, was offered a job by Jim Henson back in 1969, after he saw him performing at a Salt Lake City puppeteers’ festival. He helped Henson shape the characters – suggesting that Big Bird have the inquisitiveness and wonder of the children watching – and has been performing in both roles ever since.
Inside the Big Bird costume, he has had an extraordinary career. He walked the Great Wall of China, starred in his own feature film and appeared in shows including The West Wing and Celebrity Squares. He has repeatedly turned up alongside politicians in support of a range of causes, including funding for public television (on which Sesame Street appears) and Michelle Obama’s healthy eating campaign.
During the 2012 presidential election campaign Big Bird became a surprise talking point when Republican candidate Mitt Romney said he did not want to fund PBS during a debate. “I like PBS, I love Big Bird…but I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for,” he said.
The Obama campaign then used Big Bird in some of their political spots. Spinney appeared as Big Bird on Saturday Night Live to discuss the furore, but said he has no political affiliations as he didn’t want to “ruffle any feathers”.
In 2014, Spinney was the subject of a documentary, I am Big Bird, about his life playing the characters. It revealed Nasa considered putting Spinney on the doomed Challenger space shuttle, but eventually decided against the idea.
Spinney continued to perform inside the bird suit well into his 70s, but in 2016 after he was diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological condition that can limit movement, other puppeteers were used and Spinney just provided the voices for the characters.
In a New York Times profile this week, Spinney announced he would also be retiring from that role. He will perform vocal duties for the final time on Thursday.
Eric Jacobson, who currently plays Miss Piggy and Bert, will take on the role of Oscar the Grouch. Matt Vogel, who has been Spinney’s understudy since the mid-1990s, will now take on the role. He told the Times it was “daunting and important”.