Caroll Spinney has played Big Bird on Sesame Street for 46 years — yes, 46 years. At 81, he has a lot of stories to tell about bringing life to the world's most famous talking bird, sidelining as Oscar the Grouch, and working with legends like Jim Henson.
1) Operating Big Bird requires skill (and a lot of endurance)
So how does Big Bird actually work?
The suit has some key elements (the Globe and Mail has a great diagram):
- Spinney is inside the suit and uses one arm to control both wings (they're connected with a fishing line.
- He sticks the other arm up the beak and uses it to control both the mouth and Big Bird's eyelids (using another lever).
- He has a script taped to the front of the suit (which he can see thanks to an LED light) and a monitor that lets him see what viewers at home see.
- The job is both intellectually and physically demanding. As recalled in Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, one of the reasons Spinney was hired in the first place was that no one from Henson's puppeteer troop wanted to be stuck in a hot bird costume all day (let alone for more than 40 years).
That's led to some discomfort. As Spinney told one redditor:
Most difficult while puppeteering? Well...often, the puppeteer's arm gets tired. Because the puppet has some weight. And also, besides the weight of the thing, is when you're singing a song, and some words are said over and over (as songs can do) - your thumb gets tired, and can slow down! So it gets, sometimes I've had some songs where my thumb went dead on live television. So that wasn't very comfortable. My thumb ceased to work!
2) Big Bird, like any piece of technology, has evolved over the years
The level of difficulty involved in operating Big Bird makes it crucial to consistently improve the puppet itself. And Spinney said the early models weren't very safe:
Well, the early Big Bird legs were made out of a fabric that had plastic in it - a dangerous fabric - and all of a sudden, a lamp smashed, almost hit me, and the 2,000 watt bulb had TREMENDOUS heat, and it set Big Bird's leg on fire! I looked down, I see flames coming up into the suit - because there's a hoop I can look down and see my feet - and so I said "I'm on FIRE!" and it was the beginning of the show, so Big Bird was strapped to me - and now he's on fire - so one of the camera men, they didn't have any extinguishers around (they do now) - Richie King, the camera man, he's no longer a camera man, but he saved my life by smashing out the flames with his bare hands!
The look of Big Bird changed, as well:
Well, when Big Bird was first on, he wasn't very good looking.
He didn't have any feathers above his eyes. The top of his head, nothing was there! Didn't look like there was room for any brain, really. Now the features are applied much more beautifully, and he's much prettier now.
3) As Spinney learned from working with Jim Henson, puppets were always on Henson's mind
Most Henson company veterans are happy to talk about Henson's creativity and drive, and Spinney is no exception:
Well, he was a genius. He brain was always going a million miles an hour. And often we'd have lunch with him, and he wouldn't talk too much about what he was doing that day, he'd talk about future projects.
We had fun driving with him in London. He had a Lotus Elite, a very fancy 4 passenger Lotus car made in England, and it was painted Kermit the Frog green. He selected that because it had hidden headlights, and when you turned on the eyes, the headlights popped up, they were round like Kermit's eyes, and they had a black dot with a curved line going through it, just like Kermit's! And it was the EXACT same color of the Kermit suit, the famous earlier one. And Jim liked to drive fast.
In retrospect, it seems especially fitting that Spinney performed a tearjerking version of Bein' Green at Henson's funeral in 1990.
4) Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch share a puppeteer
Sesame Street superfans already know this, but Spinney is the voice for both Oscar and Big Bird (among other characters).
In his AMA, Spinney revealed that the two characters perform with one another by having their dialogue recorded separately. Spinney then operates Big Bird while another puppeteer pinch-hits for him with Oscar.
The two characters have very different roots — according to Street Gang, Big Bird was originally "just a big dumb guy who would bang his head on a door frame." And Oscar the Grouch was going to live under some trash, not in a trash can.
Of course, the portrayal of both characters has evolved over the years — Oscar ended up in his can for practical reasons (it was easier to control him with the can hiding him), and Big Bird adopted his lovably naive demeanor.
5) As important as Spinney has become, Big Bird is never just a puppet
But sometimes the bird has to improvise. When Spinney was asked about his toughest appearance, he revealed the dedication at the core of his performance:
Well, one time I was in Georgia, at a small TV station, surrounded by children - Big Bird was sitting on an ottoman - and his pupil let go, and left him with one eye with a black pupil, and one eye blank white! I saw what happened on a monitor, through some feathers we pulled off, and I said "Oh you better stop!"
Well, there I am on television, and one eye is blank. And I said "You can't show this! You'll have to stop." It wasn't live TV, it was on tape, and they wouldn't stop, so I said "I have to apply a new eye" and they said "No, we think it's funny!" and I said "No - It's barbaric - the kids are saying Big Bird's eye fell out!"
It's never just a puppet.
Because I feel that's diminishing what Big Bird does. He's not just a puppet.
You can read the rest of the AMA — including the truth about Mr. Snuffleupagus — here.