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|Also Known As:||Carol Spinney, Carroll Spinney||Died:|
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For over four decades, Emmy winner Caroll Spinney provided the voice and movement for one of the most beloved and recognizable figures in public and children's television: the affable, unflappable Big Bird on "Sesame Street" (PBS, 1969- ). Spinney also played Oscar the Grouch, the trashcan-dwelling misanthrope who was easily Big Bird's diametric opposite on the show. Spinney worked his way up from live puppeteering and local programming to join Jim Henson on the groundbreaking educational series; once there, he transformed Big Bird from a hapless bungler into a gentle guide for young viewers through the complexities of childhood and the adult world. In doing so, the character came to embody not only the hopes and goals of "Sesame Street" itself - to prepare children academically and emotionally for both school and life - but public television as a whole, which frequently used Big Bird as the symbol of its benevolent mission of education and enrichment. Big Bird and Oscar took Spinney across the country and around the globe for various features and television specials, earning him several lifetime achievement awards for his warm and often witty performances. However, no critical acclaim could compare...
For over four decades, Emmy winner Caroll Spinney provided the voice and movement for one of the most beloved and recognizable figures in public and children's television: the affable, unflappable Big Bird on "Sesame Street" (PBS, 1969- ). Spinney also played Oscar the Grouch, the trashcan-dwelling misanthrope who was easily Big Bird's diametric opposite on the show. Spinney worked his way up from live puppeteering and local programming to join Jim Henson on the groundbreaking educational series; once there, he transformed Big Bird from a hapless bungler into a gentle guide for young viewers through the complexities of childhood and the adult world. In doing so, the character came to embody not only the hopes and goals of "Sesame Street" itself - to prepare children academically and emotionally for both school and life - but public television as a whole, which frequently used Big Bird as the symbol of its benevolent mission of education and enrichment. Big Bird and Oscar took Spinney across the country and around the globe for various features and television specials, earning him several lifetime achievement awards for his warm and often witty performances. However, no critical acclaim could compare to the love and recognition he received every time he donned the eight-foot yellow suit and became a childhood hero.
Born Caroll Edwin Spinney on Dec. 26, 1933 in Waltham, MA, he was the youngest of three boys born to Chester Spinney, a watch factory employee, and his wife, Margaret. Small in stature as a boy and deeply insecure, he nevertheless developed a fascination for performing and puppetry at an early age, putting on his first show in his family's barn for an audience who paid two cents to see him entertain with a monkey puppet from a rummage sale and a snake his mother had made from green flannel. By his teenaged years, he was performing regularly at local venues. As a teenager, he was invited by a family friend to attend a children's television show at WBZ-TV in Boston, and found himself sorely disappointed by the cast's lackluster puppetry. Spinney vowed to himself that he would not only be on television when he was older, but also on the best children's show with the most remarkable puppets. However, there were a few hurdles to be cleared first. He had shown a talent for drawing in high school, and decided to attend Boston's School of Practical Art, later known as the Art Institute of Boston. His decision was vehemently opposed by his father, who wanted him to work at the watch factory, and refused to pay the $250 tuition.
After taking a job at a clock factory in Waltham, he raised the funds and studied commercial art for three years. Spinney then left both the school and home - the latter was inspired by a falling out with his father over money - and joined the U.S. Air Force, where he designed recruiting and informational poster art at a base in Las Vegas. While stationed there, Spinney continued to perform puppetry for local groups, and earned an audition at KLAS-TV through an audience member. There, he worked as an artist while working on a television show of his own built around a rabbit puppet his mother had created. His debut series, "The Rascal Rabbit Show," lasted just three months before Spinney was transferred to Germany. There, he performed on television as well before his discharge and return to Massachusetts in 1957. After auditioning for and turning down a low-paying job as an animator at Walt Disney Studios, he returned to Boston and worked for a film company that produced animated television commercials. In 1958, he was hired by WHDH to perform in a summer replacement series called "The Judy and Goggle Show" (1958), for which he performed as Goggle, a sort of proto-Big Bird. The success of the program led to a job on the Boston broadcast of "Bozo's Big Top" (WHDH, 1959-1970), where, billed as Ed Spinney, he played Mr. Lion, a costumed beast that drew caricatures of children in the audience.
In 1962, while performing with Goggle at a puppetry festival in Sturbridge, MA, he caught the attention of Jim Henson, who invited him to Manhattan to discuss working with him on his creations, the Muppets. However, Spinney misconstrued the conversation as a simple opportunity to talk about puppets, and the two men would not meet again for nearly a decade. During this period, he performed around the country with a pair of feline puppets of his own creation called Picklepuss and Pop, and it was at one of these performances that Jim Henson, on a recruiting tour for puppeteers, again encountered Spinney. This time, he presented with a concrete job offer: Henson needed someone to play two characters on a live-action children's series for PBS called "Sesame Street." The first was an eight-foot-two-inch bird that towered over the human actors. The other was a misanthropic, somewhat sinister orange monster that lived in a trashcan. After toning down his mood to that of an irritable but approachable grouch, the monster was reformatted in green and dubbed Oscar. On occasion, Spinney would also play Bruno the Trashman, a full-body character of his own design who physically carried Oscar in his can; Spinney could walk as Bruno while operating Oscar through a hole in the costume's stomach.
Big Bird, as the avian character would later be named, presented his own set of internal and external problems. For one, the costume design required the wearer to operate the mouth and eyes with his right hand stretched above him and his left in Big Bird's left wing. The costume also lacked any sight openings for Spinney, so a television monitor was rigged to a harness over the actor's chest that allowed him a view of the outside world. All of these issues, in addition to the fact that Spinney was in the costume for up to eight hours a day for very little pay, nearly caused him to quit the show after the first season, but veteran puppet designer Kermit Love, who helped to build Big Bird, convinced him to stay for at least another season. Spinney would remain with the show for the next 40 years, while also making guest appearances as Big Bird on a variety of shows, including "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" (PBS, 1968-1976, 1979-2001) and over 141 episodes of "Hollywood Squares" (NBC/syndicated, 1966-1989, 1998-2004).
More challenging for both Spinney and the show's producers was Big Bird's personality. Henson originally envisioned him as a bumbler who crashed into walls and essentially served as "Sesame Street's" village idiot. But as time and seasons passed, Spinney saw that Big Bird could have a greater impact on the show's younger viewers if he was portrayed as a child between the ages of 4 and 6 whose innate curiosity helped him to navigate the bewildering and fascinating world of grown-ups. Children soon found in Big Bird a kindred spirit who not only taught them the alphabet and numbers through games and songs, but also showed them that it was okay to make mistakes and ask questions to resolve them. Though "Sesame Street" featured a host of other Muppets, Big Bird's sunny disposition and lovable innocence helped to make him the show's most recognizable icon. For his work on "Sesame Street" during its formative years in the 1970s, Spinney shared three Emmys with Henson and his team for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming in 1974, 1976 and 1979.
Big Bird truly came into his own in the 1980s with a pair of episodes that addressed complex issues for children. In 1983, veteran actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, the show's beloved storekeeper and frequent foil for Big Bird, passed away from a heart attack. Rather than explain Mr. Hooper's absence by telling viewers that he had moved away, producers decided to tackle the thorny issue of death and grief through Big Bird, who struggled to grasp the idea that though his beloved friend was gone forever, his memory would have an important place in his heart. The episode was widely acclaimed for its sensitivity, with Spinney's performance singled out for its heartbreaking honesty. Two years later, Big Bird finally proved to his human friends that his elephantine friend Mr. Snuffleupagus, who was considered a figment of his imagination, was in fact a real creature. Talk show host Phil Donahue conduced a mock discussion in which humans and Muppets alike examined concepts about telling the truth and listening to what children tell adults. The entire episode was inspired by a series of real-life cases of abuse at daycare centers and other locations, with the hope being that viewers might not keep a secret to themselves, despite the fact that adults might not believe it. Both scenarios helped to elevate Big Bird from TV character to spokesperson for children and children's feelings across the country.
In 1983, Big Bird represented "Sesame Street" in a series of high-profile primetime specials that introduced young viewers to culture, both at home and abroad. After appearing in "Bob Hope on the Road to China" (NBC, 1979), Spinney conceived a special in which Big Bird would travel to the country in search of the legendary Phoenix. The feature-length "Big Bird in China" aired on NBC to positive reviews, and was soon followed by "Don't Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art" (PBS, 1983), which featured Big Bird on screen with movie legend James Mason and comic actor Paul Dooley. After netting his fourth Emmy for Special Classification of Outstanding Individual Achievement in 1984, Spinney finally earned his first feature film with 1985's "Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird" (1985), a road trip comedy about Big Bird's attempt to return to his home after being placed in foster care with a family of dodos. In 1988, Big Bird returned to Asia for "Big Bird in Japan" (PBS/NHK).
By the 1990s, Big Bird remained not only the face of "Sesame Street," even with stiff competition from relative newcomer Elmo, but also a well-loved celebrity in his own right. As Big Bird, Spinney visited the White House on numerous occasions; performed on international versions of "Sesame Street" across Europe, Asia and Australia; won two Grammys for his recordings; and was an in-demand guest conductor for orchestras throughout the United States and Canada. In 1994, Big Bird gained his own star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. Not content to rest on his laurels, Spinney continued to log weekly appearances on "Sesame Street," as well as a key appearance in the second "Sesame Street" feature film, "Elmo in Grouchland" (1998), one year before being featured on a U.S. postage stamp. In 2000, he was honored with the Library of Congress Living Legend Award.
As Spinney entered into his sixth and seventh decades, he began to delegate much of the physical work of embodying Big Bird to other puppeteers, including Rick Lyon and Matt Vogel, who performed as Big Bird in a recurring segment called "Journey to Ernie" from 2002-05. However, he refused to consider retiring from either Big Bird or Oscar, and continued to perform or voice the character in the series as well as specials and occasional live appearances. In 2003, Spinney penned The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers, which recalled his life and career as both characters. Three years later, Spinney's vast contributions to children's television were honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which preceded a shared Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series with Kevin Clash, who gave life and voice to Elmo. In 2009, Spinney, as Oscar the Grouch, was featured alongside Darth Vader in a Who's Who of pop culture villains in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." In the ensuing years, reduced production schedules afforded Spinney less time in each season, but in 2011, it was announced that Big Bird would be the focus of a key episode in the show's 42nd season that would address the subject of bullying.
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