Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who voiced and operated Big Bird on Sesame Street for nearly 50 years, died on Sunday, December 8, the Sesame Workshop announced. He was 85.
The actor passed away at his home in Connecticut after living with dystonia, a movement disorder, “for some time,” according to the nonprofit organization. Spinney is best known for his portrayal of Big Bird, but the Massachusetts native also played Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street until he retired in 2018.
“His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while,” the Sesame Workshop said in a statement.
Spinney was welcomed to the iconic kids program by creator Jim Henson in 1969. As the character Big Bird, he went on to “visit China with Bob Hope, dance with the Rockettes, be celebrated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a U.S. postage stamp, and be named a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress,” the Sesame Workshop added.
“It was a moment of creative destiny when Caroll Spinney met Jim Henson,” the Henson family said in a statement on Sunday. “The gentle performer who would bring to life two of the most beloved residents of Sesame Street could perfectly convey the humor and heart in our father’s creations. Big Bird was childlike, without being childish. And Oscar the Grouch reflected universal feelings we all share, no matter our age.”
The statement continued, “Those of us privileged to work alongside him and call him friend saw first-hand that he cared so deeply about what these characters represented and how they could truly create change. Caroll’s decades-long commitment to bettering the lives of children all around the world is his true legacy. That he could do this work so brilliantly, responsibly, and with such infectious love and joy, is his gift to us all.”
The cartoonist also wrote and illustrated Harvey, a comic strip about military life, and animated a series of black-and-white cartoons called Crazy Crayon. Before landing his now-legendary role on Sesame Street, Spinney starred in the The Judy and Goggle Show in the 1950s and Bozo’s Big Top from 1959 to 1969.
Holly Robinson Peete, whose dad, Matt Robinson, played Gordon on the PBS show, shared her condolences on Twitter.
“💔💔My Dad Matt Robinson (Gordon) worked with Carroll from day 1. I met him on #sesamestreet when I was 5,” she wrote on Sunday. “He voiced not only Big Bird but Oscar the grouch. I last saw him in 2017 and he still remembered me and spoke so highly of my dad. Incredible man 🙏🏽🙏🏽 I’m so sad today.”
Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney memorialized her longtime colleague in a statement on Sunday.
“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,” she said. “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.”
Spinney leaves behind his wife, Debra Jean Gilroy, and three children from his first marriage to Janice Spinney.
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