Determined not to “ruin the illusion for those who believe,” Big Bird puppeteer Caroll Spinney has vigilantly avoided being photographed even partially in or out of his 8’2″ tall, 4,000-feather costume. He’s become all the more guarded since the day two years ago when his grandson Wyatt, now 12, visited the set and spied his grandfather, who was in between takes, wearing the bird’s feet. “It was more traumatic than I expected,” recalls Spinney. “He didn’t say anything, but he took it in. It was like he lost a friend.”
It is his reverence for children that has kept Spinney, 66, at the same address, 123 Sesame Street, for 32 years. “I see a lot of Big Bird in Caroll,” says his wife of 21 years, Debra, 49, a business manager. “He has tremendous compassion for people.” And his share of accolades. Spinney, who also provides the voice of Oscar the Grouch, was named a “Living Legend” earlier this year by the Library of Congress (joining Bill Cosby and Barbra Streisand) and has won four of Sesame Street’s 76 Emmys. But his most treasured keepsakes—care packages of birdseed and letters thanking Big Bird “for being their friend”—are those he receives from the 10 million kids in the U.S. who tune in each week and thousands more in 148 countries worldwide. Says castmate Bob McGrath, who plays Bob, the music teacher: “If there was ever anyone to be a Big Bird, it’s Caroll—he has the spirit of a child.”
In fact, it was as a child growing up in Acton, Mass., that Spinney first embraced the magic of puppetry. The third son of Chester, a factory worker, and Margaret, a homemaker (both are deceased), Spinney saw his first puppet show as a kindergartner. By age 8, he was putting on productions in the barn behind his house. He brought his creative flair to the Art Institute of Boston, where he studied commercial art for three years. Spinney then served four years in the Air Force before finally returning to Boston and working as an illustrator and as a full-time puppeteer on Bozo the Clown in 1960. At a Salt Lake City puppet festival in 1969, Spinney’s talent caught the eye of the late Mupper master Jim Henson. He offered Spinney the part of Big Bird, whom Henson envisioned as “a Goofy [type] character” who would anchor a new children’s show called Sesame Street.
Spinney accepted, but the strain of his move to New York City proved too much for his marriage to then-wife Janice, a homemaker. They divorced in 1971 but shared custody of their children—Jessica, now 33, a bookkeeper; Melissa, 31, and Ben, 29, both aspiring artists.
Since then Spinney has been at the core of Big Bird’s evolution from mere avian giant to international icon. When he’s not in character, he travels or indulges his inner child at his Alpine-style home set on the 48-acre eastern Connecticut estate—complete with a roller rink and a pond with paddleboats—he shares with Debra. And although there is a successor, 30-year-old Kansas native Matt Vogel, waiting in the wings should Spinney ever decide to retire, it’s not yet on his agenda. “As long as I can hold that bird’s head high,” he says, “I want the job.”
Sharon Cotliar in Connecticut