Caroll Spinney has played Big Bird since Sesame Street debuted in 1969

By Patrick Gomez
Updated May 15, 2015 04:55 PM
Zach Hyman

Caroll Spinney has played one of the most iconic characters on American television for over 45 years, but he knows you probably don’t know his name.

The puppeteer, 81, has voiced and provided the movements for Sesame Street‘s Big Bird since the show hit the air in 1969.

And now his story is being told in the new documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.

“They had already made one successful documentary and someone suggested my story,” Spinney tells PEOPLE of being pitched by the Sesame Street team to the filmmakers. “They didn’t know who Caroll Spinney was, which is the case most of the time.”

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But now the world is getting to learn more about the man behind the bird – here’s five fun facts:

1. He almost went into space.
“For some reason it never hit the news,” Spinney says of being asked to go into space on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle in 1986. “People are always surprised.”

NASA had hoped to teach children about the space program through videos that Spinney would record as Big Bird while in orbit. But when figuring out the logistics of transporting and operating the 8’2″ suit in zero-gravity proved difficult, Spinney’s spot was given to educator Christa McAuliffe.

2. He’d used Big Bird’s voice before.
“By the time I was 8, I was already saying I was going to be a puppet player. I don’t think I knew the name puppeteer,” explains Spinney, who says he made 32 cents when he put on his first puppet show in his parent’s barn.

When he was older, Spinney created a couple of characters for the Boston broadcast of Bozo’s Big Top.

“For lack of a better or more creative name, I called one of them Mr. Lion and he had the same voice as Big Bird,” says Spinney, who spent 10 years playing Mr. Lion before joining Sesame Street.

3. He voices Oscar the Grouch, too!
“I got Oscar’s voice from a cab driver who didn’t care for [former New York mayor John Lindsay]. And he kept talking about him and I thought, ‘That’s a great voice. I think I can do that.’ I kept saying what he said, ‘Where to, Mac?’ ” says Spinney. “I never had any problem with the voices.”

4. His muppets have changed colors.
“Oscar was originally orange,” Spinney says of the grouchy character he’s also voiced since the beginning of Sesame Street. “It wasn’t until the second season that he became green. I have this joke that when he’s asked, ‘Weren’t you orange last time I saw you?’ He says, ‘I am orange. If I took a bath I wouldn’t be green anymore. This is just moss and mold.’ ”

As for Big Bird, Spinney says the giant bird appeared to be a more “mungy” color until the second season when the production began using different cameras that allowed the bright yellow color to shine.

5. He has no plans to retire.
Big Bird may never grow older than 6 (“Otherwise we would have had to seen him go through college and have some sort of bird career,” explains Spinney), but the man portraying him isn’t as ageless.

Not that he has any notions of slowing down.

“I feel so lucky to have been able to do this for over 45 years,” says Spinney. “And I’m heading towards 50, if I can make it – and more than that if I can!”

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is in theaters now.