Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Late, Great Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney, who played both Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird on long-running children's show Sesame Street, died today at the age of 85.

Carroll Spinney was born on December 26 1933 in Waltham, Massachusetts. He had an interest in drawing, painting, and puppetry from a young age. By age twelve he had a collection of 70 puppets, many made by his mother. He graduated from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School and then attended the Art Institute of Boston before dropping out to join the United States Air Force. While serving in Las Vegas he had his own professional puppet television show, playing Rascal Rabbit. Following his service he returned to Boston where he was a puppeteer for Bozo's Big Top for many years.

It was in 1969 that he met Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, at a puppeteer's festival in Las Vegas. From the very beginning he was a part of Sesame Street, from its debut in 1969. He played both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from the start. In 2015 he ceased puppeteering Big Bird as the role had become too physically demanding, but continued providing his voice and continued puppeteering Oscar. He retired entirely in 2018. Over the years he would sometimes voice other characters, including Bruno the Trashman and Bennett Snerf.  He also made appearances as either Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, or both on such shows as The Electric Company, Flip, The Muppet Show, Soul Man, Scrubs, The Bonnie Hunt Show, Portlandia, and Saturday Night Live. He also appeared in various movies as Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, or both in such films as The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and Follow That Bird (1985), among others. Caroll Spinney also appeared as Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, or both in numerous TV specials and video releases, as well as making live appearances as the characters.

In addition to his work with Sesame Street, he voiced a dog in a pound in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993). Before Sesame Street he had built the puppets Picklepuss and Pop for Bozo's Big Top. Picklepuss and Pop were later rebuilt and used in the Jim Henson Play-Along video, Wow, You're a Cartoonist! in 1988.

Caroll Spinney voiced two of the most famous characters in a children's show ever. What makes that even more remarkable is that Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch not only had dramatically different voices, but they also had dramatically different personalities. Despite his size, Big Bird was perpetually six years old, naive and filled with wonder. Oscar was persistently grumpy and inclined to even be slightly rude at times, but ultimately had a soft heart under all that fur. The two characters were a large part of the success of Sesame Street from its very beginnings.

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