Like so many of us, I grew up on Sesame Street, that magical Manhattan block where fuzzy puppets and real people cooperate and collaborate and teach the ABCs of life. Seated before the television in my pajamas, laughing at Ernie’s antics and wondering what it was like inside Oscar’s garbage can, I was gifted the rudiments of an education that was at once practical and deeply moral.
Big Bird still breaks my heart. Oscar still makes me giggle.
Among the group of visionary artists and educators who first brought Sesame Street to PBS in 1969 were puppeteers Jim Henson and Caroll Spinney. As the men behind the Muppets, Henson is a legend, Spinney less so — until you realize he’s the genius behind (or, rather, inside) two of the show’s more iconic and lovable characters, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
At 81, Spinney is still playing Big Bird and Oscar, as Sesame Street moves into its 46th year of broadcasting. A new documentary opening May 22 at Bijou Art Cinemas, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, reveals the man behind the puppet in all his fiery creativity and emotional bonding with his characters.
EW caught up with Spinney by phone to discuss, among other things, the evolution of Sesame Street, the death of Mr. Hooper and the existential dilemma of Snuffleupagus.
EW: What do you most enjoy about being Big Bird?
Spinney: Well, I really love the acting part. I’ve been doing puppets since I started with Punch & Judy. There was very little scripted stuff in my life until I got to Sesame Street. We just made it up as we went along. There was Craft TV [chuckles] — it wasn’t very great, I guess, but it was fun to do. Then I got to Sesame Street and it was the first time I ever had scripts. I learned how to act on… Oh, I guess I knew how to do it.
In the senior play, I was the best one in the play. The others just couldn’t remember their lines and they weren’t very good. Whereas I just loved it; it was the only play I’ve ever been in. Unless it’s a play on Sesame Street … So I think that’s the greatest joy is to just do acting, particularly if you get to really emote. I love emotions. Big Bird gets into situations where he even cries. He’s like a kid. He is a kid! He’s 6.
EW: Has Big Bird changed over the years or evolved as a character?
Spinney: Well, puppet-wise, he’s a huge puppet, so big you get inside … but he’s gotten to be much more attractive than when we started. The feathers were put on wrong-side out originally, and he looked pretty raggedy.
Actually, he started out as a goofy yokel. Whereas, shortly into the show I said, “You know, I really think we’ve got the wrong approach. He shouldn’t be just a yokel.” He wanted to be with the little kids. If he’s just a big 8-foot-2 yokel hanging out, I think you might not be comfortable with him hangin’ with the kids. But the children, if he’s another kid, they can identify with him. And he’s one that’s never threatening to any kids. So I think that was the best thing to do, and that’s how he changed. And since then, he’s been a kid.
He’s grown up a little bit. I decided he was four-and-a-half when we started, because he didn’t know the alphabet or anything. But nowadays, because of Sesame Street, kids that age already know the alphabet. When I was in kindergarten, I was 5 and they didn’t even mention the alphabet; I didn’t know what it was. They thought children couldn’t learn it before then. We sure proved that wrong. We went past our own expectations of the kids. When we were only on the air for about two or three months, I had people say to me, “I can’t believe it. My little boy is only just turned 2, and we’re driving along and he points at a billboard and says, ‘Look Daddy, the letter B.’”
So now, generally, we’ve changed education a lot. We were very criticized to start with. In a lot of towns, if you want to put your child in kindergarten, they’ll ask, “Has your child ever seen Sesame Street?” And some won’t let them in unless they have watched.
EW: In your years on the show, how has Sesame Street itself evolved?
Spinney: Well, it started out with the idea that it would evolve and keep up with the times. Otherwise, why not just play the same shows over and over, the same alphabet? But instead, we kind of go with the era, and so it’s changed a great deal over the years. I remember back in the early ’80s we saw break dancing, so we had break dancers.
That’s the way it’s been through the years. Even though the format worked perfectly to start with, eventually we realized that all these little segments, if we build a story, that sometimes these little events happen … The kids realized that this is a continuation of the same story they were watching 20 minutes ago. But that’s a long period for little ones. Now we generally have a story run unbroken until we go to other segments, which are a little bit like commercials advertising the alphabet.
EW: Do you have a favorite episode or segment?
Spinney: I’ve been asked that a lot and it sounds redundant, but definitely the death of Mr. Hooper [one of four human characters on the show from 1969 until his death in 1982]. That meant so much to us, because he was the kindest, sweetest man, Will Lee, who played him. He wouldn’t even admit that he’d been ill.
His last hurrah was he walked the whole length of the Macy’s Parade in the bitter cold on a winter day, and two days later he died. He must have been in bad shape. I don’t like that parade because you don’t know what the weather’s going to be, and the last time I did it the rain totally destroyed Big Bird, which cost us a small fortune — not that it cost me; I don’t own them. I’m an employee.
EW: I have to ask you a question. I just so happened to tune in years later to the episode where everyone finally meets Big Bird’s elusive friend Snuffleupagus …
Spinney: Ah! That was a Thursday.
EW: I’m wondering what the conversation was that led to the decision to reveal Snuffy to everyone?
Spinney: Well, it was a series of letters, apparently, from activists or people who really felt that by the cast not admitting to Big Bird that it could be possible, instead of thinking he’s just letting his imagination run away and that Snuffy was really just imaginary. But he’d say [here Spinney switches into the voice of Big Bird as well as other characters, which he does several times during the interview] …
Big Bird: “But he’s real! He’s real! I know!”
Spinney: There was a time when he [Big Bird] tried to break up with Snuffy.
Big Bird: “I can’t be with you anymore because all the grown-ups say ‘he’s not real,’ and I can’t be friends with you if you’re not real …”
Snuffleupagus: “Big Bird, that’s the saddest news I ever heard. I’m gonna miss you, Bird.”
Big Bird: “I’m gonna miss you, too, Snuffy.”
Spinney: And they hugged, and [Big Bird] said …
Big Bird: “Gee, Snuffy, your tears are getting my feathers all wet. Wait a minute! Those are real tears. And if you’re imaginary, you wouldn’t have real tears getting my feathers wet. I’m sorry, but they’re wrong! You are real, Snuffy, and you’ll always be my friend.”
Spinney: In those days, Jerry Nelson — he was Snuffy, originally — so when he stepped out of Snuffy, his face was all running with tears, because he was crying, too. And so was I. We feel the characters, you know. We get to live them.
|Caroll Spinne with Oscar the Grouch|
EW: Can I switch gears and ask you about Oscar?
EW: Why is Oscar so grouchy?
Spinney: Well, he started out that way. I think the intent was to show it takes all kinds to make a world. He came about because, in the early creation days of the show, Ernie and Bert had already been created, and a couple other puppets had come on who weren’t really established … a couple pilots [debut episodes] were shown for opinions or attitudes of people, and so they decided the puppets were so good they’d like to have more puppets on every day, including creating some characters that would live on the street and be available all the time.
And so they came up with the idea of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Oscar came from … Jim [Henson] loved people. He loved people’s accents and how they reacted to things. He regularly liked seafood, and just up the street from where the Muppets’ headquarters was, was Oscar’s Seafood Restaurant. It’s now long gone, but there was a grouchy waiter in there named … I don’t know what his name was, but he was so grouchy it was humorous. One day, Jim Henson got the idea that this would be a good idea for a character to have, because there are people like that.
So Oscar stayed pretty well similar to the start, whereas Big Bird is quite different from the original concept. Except he’s green! He was orange the first year… he also had a different look on his face. I much prefer the design that came along with the green one …
When I opened the box that Oscar came in, I looked and I said, “Where’s Oscar?” He was green! Oscar then was kind of orange-brown. They said, “Well, Jim decided to change it.” I asked them, “Well, how can we do that? He’s already established as orange.” It’s funny, we did it and nobody ever questioned it. Now, Oscar told me the reason why he’s green, it’s mold and moss. If he took a bath, he’d be orange again.
EW: Would Oscar say there’s a difference between grouchy and mean?
Spinney: I think there’s a big difference. Some scripts have come along where Oscar is portrayed as being very mean. In one case, there was a story with the puppet of Telly … He wanted to become part of Oscar’s Grouchketeers, like Big Bird has his Birdketeers, and Oscar had his Grouchketeers and they usually had dirty faces and trashcan lids for little hats. Telly wanted to be one of them. So Oscar put him through all kinds of — we won’t call it hazing — but he had this pompous certain thing. And finally he says …
Telly: “Oscar, I’ve done all the things you want me to do, and now can I be a Grouchketeer?”
Oscar the Grouch: “You sure can, Telly, except only for a day, and now the day is over so, no, never mind.”
Spinney: And the puppeteer had Telly burst into tears. I said, “Well, the script doesn’t call for him to cry.” But instead, he cried his heart out. He sobbed like a little boy — he was supposed to be a boy, but he [Telly] always struck me as an old guy, not a kid — anyway, the show ended that way.
I said, “Oh, we gotta do that over again.” And they said, “No, that’s a bye.” I said, “No, no, Oscar’s not that mean. It made a little boy cry.” And so, the producers stuck with that … they said, no, they think it’s perfectly fine. Well, two months later, after it had been on the air, the same producer came up and said, “You know, I should have listened to you. This letter lambasted us about having Oscar be so mean, because they didn’t picture Oscar being mean like that.”
And I said, “Ha!” I said, “I really feel these characters deeply, so if I think something I really hope you kind of back me up.”
I think an awful lot of people who are grouchy … and not necessarily that they would stab anybody in the back or not do something right. Not like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. He was mean! That was not his money. He knew the money just fell into the newspaper. Oscar would have said, “Hey, you dropped your money.” I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s a really important thing to me, that Oscar is not mean. But he is incredibly irritable.
EW: How do you feel about the documentary I Am Big Bird?
Spinney: We didn’t know what to expect, because it was made up of a lot of things Deb [Spinney’s wife] and I filmed ourselves, from our travels, for instance. We couldn’t believe it. We also thought the music was fantastic; it’s the first documentary by Josh Johnson [who is also the film’s executive producer]. I understand he did the music [programming] for Hunger Games. Somebody said, “Well, it’s too emotional.” Well, the movie is emotional. I think the music is perfect for it.
I don’t see a lot of documentaries. But a professor, Richard Brown of NYU, the university in New York City — he’s done a course for 20 years about documentaries — he said to me that he was amazed when he saw the movie. He felt that, of twenty years of reviewing every documentary that came along, he said, “This is the best documentary that I’ve ever seen.” I was staggered. I was delighted it’s being distributed by Tribeca Film, which is Robert De Niro’s outfit. I hope I get to meet him!
EW: Thank you so much for your time.
Spinney: It was a pleasure talking to you, Rick. You know, Oregon is one of the few states I haven’t been in. I recently did a thing with Portlandia. I wasn’t there; I was doing something else for Sesame Street, so we sent my stand-in [Matt Vogel] who talks in the movie. He’s a wonderful puppeteer. He moved to Oscar, and later on I moved him, because the Oscar voice so far …
Oscar the Grouch: “… is all mine, heh heh heh.”
EW: I was hoping to hear Oscar!
Oscar the Grouch: “Well, I’ve been frowning here all the time, thinking this guy is an idiot!”
Big Bird: “Are you talking about me, Oscar?”
Oscar the Grouch: “Not you, Bird. You turkey! No, I’m taking about that guy — the puppeteer guy. I don’t know why you always hang around the show!”
Spinney: Well, Oscar, if I wasn’t there I don’t think you’d be moving around much. Don’t let it spoil your head.
EW: Well, you have a lovely day.
Spinney: Thank you, you’re very nice. Thanks a lot.
Big Bird: “Bye!”
Oscar the Grouch: “Have a rotten day!”
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story opens May 22 at Bijou Cinemas; for more information, visit bijou-cinemas.com.