Meet the man inside Big Bird
On PBS-TV's "Sesame Street," few neighbors have less in common than Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.Skip to next paragraph
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Big Bird is a cheerful 8-foot, 2-inch bird with a squeaky voice and lots of energy. Oscar is a pint-sized green grump who lives in a garbage can.
These two very different characters are both played by one man. For nearly 35 years, Caroll Spinney has been Oscar and Big Bird.
Sometimes he's inside Big Bird, moving Big Bird's wings with his left hand and his beak with his right. Other times, he's hiding behind Oscar's garbage can. Occasionally, he plays both characters at once!
Mr. Spinney recently wrote a book for grownups. It's called "The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch)" (with J. Milligan, Villard Books). He recently came to Boston to talk about the book. He brought along his wife, Debra - and Oscar the Grouch.
Oscar spent most of the visit in his luggage or sitting quietly on the hotel-room desk with his feet hanging over the edge. Eventually, Spinney put his hand inside Oscar's body and made him say Oscar's favorite grouchy line: "Have a rotten day!"
Spinney thought up Oscar's personality and voice while riding in a New York City taxi with a driver from the Bronx. As soon as Spinney got in the cab, the driver growled, "Where to, Mac?"
Spinney still thinks about that cab driver when he speaks like Oscar. Oscar is much older than Big Bird, but much younger than, say, Count von Count. The Count is "hundreds of years old," Spinney says. (He's played by Jerry Nelson.)
At first, Spinney and Big Bird's creator, Jim Henson, thought of Big Bird as a goofy, klutzy character. He would trip over trash cans. But Spinney changed Big Bird's personality to be more like the kids who watch the show. Big Bird went to day care and learned the alphabet with them.
Big Bird's life on "Sesame Street" has changed as new residents moved in. First came Aloysius Snuffleupagus. For years, no one except Big Bird could see Snuffy. Everyone told him Snuffy was imaginary. Now everyone can see Snuffy.
Then came Elmo. Today he's the most popular character on "Sesame Street." At first, Spinney says Big Bird was a little jealous of Elmo, but now they are buddies. Next season, they will be in more episodes together. (Sometimes, Spinney drives to work with Kevin Clash, who plays Elmo.)
Big Bird gets plenty of attention, too. As Big Bird, Spinney has appeared all over - in China, on many TV shows, at the White House, and in awards ceremonies with movie stars. He has even conducted orchestras. As Oscar the Grouch, he once shared a stage with Britain's Prince Charles.
But without his costume on, no one knows who Spinney is. That's OK with him. It's more important that fans recognize his puppet characters, he says.
Spinney first became interested in puppets when he was a kid. He made money in junior high and high school by doing puppet shows.
Lots of people recognize Spinney when he talks like Big Bird or Oscar - in or out of costume. One time he stuck his head in a garbage can at an ice-cream parlor and began speaking in Oscar's voice. All the kids in the shop ran over, thinking that Oscar was inside.
Usually, though, Spinney says he doesn't like to be the one to tell kids that Big Bird isn't a real person. His own grandson, whose first words were "Big Bird," called Spinney's house asking for Big Bird until he was 10 years old.
Although he may look silly, Big Bird has an important job. Millions of children around the world have learned their numbers and letters from him. They have also learned important lessons about being kind. "Big Bird helped along [kids'] learning with his learning," Spinney says.
Oscar's job, on the other hand, is more to make kids laugh. But he also teaches by counting his garbage.
Being Big Bird isn't easy. Spinney has to peek between his feathers to see the other actors in a scene. He can't see much. To help him out, Spinney has a tiny television inside Big Bird's huge costume. The TV shows him what the camera sees. So Spinney is looking at an image of what Big Bird looks like on TV. He sees what viewers are seeing. It takes some getting used to.