Ever wonder about the person clomping around inside the Big Bird costume? Unlike Muppets creator Jim Henson or Frank Oz, Caroll Spinney has never had a high profile. Not that he wanted one exactly. What the affectionately saccharine documentary “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” directed by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, reveals is that Spinney is as unassuming and gracious as Big Bird is goofy-gawky. Spinney’s other, less fabled Muppet character, Oscar the Grouch, is even further removed from his puppeteer’s placidness (except Oscar, if you look closely, has a heart of gold).
Spinney, an octogenarian, has been inhabiting Big Bird for about 45 years, and can’t imagine retiring – even though 20 years ago he handpicked an apprentice, Matt Vogel, now one of the directors of “Sesame Street.” (Vogel says in an onscreen interview that he is still learning from the master and patiently waiting his turn.) The story of Spinney and Big Bird is one of the great love stories of show business.
He was inspired early on by his mother, who took him to Punch and Judy shows and encouraged his talent. His father, physically abusive, disparaged his son’s creativity. After serving four years in the Air Force, Spinney attracted Henson’s attention while working for Bozo the Clown. (Henson liked the way Spinney attempted to salvage a botched performance at a puppet festival.) At first, working for the Muppets, Spinney didn’t really get the hang of Big Bird, but then, much the same as when an actor finally realizes the essence of a character, Spinney allowed the 8-foot-tall 6-year-old to really come into his own.
The key was conceiving of Big Bird as a child, which, of course, made him a special favorite of children. In the documentary we see little kids with Big Bird as he prances in the TV studio or waves at them during a parade. They look ecstatically happy.
Spinney, in the documentary’s many clips and interviews of him spanning much of his life, is more complicated than that galumphing mega-puppetmaster might suggest. It’s not just that he had an abusive childhood, or that his first wife, “embarrassed” by his career, ended his marriage, driving him to despair. It’s that Spinney, despite these intrusions, has somehow managed to keep intact within himself an idealized childhood. At the same time, he seems to know exactly who he is as an adult. Although he can’t imagine retiring from the Muppets, he has, as a colleague says, “a life beyond the studio, beyond the character.”
No doubt his almost serene sense of life’s balance has been greatly aided by his smiley second wife, Debra, who is not so much helpmate as soul mate. (It’s a shame she never enacted a Muppet of her own with him – they would be like Papageno and Papagena in “The Magic Flute.”) Their extraordinary good-naturedness is a clue to their resilience. It’s not as if their lives together have been a total bliss-out. Henson’s early death greatly aggrieved Spinney – they had become close friends – and one of the film’s more moving moments is Big Bird’s rendition of “Bein’ Green” at Henson’s memorial.
There is also the spooky anecdote about when NASA in 1986 recruited Spinney to join the crew of the space shuttle Challenger only to rescind the offer when it turned out the Big Bird costume wouldn’t fit on board. He watched from the studio as the ship’s crew, including his replacement, Christa McAuliffe, perished in midair.
If people doubted Big Bird’s popularity, they were quickly dissuaded when Mitt Romney, in his 2012 presidential campaign, declared “I love Big Bird” even as he decried funding for public television. The uproar was immediate: This guy wants to kill Big Bird. (The documentary includes some choice late-night talk-show quips.)
Although “I Am Big Bird” is no great shakes as a piece of filmmaking, and skews into treacly inspirational terrain, it’s still worth seeing to make the acquaintance of a man who, although he would probably be the last to say so, is an artist of the first rank. And a nice guy, too. What a rare combo. Grade: B (This film is not rated.)