Puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who brought beloved “Sesame Street” characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life for nearly 50 years, has passed away at 85.
The sad news was announced by Sesame Workshop, which produces the long-running children’s educational series, sharing that Spinney passed away at his home in Connecticut “after living with Dystonia for some time.” (Dystonia is a movement disorder that causes the uncontrollable contraction of muscles.)
In October 2018, Spinney announced his retirement from “Sesame Street” after nearly a half-decade, having been with the show since its launch in 1969.
“Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define ‘Sesame Street’ from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending,” reads a statement from Sesame Workshop. “His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while.”
As Sesame Workshop points out, “Caroll’s unparalleled career saw Big Bird visit China with Bob Hope, dance with the Rockettes, be celebrated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a U.S. postage stamp, and named a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress. A favourite highlight for Caroll was conducting symphony orchestras and performing with them across the United States, Australia, and China, allowing him to personally connect with families everywhere through the music of ‘Sesame Street’.”
After meeting Muppets creator Jim Henson at a puppetry festival in 1962, Spinney and Henson became lifelong friends, with their friendship leading Henson to bring Spinney to “Sesame Street”.
“Caroll Spinney’s contributions to ‘Sesame Street’ are countless,” said Sesame Workshop co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney. “He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well. We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to ‘Sesame Street’ and to children around the world.”
When Spinney announced his retirement last year, he spoke of how Big Bird shaped his life. “Before I came to ‘Sesame Street’, I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important,” he said. “Big Bird helped me find my purpose. Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while! They have given me great joy, led me to my true calling and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.”
Shortly after the news of Spinney’s passing was announced, fans took to Twitter to share their tributes, including such celebs as “Frozen II” star Josh Gad, writer Dave Itzkoff, comedian David Alan Grier and more.