A Life Inside Big Bird
At eight-foot-two, he's easily the biggest star in children's television. But it's a small world inside the costume of Sesame Street's Big Bird. This is what it's like, according to Caroll Spinney, who has performed the yellow-feathered, orange-footed character since the show's debut in 1969:
Spinney stands inside Big Bird with his right arm extended above his head. His right hand is the bird's beak, his arm the bird's neck. It's not very comfortable, especially if you're claustrophobic. He can't see out, so a tiny TV set strapped to his chest shows him what he looks like to the children viewing the show at home. If he has to do a complex walk, two feathers (attached with Velcro) are removed so he can peek out. "I have to do that so I won't walk into the door," Spinney says.
He's also spent a lot of time inside a trashcan as the puppeteer behind Oscar the Grouch, an alter-ego of sorts to the kindhearted Big Bird. The 69-year-old Spinney writes about how he got to Sesame Street in his new autobiography, The Wisdom of Big Bird.
In an interview with NPR's Bob Edwards, Spinney recalls that in the beginning, he played the character like "a purple dinosaur, who was like 'Ho, hi there. Here I am.' And one day it occurred to me that instead of this big silly, kind of goofy guy, it was a good idea to have him be a child. Within a week, I kind of faded the voice away from the goofy guy to Big Bird being more of a child-like creature. And he began to learn the alphabet because when we started, he couldn't read or write."
Spinney made his television debut in 1955. He was paid $10 a week to perform in the Rascal Rabbit show in Las Vegas. But the stint ended quickly when Spinney, who was in the Air Force at the time, was shipped out to Germany.
Five years later, Spinney was back on TV playing various sidekicks to Bozo the Clown. He also did puppet shows. One day, after a performance where everything went wrong, Muppet creator Jim Henson approached and said he liked what Spinney had tried to do.
"He said, 'Why don't you come down to New York and talk about the Muppets... I have some characters I want to build. One is a tall, funny-looking bird and the other's going to be this grouchy character who's going to live in a pile of trash in the gutter.'"
Big Bird is kind and sweet. But after performing him all day, Spinney says it's almost therapeutic to switch to Oscar the Grouch. He got the idea for Oscar's gruff voice when he heard a Manhattan taxi driver bark, "Where to, Mac?" Spinney thought, "Wow, what a voice."
Spinney says children like Oscar because he's honest. And even though he's a fuzzy green monster, he's very human. "I've often noted that the characters, the puppets, often demonstrate more humanity than the real people."
One of Sesame Street's most human moments came in 1983, after Will Lee, the actor who played storekeeper Mr. Hooper, died of cancer.
"We didn't know what to do. [We] thought perhaps he could just retire, move to Florida or something. But then the producers thought that the best thing to do would be to actually deal with death." And in the memorable scene, Big Bird learns that when people die, they never come back. "We were all in tears at the end of the scene and they were totally genuine."
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