The lamp posts that line Sesame Street are a little less bright today, with news puppeteer Caroll Spinney passed away Sunday at the age of 85 at his home in Connecticut, according to the Sesame Workshop. Spinney had been living with Dystonia for some time, resulting in involuntary muscle spasms.
Here's a look at the official statement from Sesame Workshop:
Caroll Spinney, the legendary puppeteer behind beloved Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, died today, December 8th 2019, at age 85 at his home in Connecticut, after living with Dystonia for some time.
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. 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.
Welcomed to Sesame Street by Jim Henson, Caroll thrived under a mentorship that led to a decades-long great friendship. 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 favorite 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. Caroll Spinney gave something truly special to the world. With deepest admiration, Sesame Workshop is proud to carry his memory – and his beloved characters – into the future. Our hearts go out to Caroll's beloved wife, Debra, and all of his children and grandchildren.
Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said of her longtime colleague and friend, "Caroll Spinney's contributions to Sesame Street are countless. 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."
Spinney retired from being Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch in 2018, roles he has performed on Sesame Street since the series premiered in 1969. Performing as a professional puppeteer in Las Vegas and Boston in the 50's and 60's, Spinney would meet series creator Jim Henson at a puppetry festival in 1962 when Henson was first developing the Muppets.
Joining Sesame Street's premiere season, Spinney's unique talent and heart would help make Big Bird an international pop culture icon for the next half-century.
"Big Bird brought me so many places, opened my mind and nurtured my soul, and I plan to be an ambassador for Sesame Workshop for many years to come. After all, we're a family! But now it's time for two performers that I have worked with and respected – and actually hand-picked for the guardianship of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch – to take my alter-egos into their hands and continue to give them life."
– Caroll Spinney
To label Spinney's Big Bird as an "international pop culture icon" is not an exaggeration issued out of respect. Over the course of his 50 year career, Big Bird visited China with Bob Hope in 1979; danced with Radio City Music Hall's Rockettes and prima ballerina Cynthia Gregory; received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; had his face put on a U.S. postage stamp; and honored with the title of "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress in 2000.
Spinney's career had taken him around the world, from Japan, Australia, and France to Germany, Canada, and the U.K.; including conducting symphony orchestras throughout the United States, Australia, and Canada. Aside from Sesame Street, the beloved bird also appeared in hundreds of television series episodes and "starred" in his own feature film, Follow That Bird.
"Before I came to Sesame Street, I didn't feel like what I was doing was very important. 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 my wonderful wife! – and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever."
– Caroll Spinney