The Man Behind Big Bird

BOSTON--- First lady Michelle Obama appeared on Sesame Street this week to mark the 40th Anniversary of the public television show. She planted a vegetable garden, and spoke about one of her favorite topics- locally grown food.

From the beginning, one of the most beloved residents of Sesame Street has been the eight-foot-two big yellow bird with the heart of a child, Big Bird.

When Big Bird was born, Jim Henson's Muppets were already huge stars. When Jim Henson died, it was Big Bird who sang at his funeral. And while Big Bird and his neighbor Oscar the Grouch may not share the same outlook on life, they have the same heart and soul, a guy named Carroll Spinney.

Carroll paid a visit to our studios in 2004 to talk with Robin Young about his work, which he wrote about in the book "The Wisdom of Big Bird and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch: Lessons from a Life in Feathers" . And in honor of Sesame Street's birthday we thought we'd revisit that conversation.  A transcript is below.


I read in your book that Big Bird started out as kind of a local yocal. And when did he become a child?

Well it wasn't long that he was a local yocal. Jim Henson had personally discovered me doing my own show, called "pickle puss and friends." To me it was like if I was a drummer and he said I got a little band from Liverpool would you like to be me drummer then. It was Jim Henson asking me. I couldn't believe it. He built the bird around me. And I asked him "what is he like?" And he said gee, I've been thinking about him as a puppet but I haven't thought who he's going to be. And he said well, maybe it's a nice amiable goofy guy like Goofy - Mickey Mouse's pal.

We weren't doing the show for long before I said you know I think it'd be better if he were a child. Because he's trying to learn the alphabet and he wanted to join a bunch of little kids in a daycare center in one of our scenes and I said I don't think you'd want him there as goofy, but I think he might be there as a child that hasn't learned much yet, even though he was 8 feet 2.

I also just worshipped Jim Henson - ah, he was the greatest - and his passing was just horrendous. And so I was devastated to read he wasn't all that sentimental about the characters.

I'm almost sorry I quoted it that way because it sounds like he was cold. There was nothing cold about him. He just was so - he was a true genius.

But he was surprised that you talked to the puppets if you will.

Well I guess I'm a little silly maybe. Ernie he had to drop on the floor because he had a quick change to another puppet. And so Ernie was in his way and he kind of shoved him aside with his foot. And I picked Ernie up and said "gee Ernie, he didn't mean that." And he said "why, are you sentimental about the puppets?"  And I said , well yea I guess. The character that you build for them eventually becomes quite real to you.

Characters of the  children's television show Sesame Street arrive at the Daytime Emmy Awards on Sunday Aug. 30, 2009, in Los Angeles. (AP)
Characters of the children's television show Sesame Street arrive at the Daytime Emmy Awards on Sunday Aug. 30, 2009, in Los Angeles. (AP)

And does that say something about you and what you brought to big bird. Because you've said that the most important component of Big Bird to you is compassion.

Well that's what I've kind of developed...  First he became the child, and he was kind of sweet and amiable but... and he was also able to get angry and pout and do all the things that kids can do.

But one day actually I was walking back from Sesame Street. And this little old man he looked kind of upset. And he was standing there And I said "is there anything wrong sir?" And he said "well I'm, I haven't been well and I'm living alone and if I fall there's no one to take care of me." I said "well would you like to take my arm", and I walked him a few blocks and he thanked me.

The next day I just couldn't get it out of my mind. And I went to work the next day and I suggested to one of our producers, couldn't Big Bird do something to teach compassion. And she says well, maybe you can just put it into his character. About 3 years later, I was reading a newspaper telling about the different characters and he said and then there's the compassionate Big Bird. And I said yes, I must have done something right.

And it is. It's Big Bird that cries with Mr. Snuffaluffagus when they have a discussion about whether or not they can have imaginary friends turn out not to be imaginary. It's Big Bird that cries when he learns that Mr. Hooper has died. And all the children watching, look at me I'm getting a little choked up when I talk about it. It's Big Bird that brought these moments to us.

Yes and that was when I realized I had gone a long way from just being you know I was Grandma Nellie, the clown on the Bozo show.

Well you know it's just the most amazing thing, everywhere Big Bird is, you are. its just the weirdest thing. And so I'm wondering is Big Bird here now?

I'll see.

Big Bird?

(Carroll Spinney as Big Bird) What is it?

(Carroll Spinney) Ah, come here a minute.

(Big Bird) Hello, hi. Who's this?

Hi big bird it's Robin...

(Big Bird) Hello Robin. You don't look like a bird.

That's right, you're the bird. You're a big bird. How old are you?

(Big Bird) Well I'm six now, bird years though, not quite the same as yours.

No. Well Big Bird I know you've been doing a lot of interviews along with your friend. Big Bird what's the silliest thing people are asking you, because people can ask the silliest things?

(Big Bird) Well this morning, somebody asked me all about what's my opinion about dating. I didn't know what that word means.

Elmo, of the children's television show Sesame Street, arrives at the Daytime Emmy Awards on Sunday Aug. 30, 2009, in Los Angeles. (AP)
Elmo, of the children's television show Sesame Street, arrives at the Daytime Emmy Awards on Sunday Aug. 30, 2009, in Los Angeles. (AP)

Wouldn't that tell you about the birds and the... Oh wait you already know about the birds...

(Big Bird) Yeah, I'm one of them. Oscar - get out of the. He's in your wastebasket. Oscar..

(Oscar) Hey - I'm looking for good stuff in here. I love trash.

(Big Bird) We all know that, Oscar.

Hi Oscar. Oscar are you really as grouchy as people say?

(Oscar) I'm a little grouchier than that. Particularly today, I got up on the right side of the bed. I hate that.

Big Bird, Oscar sometimes can be so grouchy. And you know he's making a mess right now in our garbage can.

(Big Bird) Oscar you're making a mess.

(Oscar) Ha, good.

How do you feel about that, Big Bird. Sometimes he's kind of rude.

(Big Bird) Yeah but he's nice, I kind of like most people. He just pull lots of tricks on me. And he also calls me an overgrown bag of giblets.

(Oscar) I'm glad to make you unhappy.

(Carroll Spinney) Oscar you want to make him unhappy.

(Oscar) Well not exactly, I like to frustrate the turkey. I'm not a turkey.

Ok, alright, now we're not going to fight. Do you find yourself talking to Big Bird and Oscar a lot?

(Carroll Spinney) Yeah I often feel that Big Bird is... like a little boy to me. I'm glad to know him. And he's not me, but yet, I seem to feel I know him very well and I have a very fatherly feeling toward him.

(Oscar) Me too?

(Carroll Spinney) No, not you.

Well we want to thank you for bringing him and Oscar to us. I mean you know it's funny some people have their inner child and Big Bird and Oscar have their inner adult.

Yeah I guess they do.

And That's you.

Thank you.

It was nice to be here.

(Big Bird) Bye!

(Oscar) Have a rotten day.

This program aired on November 10, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.


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