Caroll Spinney, best known for his decades of work on the educational PBS series Sesame Street, has died. Best known as the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Spinney had portrayed the characters since the show's inception in 1969 until his retirement last year. With his death confirmed by the Sesame Workshop, Spinney passed away on Sunday in his Connecticut home after a long battle with Dystonia. He was 85 years old.
A Massachusetts native, Spinney's mother named him "Caroll" because he was born the day after Christmas in 1933. He developed an interest in puppeteering at the age of five after catching a performances of Three Little Kittens, later putting on puppet shows of his own all throughout his childhood. Following his high school graduation, Spinney joined the Air Force, though he continued to feed his artistic endeavors by working on a comic strip and animated black-and-white cartoons.
By the mid '50s and heading into the '60s, Spinney was out of the military and back to working as a puppeteer for various shows in Boston and Las Vegas. This would lead to a meeting with Jim Henson, who was impressed with Spinney's work after seeing him perform. Spinney was then hired to portray the voice work and puppeteering for Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch right from the very start of Sesame Street when the show debuted in 1969. He would occasionally portray other Muppets on the long-running series as well, such as Bruno the Trash Man and Granny Bird.
In addition to his work on the small screen, Spinney also entertained readers across the world as a book author. In character as Oscar, Spinney penned the Whitman Tell-A-Tale picture book How to Be a Grouch, which was released in 1976. Along with J. Milligan, Spinney later wrote the 2003 biographical book The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch: Lessones from a Life in Feathers. Spinney was also quite talented as an artist, painting many beautiful portraits featuring his Sesame Street characters, also drawing the photo of Mr. Hooper that Big Bird keeps around following the death of actor Will Lee.
After spending nearly five full decades bringing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life, Spinney announced his Sesame Street retirement in the fall of 2018. He recorded his final performances as the popular Muppets for the show's 50th season, which continues to air new episodes following the season's premiere last month. Two people have since been hired to replace Spinney, with Matt Vogel taking over the role of Big Bird and Eric Jacobson stepping in as the new Oscar the Grouch. While it's certainly wonderful that the characters will continue to entertain children on television for some time to come, Spinney's presence and portrayals will be very badly missed.
Spinney's survivors include his wife, Debra Jean Gilroy, with whom he'd been married to since 1979. At this time, our thoughts are with Debra and the rest of Spinney's family, along with his close friends and other fellow fans. Spinney and his Sesame Street characters were there for so many of us during our formative years, and the legendary entertainer can never be forgotten. Thank you for everything, Mr. Spinney, and godspeed. This news comes to us from The Sesame Workshop.