Caroll Spinney

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  • Saturday, 13 September 2014 00:00
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Caroll Spinney and Oscar the Grouch on the 1977 set of “Sesame Street's” Hawaiian episode Caroll Spinney and Oscar the Grouch on the 1977 set of “Sesame Street's” Hawaiian episode Photo courtesy of Gary Miller

The Man Behind Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch

“I Am Big Bird” screened at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival. Tokyo Journal talked with the co-director of the documentary, Dave LaMattina, and Caroll Spinney, the 80-year-old Emmy and Grammy Award-winning puppeteer behind the iconic “Sesame Street” characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. The two discussed the documentary as well as the legacy of the beloved TV program and its characters.


TJ: Why do you think that children all over the world love Big Bird so much?
SPINNEY: I guess there is a quality in him that they can identify with - even though it seems strange to be able to identify with an eight foot-bird. There was this one letter from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada. A woman wrote about her little boy Chris. She heard him whimpering and crying alone in the living room watching TV. She went in and said, “Chris, why are you crying?” He said, “Because Big Bird’s just like me.” He was alone because all the kids who were older kids had gone off to school, and Big Bird was all alone and feeling sorry for himself. And so I thought that it’s pretty neat that a little boy, four years old, could identify with something a 43-year-old man was doing. Actually, Big Bird wasn’t meant to be a little child. He started as a big goofy guy, and a script came along which made me feel I should be playing him like he’s a kid, and that worked very well. I think that through Big Bird I’m having more of a happy childhood than mine was because I was the smallest boy in the class, kinda pushed around, made fun of and the name Caroll didn’t help. After I got puppets... I was eight... I was teased, “Caroll, you still play with your dolls!” There was bullying, real bullying – including getting beaten up.

TJ: What advice would you give to children who are being bullied?
SPINNEY: Well, I think they should try to find a sympathetic adult ear and talk about it. See what they suggest. It’s so distressing. I didn’t want to go to school. At one point when I was 14, they told a story about me that I was gay. They didn’t use that word then but it was terrible. I remember saying, “Someday, years from now...” I always felt that I would do something that people would know about and it would be with puppets – either that or comic strips because I’m also a cartoonist. But I like the fact that TV came to me easier than landing a comic strip, which is very difficult.


TJ: Why do you think Oscar became important to the show?
SPINNEY: At first I kinda wondered because he was pretty coarse. The rule which I had thought we had set was, “Be nice to people.” But I had a woman come up to me. She said, “I wanted to tell you my experience about how Oscar changed my life.” She grew up in a house of four very strong women with very strong ideas of how you should live. She wasn’t allowed to watch any television. One day she realized that she could get to the TV; no one to stop her. So she turned on the TV and came upon Sesame Street. Oscar was arguing with someone saying, “NO.” She said, “I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know you could say no to an adult. And by being able to realize that, it changed my life from that moment on.” To hear that Oscar was able to do something positive from his negative [attitude]...I was kind of pleased and felt somewhat vindicated playing him. It’s so much fun to play him because he’s such a contrast to Big Bird.

TJ: What’s your favourite memory of Japan?
SPINNEY: Oh, the beauty and corresponding with a young lady, who was 14 when she first wrote to me. She lives in the northern area of Tokyo. She wrote to me because “Sesame Street” was a great asset to her in learning English, like it has been for many others. So, I wrote back to her and we have corresponded for years. I think she’s in her late 40s now.

TJ: What did you learn from making the film?
LaMattina: Obviously, “Sesame Street” is made up of an amazingly talented team of directors, producers and writers, but there’s that intangible part about Big Bird, and that is what Caroll brings to Big Bird. I think, when we start to get to know Caroll, we realize just how much influence he had in making the character beloved.

TJ: So, what are you hoping people will take away from watching the film?
LaMattina: To understand why Caroll is so amazing. Just sit down, look at his life, see it and walk away with an appreciation. When we finished filming this picture, we were like, “Okay. Of course it’s why people love Big Bird. Because Caroll is that amazing.”


TJ: What is your greatest achievement?
SPINNEY: I met my wife on the set, which was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. And Big Bird is number two. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #275 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

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