Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney

Spinney at the 2014 Montclair Film Festival
Born Caroll Edwin Spinney
(1933-12-26) December 26, 1933
Waltham, Massachusetts
Other names Ed Spinney
Occupation Puppeteer, cartoonist, author, speaker
Years active 1955–present
Known for Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch
Spouse(s) Janice Spinney (div. 1971)
Debra Jean Gilroy (m. 1979)
Children 3
Family 4 grandchildren
Website Official website

Caroll Edwin Spinney (born December 26, 1933) is an American puppeteer, cartoonist, author and speaker most famous for playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. He has sometimes been credited as Carroll Spinney or Ed Spinney.

Early life

Spinney was born Caroll Edwin Spinney in Waltham, Massachusetts on December 26, 1933. His mother, a native of Bolton, England, named him Caroll because he was born the day after Christmas. He has been drawing and painting since he was a child. He developed a love of puppeteering when his mother took him to see Punch and Judy shows in the British seaside town of Blackpool. She built him a puppet set for Christmas when he was nine.

After he graduated from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School in Acton, Massachusetts, Spinney served in the US Air Force.[1]


Comics and cartoons

While in the Air Force, Spinney wrote and illustrated Harvey, a comic strip about military life. He also animated a series of black-and-white cartoons called Crazy Crayon.

Early puppeteering

In 1955, Spinney headed to Las Vegas, where he performed in the show Rascal Rabbit.[1] He returned to Boston, joining The Judy and Goggle Show in 1958 as a puppeteer "Goggle" to Judy Valentine's Judy. Throughout the 1960s, he performed on the Boston broadcast of Bozo's Big Top, where he played Mr. Lion, who created cartoons from the names of children participating in the show. Through that decade, he was also a commercial artist and animator.

Spinney created a puppet of a cat named "Picklepuss". This cat and his other friends joined Spinney in entertaining audiences of the 1960s. Many years later, Spinney's Picklepuss and Pop puppets were characters in Wow, You're a Cartoonist!

As a Sesame Street Muppeteer

Spinney with Oscar the Grouch.

Spinney first met Jim Henson in 1962 at a puppeteering festival, where Henson asked if he would like to "talk about the Muppets". As Spinney failed to interpret the question as an employment offer, the conversation never came to pass.

In 1969, Spinney performed at a Puppeteers of America festival in Utah. His show was a mixture of live actors and puppets, but was ruined by an errant spotlight that washed out the animated backgrounds. Henson was once again in attendance and noticed Spinney's performance. "I liked what you were trying to do," Henson said, and he asked once more if they could "talk about the Muppets". This time, they did have the conversation, and Spinney joined the Muppeteers full-time by late 1969.[2]

Spinney joined Sesame Street for the inaugural season in 1969. However, he nearly left after the first season because he was not getting acceptable pay, but Kermit Love persuaded him to stay.[3] He has performed the Big Bird and Oscar characters in Australia, China, Japan, and across Europe. As Big Bird/Oscar, he has conducted orchestras across the US and Canada, including the Boston Pops, as well as visited the White House multiple times. He has provided the characters' voices on dozens of albums.

As Oscar, Spinney has written How to Be a Grouch, a Whitman Tell-A-Tale picture book. With J. Milligan, he wrote the 2003 book The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers (ISBN 0-375-50781-7). Spinney narrated the audiobook Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis. His work has been studied by other international puppeteers who structure their performance styles after his, most evidently with full-body puppet costumes. The Chinese performer of Da Niao on Zhima Jie is most evident of this, as the character is an exact physical replica of Big Bird.

Though Big Bird and Oscar are his main characters, Spinney has also performed as other characters. At one point, he created and performed Bruno the Trash Man, a full-bodied puppet representing a garbage carrier, who also carried Oscar's trash can. Bruno was used until the foam plastic of the character broke down.[4]

Spinney has performed as Granny Bird, Big Bird's grandmother. The puppet used for Granny Bird is actually a spare Big Bird puppet, and Spinney provides her voice. As Granny Bird's appearances are often alongside Big Bird (who is, as she stated, her "favorite grandson"), her voice is usually pre-recorded so that Spinney can perform Big Bird. Spinney was one of many puppeteers of a Muppet named Baby Monster in the 1970s. This character was an "anything monster" Muppet played by various Muppeteers until Brian Muehl took over the character in 1980, and the character was given the name Elmo. The character was taken over by Richard Hunt in 1984 and finally given to Kevin Clash by Hunt a year later. Spinney reprised his role as Oscar the Grouch in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in a cameo appearance next to Darth Vader.


Some of his artwork include the 1996 painting called Luna Bird showing Big Bird walking on the moon and the 1997 painting Autumn, showing him playing in autumn leaves.[5]

Spinney at the New York Comic Con in Manhattan in October 2010

Awards and honors

Spinney has been honored with four Daytime Emmy Awards for his portrayals on the series and two Grammy Awards for his related recordings. Two of the recordings Spinney's voice can be heard on have earned Gold Record status. For his body of work, Spinney has received both a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994 and the Library of Congress' Living Legend award in 2000.

At the 2006 Daytime Emmy Awards, Spinney received the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Lifetime Achievement Award. "I am elated and amazed to receive this honor from those who are committed to the best of what television and media have to offer, for doing what I've always wanted to do."

Spinney is the subject of a full-length documentary by Copper Pot Pictures called I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story that premiered at the April 2014 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.[6]

Personal life

Spinney has three children from his first marriage to Janice Spinney and four grandchildren.[7][8] Spinney and Janice divorced in 1971.[9] He married, secondly, to Debra Jean Gilroy in 1979.[10]


  1. 1 2 "A Life Inside Big Bird". National Public Radio. 2003-05-05. Retrieved 2013-06-08.
  2. Stephenson, Kathy; Horiuchi, Vince. "Q is for 'quiz': Celebrating 40 years of 'Sesame Street'". The Salt Lake Tribune, November 15, 2009.
  3. Spinney, Caroll. The Wisdom of Big Bird, pages 63-65.
  4. Spinney, Caroll. The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch), p. 62
  5. "Caroll Spinney". Caroll Spinney. Retrieved 2016-09-09.
  6. DeMara, Bruce (April 23, 2014). "Hot Docs: Inside Big Bird, and the man who (still) plays him". Toronto Star. Retrieved December 24, 2015.
  7. "My Secret Life as Big Bird: The Dark Past and Sunny Days of Caroll Spinney". Retrieved 2016-08-17.
  8. "Caroll Spinney is Big Bird, for 45 years now". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2016-08-17.
  9. O'Sullivan, Michael (2015-06-25). "'I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story' goes inside the fluffy feathers". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-09-09.
  10. "Big Bird Offers This Advice: Believe in Yourself". Hartford Courant. Retrieved 2016-08-27.
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