By: Bruce DeMara TORONTO STAR
Caroll Spinney is the man behind the bird, the tall yellow one known as Big Bird, who is beloved by children around the world. Or perhaps, inside the bird might be more accurate.
In the documentary I Am Big Bird, filmmakers Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker and Clay Frost provide a fascinating look at the life of the man who has played the iconic Sesame Street character for 45 years and counting. (He also plays Oscar the Grouch.) It screens at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival next week.
Spinney, 81, is keenly cognizant of how important a role the sweet-natured and childlike figure has played in the lives of children for more than four and a half decades.
“I’ve gotten lots of letters from children saying, ‘Dear Big Bird, you’re my best friend. How about coming to visit me? How’s next Thursday?’ Another one was, ‘Dear Big Bird, I just got a double bunk in my bedroom. Why don’t you come and stay? You can have the top bunk,’” Spinney said in a recent interview.
“I certainly hear that a lot from people who are now in their 40s. They say, ‘You have no idea what a comfort it was to know you were going to be there.’ I was in almost every show,” he added.
The film recounts Spinney’s upbringing as a creative child with a stern father, often teased by his peers because of his name, and his first meeting in 1962 with Muppets creator Jim Henson, one of the driving forces behind the creation of Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969.
“We had a huge effect on education because no show had tried to teach children the alphabet. There was a lot of criticism when we started,” Spinney said. “They said we’re trying to aim too high for the children, children can’t learn that. Now we’ve found out that even kids under 2 are saying, ‘That’s the letter B.’”
Henson died unexpectedly in 1990 at the age of 53 of a streptococcal infection. His involvement with the show was dramatically reduced after the first year, when it was successfully launched, but Spinney recalled him with fondness.
“He (Henson) had many sides to him. He was mostly very sweet to people, he was never bossy or gruff. He would be such a gentle, nice person. You were always constantly amazed that he always had about 12 projects in his mind at the same time,” Spinney recalled.
In the film, which premieres at the upcoming Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, Spinney explains the complex process of how he brings Big Bird to life, holding up a head that weighs 2 kilograms and using both arms to manipulate the creature’s eyes, beak and wings, all while a small television strapped to his chest allows him to see what the audience is seeing. While the character is 8 feet, 2 inches tall, Spinney is 6 feet.
“There’s a general rule with almost anything you’re doing with puppets, not just Big Bird. If you’re comfortable, you’re probably doing it wrong,” Spinney said, with a laugh.
The film is supplemented by a trove of archival footage and photos from Sesame Streetas well as films taken by Spinney and his long-time wife, Debra, all kept in a specially built room in the couple’s home, much to the relief of LaMattina.
“Someone else could have actually done the puppeteering of Big Bird but it is Caroll who gave this character its soul and that’s the reason why it’s so beloved. There’s that moment in the film where Jim Henson says ‘Big Bird is the most popular children’s character in the world and that is due to Caroll.’ I think that sums it up more than anything,” LaMattina said.
While Big Bird doesn’t appear on Sesame Street as often as he once did, Spinney still maintains a busy work schedule, including numerous public appearances in costume.
“I’m still deeply involved, which is to my delight, and still playing a six-year-old on TV. I’m the world’s oldest child star,” Spinney said.