I finally had a chance over the weekend to sit down and watch the documentary “I Am Big Bird” which details the life and career of Carroll Spinney. Carroll Spinney has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street for its entire run to date – over 45 years. As a fan of the Muppets and of Sesame Street, this had been on my list to watch ever since it was released this past summer.
The hour and 27 minutes fly by quickly. His life and story are presented in a sweet, charming and whimsical way that seem to parallel the type of person Carroll is. It starts out with his early life and he talks a bit about his childhood. Family and friends are also interviewed. Old pictures are shown and then old footage of the Bozo the Clown show is also shown as that is where Carroll truly got his start in puppeteering. It was the late 60’s when he was at a puppeteer festival and Jim Henson approached him to come and work for the Muppets.
In 1969, Sesame Street debuted. It’s actually interesting to learn that Carroll nearly quit after the first year because he felt he didn’t fit in and because he struggled to help Big Bird develop. Big Bird was initially written as kind of a dimwitted but loveable goofball and Carroll felt he was the butt of the joke at times. Thankfully after some discussions, he decided to stay and by the second season, they made some changes and soon Big Bird was now the loveable eternal six year old child we all came to love. It wasn’t long before Big Bird would become the most popular and recognized character on the show.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses in his life from here out though, the next part of the documentary turns a bit more personal again as we learn about his divorce from his first wife with whom he had three children and how it was a very dark time for him. He even had suicidal thoughts for a time. He came through the fog and met his second wife who was most definitely the love of his life. Their love story is quite sweet and even after all these years you can clearly see how much they care for and adore each other and it’s really beautiful and inspiring.
The rest of the documentary shows the impact Sesame Street and Big Bird has had on the world. The movie Big Bird in China is discussed at length because it was made at a time that the US and China were experiencing tensions. There is brief mention of how they had discussed sending Carroll – as Big Bird – on the Challenger mission but it was determined that logistically was too difficult and a teacher was sent instead. We all know how that ended.
Carroll’s work as Oscar the Grouch is also touched on and how important it is to have a character like that on a show and how unique Oscar’s character is – he’s very much the Yin to Big Bird’s Yang, and for Carroll, kind of helps him release a little bit of his darker side.
Jim Henson’s death is covered and segues into the fact that Carroll already has a replacement performer lined up for Big Bird and Oscar so whenever he’s ready to truly retire he can hand them off. All the people interviewed say that they still don’t think he’s ready to hang up the beak quite yet though, as physically taxing as it is to perform Big Bird, he still truly loves it and will keep going until he can’t hold the head up any longer!
It is fun to hear what others have to say about Carroll. I especially enjoyed seeing many of the old Sesame Street adult cast members sharing stories and thoughts. If you grew up with Sesame Street, I highly recommend giving this a watch. I also recommend reading the autobiography “The Wisdom of Big Bird and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch”. It’s a great book that goes into even more detail than this short movie was able to cover.