The man behind iconic Sesame Street characters including Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch has passed away, Sesame Workshop confirmed on Sunday. Caroll Spinney suffered from dystopia, a neurological condition that causes uncontrolled muscle movement. He died at his Connecticut home.
New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff, who met Spinney after the puppeteer's retirement from Sesame Street, tweeted that Spinney's "secret" included portraying Big Bird the way a child would have.
"He can be all the things that children are. He can learn with the kids," Spinney told Itzkoff of Big Bird in 2018.
I had the privilege to spend time with Spinney last year when he announced his retirement from Sesame Street. He said the secret to portraying Big Bird was to play him like a child. “He can be all the things that children are. He can learn with the kids.” https://t.co/TnvA4vt8dK— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) December 8, 2019
Other fans and members of the entertainment industry also chimed in with their own tributes to the late puppeteer.
Well, we lost a legend today. RIP Caroll Spinney, best known as Big Bird. https://t.co/F09rYqHTqy— Josh Spiegel (@mousterpiece) December 8, 2019
Caroll Spinney, the big-hearted and always-kind Muppeteer who played Sesame Street character Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch for almost a half-century, has died. He was 85.— Eric Alper 🎧 (@ThatEricAlper) December 8, 2019
He entertained millions of kids and adults daily and will be deeply missed.
Thank you for everything. pic.twitter.com/F9jGVTCFdB
RIP Caroll Spinney. I didn’t know how important he was to my childhood until after it was over. pic.twitter.com/GvQDmoYVcp— Fred Coppersmith (@unrealfred) December 8, 2019
Thank you Caroll Spinney for all the joy you brought to Everybody. You will be Missed. pic.twitter.com/BlilI9FC4C— Marcelo R. Bottaro (@marcelo_927) December 8, 2019
Generations of children learned kindness, compassion and friendship from Caroll Spinney — and his characters embodied the heart of our city.— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) December 8, 2019
On behalf of 8.6 million New Yorkers, I offer our condolences to his family, friends and everyone who knew and loved him. https://t.co/rVCKRKWglu
The Sesame Workshop obituary notes that Spinney played Big Bird for nearly 50 years, and he was a member of the Sesame Street family from the beginning. In 2014, Spinney starred in the documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, about his time on the show.
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"His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while," the obituary says of Spinney's two characters.
Back when I was a child, I could mostly tell whenever a character was just a person in a costume (even I knew that Barney wasn't real) but not once did I ever question if Big Bird was real, and that's thanks to Caroll.— JoeyWaggoner (Commissions SALE OPEN! 5 Slots left) (@JW_Cartoonist) December 8, 2019
And to me, he still is real.#RIPCarollSpinney #CarollSpinney pic.twitter.com/pu1YJwBR5x
In a moving tribute, one fan noted on Twitter that while many live-action characters are clearly "a person in a costume," Spinney's masterful work made Big Bird seem like he was real.