The voice of Big Bird on 'Sesame Street' retires after almost 50 years

By Suzy Byrne

Sesame Street icon Caroll Spinney is leaving the nest.

The master puppeteer, who brought Big Bird to life and also played Oscar the Grouch, has announced his retirement after 49 years on the show. His last day on the set of the Astoria, Queens-based production will be Thursday.

“Big Bird brought me so many places, opened my mind and nurtured my soul,” Spinney said in a statement. “And I plan to be an ambassador for Sesame Workshop for many years to come. After all, we’re a family.”

Veteran Sesame Street star Carroll Spinney has announced his retirement (Getty)

Since 1969, Spinney has played parts of both iconic characters — as well as other muppets — on the beloved kids show. He has won six Emmys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, and two Grammys, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“I always thought: How fortunate for me that I got to play the two best Muppets?” he told the New York Times in a new interview about his retirement. “Playing Big Bird is one of the most joyous things of my life.” He said he was the one to suggest giving childlike qualities to the oversize bird. “I said, I think I should play him like he’s a child, a surrogate. He can be all the things that children are. He can learn with the kids.”

Spinney with Oscar the Grouch, another of his characters, at the 2014 premiere of the  I Am Big Bird documentary, which told his story. (Photo: Getty Images)

He told the Times the role of Big Bird suited him on many levels. “I’m a soloist,” he said. “I’m not good with a team. I’m out of sync with the rest. They’re all going left at the same time, while I’m the only one going right.” He also said it could be “very lonely in there … I was separated from everybody.” While that may sound a little sad, he said in his statement, “Before I came to Sesame Street, I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important. Big Bird helped me find my purpose. Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while.” He added that the roles “have given me great joy” and “led me to my true calling.”

Spinney, sporting a Big Bird feather, with his Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2006 Daytime Emmys. (Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage)

In recent years, the physical requirements needed to perform the roles became difficult for Spinney, who is now 84. He stopped doing the puppeteering for Big Bird in 2015, but continued voicing the role of that and Oscar. So he decided that the upcoming 50th season of the show — which airs next year on HBO and PBS — would be his final one.

Spinney’s interest in puppeteering began during his childhood and, after serving in the Air Force, he landed a job as a professional puppeteer in Las Vegas and Boston in the 1950s and 1960s. That led to him meeting Sesame Street creator Jim Henson at a puppetry festival in 1962. They reconnected in 1969, when Henson was creating the show, and he hired Spinney for the inaugural season. While Spinney briefly considered leaving during the first season over a pay dispute, he ultimately stayed on and has done more than 4,400 episodes in total, a Sesame Street spokesperson approximates.

A 2014 documentary,I Am Big Bird, told Spinney’s story. In it, he spoke about his initial doubts regarding his talent as a puppeteer, and talked about how he was dealing with emotional problems. “I had a terrible storm in my head of how unhappy I was,” he said. In the flim, he also said he couldn’t imagine ever wanting to retire. And now, although it’s a retirement, he says he won’t be gone from the spotlight permanently, revealing plans to continue attending conventions and making other public appearances in his new ambassador role. “I’ll be 100 years old, doing Muppet stuff,” he promised the Times.

On the show is where Spinney met his second wife, Debra Jean Gilroy, in 1972. She was working in the community education department of the show. Their love story is a large part of the documentary. She told the Times, “I couldn’t believe Big Bird was coming up and talking to me.”

Spinney with his wife, Debra, at a Sesame Street event in 2017. (Photo: Mike Coppola/WireImage)

As for the roles of Big Bird and Oscar, they won’t be going away, of course. They will be carried on onscreen by puppeteers Matt Vogel (Big Bird) and Eric Jacobson (Oscar). Spinney said he “handpicked” both of them “for the guardianship” of the characters and promises they will “continue to give them life.”

Spinney in the documentary I Am Big Bird. (Image: I Am Big Bird/YouTube)

Vogel, who has been Spinney’s apprentice for Big Bird since 1996, told the Times that carrying on Spinney’s legacy was “daunting” but “important,” saying, “The more I do the character, the more that I try to preserve what I think Caroll’s intentions were. Inevitably, part of our own personality starts to creep into those characters. But that’s the way they live on.” Vogel previously inherited the parts of other popular Muppets, including Kermit the Frog and Count von Count.

Jacobson, who’ll take over for Oscar,  also performs Grover, Bert, and Guy Smiley.

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