I Am Big Bird: An interview with Caroll Spinney and the filmmakers

Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street
A rare moment of Caroll Spinney as himself--and Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch--at once. Image courtesy Copper Pot Pictures

Sara Michelle Fetters writes about her encounter with the legendary, 80-year-old actor behind Big Bird in this touching interview. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney story screens Saturday, June 14, at 1:30 p.m. as part of Best of SIFF.

Like most kids born within the past four-plus decades, I learned a great deal of what I know about life and how to live it from Sesame Street. I was part of the Big Bird generation, the ones that most closely identified with that gigantic, yellow-feathered six-year-old, and more often than not, it was his eyes I started to see the world through.

This wasn’t something I realized in any sort of detail until I started watching Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker’s absorbing documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. Screened during the recently concluded Seattle International Film Festival, this chronicle of the man who has played Big Bird, as well as Oscar the Grouch, since the PBS show’s inaugural 1969 season is close to fantastic. More than that, it showcases the man himself in full, warts and all, with little in the way of a sugar coating, choosing refreshing candor over fawning sentimentality and in doing so, does both its subject and the audience justice.

 

“You're back to being four-years-old again.”

I didn’t realize just how personal my reaction to the film and to the character were until I walked into the W Hotel to spend a few minutes conversing with Spinney and co-director and primary writer LaMattina. For the first time in my life, I found myself dumbstruck standing in my subject’s presence. I didn’t know how to react, couldn’t come up with the words I wanted to begin our chat with, and like a starry-eyed child, all I could really do was reach my hand out feebly towards my idol and gingerly wait for him to shake it.

“I get that all the time,” proclaims Spinney with a warm smile, grasping my hand with fatherly grace in both of his own while LaMattina chuckles in bemused recognition. “It’s a common reaction. ‘The Bird’ just seems to have this sort of effect on people. I guess it means I must have been doing something right these past 40 years. I take it as a compliment, each and every time.”

“The first day we went to set and saw Big Bird standing there?” adds LaMattina knowingly. “It’s totally ridiculous.”

For LaMattina, telling Spinney’s story wasn’t so much by design as it was happy happenstance. “I had interned at Sesame Workshop and I was telling a friend about it and she said she was related to Caroll [but] I didn’t know who that was. When I found out it was like, this is really amazing, this is going to be so cool to find out who this guy is.”

“What I quickly realized was, [Caroll] does so much more than be Big Bird. He has an amazing life. Such a wonderful love story. Big Bird would have been amazing had he been done by Frank Oz or Jim Henson, but he would have been completely different. Caroll’s Big Bird is a lasting character and, it’s like you said, you see him and you’re back to being 4-years-old again. We wanted to answer that question. That why. Why is it the case with this character? Why has he lasted so long?”

As for Spinney, it wasn’t so much that the time was right as that it was someone he took a liking to who thought to ask. “It was actually in 2009 when they asked,” he says with a broad grin. “That was five years ago, so it’s not like it happened overnight. But maybe the wait was good because I’m 80 this year, so if we’d put things off any longer who knows what could have happened?”

Both he and LaMattina loudly laugh at this thought, each man giving the other a knowing look. Regaining composure, Spinney continues, “I’m just delighted it is coming out now. It seemed as if my story was going to be told this was as good a time as any.

“I think, just like Dave just said, had anybody else played The Bird it wouldn’t be the same. Some of the weaknesses that I have are some of what I put into Big Bird. When I found out who he was, then I felt really fortunate.

“The Bird is a child. He was first a goofy guy, but a script came along where they were starting to get to know him a little bit better because at first [the writers] didn’t know what he was, they’d never seen him, the scripts were written a month before the puppet was even built. If somebody else had played him, he would have been quite a bit different. But when this script came along I felt he should be a child, not a big goofy guy hanging around kids. He should be learning the alphabet along with the kids at home. I think that was a good decision.”

Oscar the Grouch and Caroll Spinney. Image courtesy Copper Pot Pictures.

Caroll Spinney also plays Oscar the Grouch. Image: Copper Pot Pictures.

“Why is Big Bird the way he is? Because Caroll is the way he is.”

Not that all of Spinney’s decision or choices were good ones. One of the hallmarks of I Am Big Bird is its honesty. It doesn’t whitewash some of the uglier or more painful pieces of its subject’s life story, LaMattina and Walker coloring things with a striking, unsentimental simplicity. This was a tract that didn’t scare Spinney one little bit.

“I don’t know if I’ve always been honest,” admits Spinney with a shrug. “Just seemed fitting. It’s really something to see your life played back and have it so cleverly arranged to tell a story. That’s what movies should do. But, seeing one’s self up there, on the big screen, it’s very humbling. I must say, I guess I’ve done some things right, because it seems to have worked out well. And, I still have the job which is wonderful after 45 years. To sit in a theater, to listen to the vocal reaction of the people sitting there, it’s all really moving to me. Moving and sad. I find myself crying with the rest of the audience and I lived it!”

It’s a fine line. Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are two of the most treasured characters in all of children’s television history, a vital part of Sesame Street, Muppet and PBS lore. Making sure things remain family-friendly, and kid-appropriate, even when the subject matter being discussed is decidedly adult, was a priority for LaMattina and a challenge he was willing to confront head-on.

“We would have these wonderful interviews with Caroll,” explains the filmmaker, “and we would relive his show business history. It was really interesting. And then we’d stop, take a break, and sitting around the table he’d tell us these other stories that were about his life. We got to a point where we were like, you’re telling us these stories off-camera and we’re seeing what it was that made you the person that you are and that is why Big Bird is such a nuanced character. That is the reason. You’re the soul of Big Bird. All of these events that you’re telling us about, they’ve impacted you so greatly, these need to be in the film because they explain why you were the only person who could have been this character.

“God bless Caroll and his wife Debra, they trusted us. They admitted they didn’t know why we wanted them to talk about some of this stuff, but they just trusted us to get it right. We had to have it in the movie. Why is Big Bird the way he is? Because Caroll is the way he is.”

“At first my wife Deb and I were a little taken aback,” adds Spinney. “The most unfortunate thing that ever happened to us was a fellow we hired to build stuff for us, he had a side we didn’t know anything about and it turned out to be terrible. We weren’t sure we wanted this in the movie. We wanted to just forget about it. But the filmmakers acquitted themselves very well as to why this should be in the movie.”

He is talking about is the murder of Judith Nilan on his sprawling rural property on the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts in December of 2005. It’s easy to see why Spinney would initially be so reluctant to have this horrific event be a part of the film and it’s only natural he’d have difficulty speaking about it. At the same time, LaMattina is equally passionate as to why it needed to be a part of the finished film, using it as a way to highlight aspects of his subject’s core and character that brings things full circle in a way that never could have been accomplished otherwise.

Spinney is visibly moved as we talk about Nilan, and it is obvious how this tragedy continues to affect him almost a decade later. “Your reaction,” says LaMattina, placing his hand comfortingly and his compatriot’s shoulder, “your reaction, in that moment where we asked you about it, that to me is why we made the movie. Here’s a thing that was such a horrible thing to happen, and I don’t think most people would react as you did. I’d hope I’d react that way, but I don’t know.”

“That was one of those moments were Caroll just trusted us,” he continues, turning back to face me directly as he does so. “We were really, really lucky.”

 

A Near-Miss: The Challenger Disaster

The filmmakers close the film, not just with the Nilan story, but also with Spinney’s near-miss in regards to the January 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. He was originally supposed to be on the shuttle, not New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe, but a variety of reasons – mainly his height –cut him from the flight. As sad and as tragic as these events are, however, LaMattina and Walker find a way to talk about them that never feels melodramatic or downtrodden. Instead, they find hope were others might not, allowing their subject to lead the way.

“It’s just taking Caroll through his life and seeing how he reacts to things,” says the director matter-of-factly. “The truth of Caroll is that he’s a lovely man. He’s full of life. He has an amazing wife. They have remembered all the joys of their childhood and they still live out their fantasies traveling the world, which all sounds great when you put it like that but it’s hard to identify with. He’s Big Bird. Of course he’s happy.”

“But Caroll’s also overcome all this other stuff. It’s life. It’s how he has approached his life. I think hope and love just radiate off of him. The question always was, how do we capture that? How do we stay true to both him and Deb and show their story in the fullest picture that we can? We’re lucky that audiences have gone with us on that journey. Sure, some people aren’t going to respond well [to the darker stuff] and that’s fine. Not everyone is going to love the movie. We put this stuff at the end of the film so they can live through it with him and experience it with him. This is Caroll’s story, tragedy is a part of that, but so is hope.”

 

Goodbye, Mr. Hooper

For a child of the 1980s, one of the more fascinating elements of the film was revisiting moments from the Sesame Street archives, pieces of television history that in many instances haven’t been seen since the year they originally aired. “There is a tremendous archive of material,” proclaims Spinney. “Some of the things we did back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I wish they could be seen again, because we did some wonderful stories on the show.”

“It’s mentioned in the movie, but we feel like a family. Bob [McGrath] and I, before we had even taped anything, we sat together and really hit it off on a soul level; he’s such a nice guy. I always say, what you see is what you get with Bob. He’s just Bob. He totally plays himself on the show. But, all the rest of them, people who are very different than I, we all connect. We are a family. When you meet somebody of a very different type and you start hitting off on the things that move you, that you feel, and then you can share it with them, it’s such an amazing thing. That’s what I think we’ve gotten to do within the show, and I think it shows; I’m so pleased.”

A key element to the show and my memories of it were Mr. Hooper and his store, the central place the residents of Sesame Street, human and Muppet alike, would hang out to learn universal truths ranging from the glory of the letter ‘A,’ to the wonders of the number ‘7,’ to the happiness found in a cold, frosty milkshake. The film opens with a scene of Big Bird and Mr. Hooper, played by Will Lee, in one of many moments they shared with one another during the show’s first 13 seasons, placing a lump squarely in the center of my throat right at the start.

“So many people love that guy,” says Spinney tenderly. “[Lee] had never done television before, and I had done nothing but television. For me, so many people ask what was the one greatest episode you ever did, and I always answer it was the death of Mr. Hooper.”

Airing on Thanksgiving Day, 1983, this episode changed the face of children’s television programming forever. Sesame Street dealt directly with the passing of one of its most beloved cast members in a way that spoke directly to the majority pre-school and kindergarten audiences who made it a success. The key to making the episode work? To see the event through a child’s eyes. More importantly, to see them through Big Bird’s eyes.

“It was written by our head writer [Norman Stiles],” he recollects, “and when I heard he was going to write the episode, I wasn’t sure whether it would be a great thing or not because he was just so funny. Now that episode is regarded as being the standard for how tough subjects are discussed in children’s programming. Thirty years later it’s still the best.”

That bit of programming has always meant a great deal to me personally. We’d had a neighbor pass not too long before it aired so this was an eye-opening way to learn about death and what it entailed. My mother and I watched it together, cinnamon rolls baking in the oven one room over, and I remember curling up in her lap, the smell of cinnamon and sugar swallowing us whole as Big Bird hung Mr. Hooper’s picture by his nest as a farewell gesture to his dearly departed friend.

Not even six years later I would use lessons gleamed from that episode to help my little sister understand what it meant when we were told our great-grandmother had tragically passed, putting things in as good a perspective as I could in large part thanks to Big Bird and his friends on Sesame Street. “Isn’t it interesting how things like that can take you back to your surroundings?” asks Spinney. “If you have a very favorite song, you always remember where you first heard it. That’s a part of why you love it.

“I think the same thing goes with the movie. It takes them back. To see them all together? It’s kind of breathtaking.”

“That scene was a challenge for us,” volunteers LaMattina. “We knew we had to use it. But, how do you improve on it? I mean, you don’t improve on it, that’s the answer. That scene is such an important part of television history. It changed everything. It’s brilliantly done.

“Chad actually put that sequence together. I’ll never forget it, I was on a train going to a funeral of a childhood friend, and I was watching this scene and I was just crying. He did such a beautiful job putting the scene together. You want to hear from those people, you want their recollections, but you also don’t want to take away from Caroll’s and the rest of the cast’s beautiful performances. You want the moment to speak for itself. It’s one of the scenes I’m very, very proud of in the film.”

 

“I never go into a song without it written down inside of the suit now.”

There are three key sequences where the filmmakers use this sort of restraint: Mr. Hooper’s death, a long-sought but never thought possible reunion with a Big Bird in China costar, and the funeral of Muppet creator Jim Henson. It is that last one that worried LaMattina the most. “The Henson funeral is a really interesting story,” he explains. “We initially cut it in a way where you hear from everyone while he’s doing it. Chad was the one who said we should just run it through, no cuts, and I liked it but I was skeptical how audiences would react. He said I needed to remember how I was when I first saw this, because that’s how most people would be coming to it. Most people had never seen the funeral or Caroll’s moment. That performance, well, as Frank [Oz] says in the film, it’s heartbreaking.”

The moment he is talking about is when Big Bird heads to the center of the church to sing Kermit the Frog’s signature anthem It’s Not Easy Being Green, the power percolating through Spinney’s heartrending performance undeniable. The filmmakers allow it to play through, start to finish, no cuts or breaks, allowing viewers to feel, probably for the first time, what many attending the funeral did as they sat there experiencing it live.

“I made a mistake,” admits Spinney. “I said ‘big’ twice. But at least I made it rhyme. I never go into a song without it written down inside of the suit now, just in case that sort of thing could happen again. But, so as I’m walking back to sit down, as I’ve gotten out of the suit, I’m sitting next to Jane Henson, Jim’s wife, and she whispers to me with a laugh, ‘Good save.’ I knew she’d be the first to notice. Didn’t know she’d tell me so right then.”

“It was Brian Henson who asked me to sing that. I was just thrilled to do it because, in one sense, [Jim’s] death was probably worse for me to take than that of my father. My father, he lived until he was almost 91, but he was fading away at the end, and he sadly had to go. But with Jim, there aren’t words, so Brian asking me to sing the song meant so much to me.”

Watch Big Bird sing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Jim Henson's funeral:

 

“It was Sesame Street telling me to not answer the phone.”

Moving from one signature moment to another, I can’t help but bring up the 2012 Presidential Election and Big Bird’s unforeseen part in it. Spinney smiles broadly, almost as if he knew the questions were coming while equally happy to respond. “I had gone to bed without seeing that [debate],” he says with chipper ecstasy. “I got up the next morning and was watching the Today show and that came on, it was the number one news item, and I said, ‘Oh my god! I think he’s [Mitt Romney] just made a terrible mistake.’ The phone started ringing shortly after that and it was Sesame Street telling me to not answer the phone.”

“After a while, I told them that I thought I should be allowed to answer the phone. I’d have Big Bird on the phone and he’d say, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about debates. I thought we had a king. Thank you. Bye.’ Just hang up right after that. It would be a good quote. They agreed it was funny. They still said no.”

 

“If it’s still fun I’d like to continue doing it.”

After the three of us finish laughing, it’s clear our time is coming to an end which means now is the moment to bring up the final elephant still sitting in the room: How much longer will Caroll Spinney continue to play Big Bird? “My goal has been to do at least 50 years,” he states. “I never say ‘only.’ I always say ‘at least.’ If it’s still fun I’d like to continue doing it.”

“My hero is Señor Wences. He performed on the last day of his life. He was on stage with his whole family. He went home, went to bed and didn’t wake up again. He was 102. I’d love to emulate his accomplishment, whether or not that’s possible, I have no idea.”

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