He has lent body and soul to a certain 8-foot-tall 6-year-old for nearly half a century, all the while hidden from sight.
Now Caroll Spinney drops his fine-feathered obscurity (and emerges from his garbage-can fortress as Oscar the Grouch) for an enchanting film portrait, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” which celebrates this “Sesame Street” puppet master who, at age 81, continues to breathe life into a pair of the world’s best-loved personalities.
The documentary will be available starting Tuesday on iTunes and video-on-demand and arrives in theaters nationally May 15.
“Why now?” says Spinney with a smile. “Well, I’d rather see it come out while I’m alive.”
In a recent joint interview with Debra, his onetime colleague and his wife of nearly 40 years, Spinney, sporting shaggy silver locks, a trim beard and a self-effacing manner, calls the film “kind of flattering, ‘cause I was never cool. But Big Bird and Oscar are cool to people.”
The film, produced by producers Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker and Clay Frost, has been in the works for five years. No wonder. It draws on a wealth of material from Sesame Workshop, as well as the personal archive built over a lifetime by Spinney, an early adopter of 8mm movies and, in the 1970s, the earliest personal video.
“When you saw the carloads of photographs and movies leaving our house with the filmmakers,” says Debra Spinney, “you knew it would take them forever to look through all that stuff.”
They had a lot to wade through all right – a chronicle of a ground-breaking series, a one-of-a-kind artist who helped make it triumphant, and the storybook marriage that kept him inspired.
His childhood wasn’t so idyllic. Growing up in Waltham, Mass., he was a shrimpy kid with big ears, a girl’s name and a love of what the other boys derided as dolls. He had seen a puppet show when he was 5 and was hooked by what seemed a perfect way to express himself.
“Somehow, I was shy enough to not care about being seen,” he explains. “And I figured if I could ever get on a TV show with a character that I enjoyed doing, it might even get famous.
“And,” he sums up with a grin, “voila.”
In between, he spent years in local kids TV playing kooky characters and performing with a variety of puppets. Then he met Jim Henson at a puppetry festival. The Muppets virtuoso was helping put together an innovative children’s show for public television.
Bringing Spinney on board, he handed his new hire a couple of challenging new characters. One was Oscar the Grouch, a paragon of negativity, albeit lovably so, while the other, by chance, was Oscar’s polar opposite: a towering chick-child with a sunny-day disposition and a literally wide-eyed view of the world.
Big Bird was largely in synch with Spinney’s own upbeat sensibility, but that doesn’t mean playing him isn’t grueling. The film uncovers the claustrophobic contortions to which Spinney has subjected himself since “Sesame Street” premiered in 1969.
His right hand is raised aloft inside the creature’s 5-pound head to animate its buggy eyes and 18-inch-long beak. His left arm controls the Bird’s left wing. He furnishes its voice in real time while interacting with other characters he can see only on a tiny monitor strapped to his chest, with strips of his script taped around the screen for him to follow.
The first season, it was even trickier: He had no monitor. He was effectively flying blind.
“And at first, Jim wanted you to walk backwards,” Debra reminds her husband.
“That way,” Spinney laughs, “he thought the legs would bend properly (at the knees), like a real bird’s. I said, ‘Jim, I kind of reject that idea.’”
He leaves no doubt he has led a joyous life, but like every resident of Sesame Street, he has faced heartbreak.
There was the painful breakup with his first wife, who couldn’t abide his puppet passion.
There was the sight of shuttle Challenger exploding in 1986, killing everyone aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, a sight particularly upsetting for Spinney since the New Hampshire schoolteacher had been picked as the flight’s civilian passenger – bumping Spinney, NASA’s original choice.
And, of course, there was the sudden, unthinkable death of Henson in 1990 at age 53. The film shows Spinney, in character as Big Bird, at Henson’s memorial service singing “It Isn’t Easy Being Green,” the signature song of Kermit the Frog, the Muppet with which Henson is most identified. Big Bird concluded with a skyward glance and murmured, “Thank you, Kermit.”
“People asked, ‘How come you didn’t cry?’” says Spinney. “I cried plenty later.”
In the years that followed, life went on for “Sesame Street” and for Big Bird, even as a toddler Muppet named Elmo began to steal Bird’s limelight. (Is no one spared, even Big Bird, in a culture that is skewing ever younger?)
Nonetheless, Spinney today remains busy securing the Big Bird legacy while continuing to cope with inevitable headaches.
For instance, he reports that his vintage analog monitor has recently been replaced with an LED screen, which isn’t necessarily an improvement: It’s a little larger and doesn’t fit so well inside his costume.
“We had an awful time getting into the Bird yesterday,” he confides.
Not that Spinney is one to get his feathers ruffled by a job he still clearly adores. But despite the heights he’s achieved, the film reminds us: It’s not easy being Big Bird.
EDITOR'S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore