Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street,” did a Reddit AMA session Friday, where he fielded questions about his decades-long career with the PBS children’s television show.
The 81-year-old performer dished details on Mr. Snuffleupagus, the show’s landmark “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” episode and, generally, what it’s been like playing the 8-foot yellow bird since 1969. Here are some of the actor’s best responses:
Q: What has been your most meaningful interaction with a child during filming? Or maybe from someone who grew up watching you and relayed a poignant story?
Okay, here’s one.
This is a very sad story, but it’s real.
I got a letter from a fan who said his little boy, who was 5 years old, his name was Joey, he was dying of cancer.
And he was so ill, the little boy knew he was dying.
So the man, in his letter, asked if I would call the little boy. He said the only thing that cheered him at all in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television.
So once in a while, he wouldn’t see Big Bird on some days, because he wasn’t necessarily in every show. So he asked could I telephone him, and talk to the boy, tell him what a good boy he’s been.
So I took a while to look up a phone, because this was before cell phones. And they got a long cord to bring a phone to the boy.
And I had Big Bird say “Hello! Hello Joey! It’s me, Big Bird!”
So he said “Is it really you, Big Bird?”
“Yes, it is.”
I chatted a while with him, about ten minutes, and he said “I’m glad you’re my friend Big Bird.”
And I said “I’d better let you go now.”
He said “Thank you for calling me Big Bird. You’re my friend. You make me happy.”
And it turns out that his father and mother were sitting with him when the phone call came. And he was very, very ill that day. And they called the parents in, because they weren’t sure how long he’d last.
And so his father wrote to me right away, and said “Thank you, thank you” – he hadn’t seen him smile since October, and this was in March – and when the phone was hung up, he said “Big Bird called me! He’s my friend.”
And he closed his eyes. And he passed away.
And I could see that what I say to children can be very important.
And he said “We haven’t seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled, as he passed away. It was a gift to us. Thank you.”
Q: What is your take on the ‘Goodbye Mr. Hooper’ episode? We were able to see the expressions on everybody else’s face during that scene but I’m curious as to how it affected you. Was it difficult to emulate the emotions everyone else’s faces showed using a puppet?
Editor’s note: On Thanksgiving Day in 1983, “Sesame Street” aired an episode that sought to explain death to a child when Will Lee, playing shopkeeper and Big Bird’s friend Mr. Hooper on the show, died from a heart attack. In an unprecedented move for a children’s show, producers decided to use Mr. Hooper’s death as a teachable moment for children. In “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” the other adults on Sesame Street explain to Big Bird why his friend wasn’t coming back.
Video by YouTube user TVBumpersCommercials
Well, I feel that I can show all kinds of emotions through Big Bird, through that puppet. I’m very emotional myself. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house during that scene, including me. When I finished the scene, it was a fairly long scene but shorter in the movie, it just… after I’ve done a long scene, the first thing I do is get out, and my face was wet with tears, and so were all the actors. The woman named Elena, who played Olivia in the movie, she’s passed now, but she said “When Big Bird said ‘But it’s so SAD!’ – that’s it, I just lost it. I started bawling my head off.”
Because we loved him. It’s losing Will Lee. What a lovely man he was.
Q: Why did Snuffy go from someone only Big Bird can see to everyone seeing him?
Well, for some time, they had a lot of people who were objecting to the fact that people weren’t believing Big Bird. Because you should believe, and children don’t lie (I don’t think that’s always necessarily true – when I was a child, although I tried to be a good kid) – anyways, they decided it was better for everybody to see it. Because Snuffy was REAL.
The only trouble, I felt, was if you missed the Thursday show, you missed everybody seeing Big Snuffy. So on Friday, he was standing around talking to everybody, and they said “What happened!?” if they didn’t watch it on Thursday. I think they should have had 1-2 of them discover Snuffy, to explain what it’s like not to be believed when you see something you know is true.
For more waterworks, Spinney, dressed as Big Bird, sang Kermit’s “Bein’ Green” at Jim Henson’s funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on May 21, 1990. Spinney ends the song by saying, “Thank you, Kermit.”
Video by YouTube user Peter Schultz
The actor also has a documentary, called “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” opening May 15.