Appreciation: Caroll Spinney’s unmatched talents made Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch icons
There are no two Muppets more temperamentally opposed than “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and both of them were Caroll Spinney, who died Sunday at the age of 85, having performed the characters for nearly half a century. One, the feathered incarnation of sunshine, the other a grousing dust mop; one voice pulled down from the sky, the other dragged up from the weeds.
Big Bird is one of the few Muppets with the gift of locomotion, free in body as in spirit. Oscar, who distrusts nearly everything, rarely leaves the security of his garbage can. Yet both were made to delight small children: Big Bird as a peer — he is always 6 years old — but one whose large body gives him stature, the other as a lampoon of adult gruffness, stubbornness and pointless ire.
That puppets can go on without the humans who originally gave them voice and movement is obvious. Kermit and Miss Piggy, now working for Disney (as the Bird and the Grouch thankfully do not) to mixed effect, have traveled on without Jim Henson and Frank Oz to give them life. Other “Sesame Street” Muppets have had multiple operators, without your ever noticing. Indeed, although most famous puppets pass on with their creators, it is simply not possible with Spinney’s characters, which belong to a world that still has need of them. And there would be too much to explain.
Successors can learn the moves, imitate the voice. Still, there is something primal in the relationship between a puppeteer and a puppet. It is barely metaphorical to say that the one gives life to the other; they are literally of one body.
Spinney was not the author of his lines, but, like any actor in a long-running role, he was the agent of their delivery, the engine of their spirit, and that spirit informed the lines he was given. Other puppeteers will carry on in Spinney’s place — it is some comfort to know that Matt Vogel, who began performing Big Bird in body last year when Spinney was no longer able to, had been his apprentice for more than 20 years. But only Caroll Spinney could have made them who they are.
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