There aren’t many octogenarian entertainers who have managed to stay relevant in the ever-changing cultural zeitgeist, but then there haven’t been many people who have played Big Bird. Caroll Spinney helped create the big yellow bird for PBS’ “Sesame Street” in 1969, and he’s been playing the character ever since.
And if that isn’t impressive enough, he’s also played Oscar the Grouch for the same number of years. Although Big Bird is an international star, Spinney, 81, has mostly remained hidden behind the feathers. But an Oscar season parody of the film “Birdman” titled “Big Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Orange Pants),” which went viral, and the new documentary “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” (opening May 15) are finally giving the veteran puppeteer his due. And as “Sesame Street” heads into its 46th season, he has no plans to retire.
Watching “I Am Big Bird” is a very emotional experience for someone who is just a fan. How was it for you to watch?
It was something else, because I don’t like to make it a big deal that I’m on TV. I just have a wonderful job. I’m used to seeing characters I play on movies and things but not to see myself. [My wife] Debra and I didn’t realize it was going to be a romantic movie about our love affair. Well, it’s not an affair — we’ve been together for 42 years come June. It’s a joyous 42 years, let me tell you, the way we get along. If everyone in the world got along the way we get along, divorce would be almost unknown.
The film makes extensive use of your home movies. Are you constantly shooting them?
That’s probably only 1% of everything we have. It took them 4 and a half years to go through everything to put [the documentary] together. We gave them boxes and boxes of stuff. We had 8mm films and even some 16mm. I used to be an animator, and they used some of that here and there in the show. They came in three separate cars to our house, and their back seats and trunks were completely filled with boxes of films and videotapes and photographs. They put it all on DVD for us, which is great, even though I keep a VHS player in the house so we can put in a videotape now and then.
I’ve heard that children on the set of “Sesame Street” are instructed to be careful around Big Bird and not get too close because of your limited visibility inside the suit. Did you learn that the hard way?
Yes, definitely. It was the second time I was in the White House performing for a bunch of U.N. children from different countries in the costumes of their land. I’m trying to walk out of the scene — we were performing in the East Wing — and I stepped on one child’s lap. I heard this sound, and I thought it was a squeaky toy it was so small. I didn’t hurt the child, thankfully. I can’t see down, and there’s no way to see out. The only connection to the outer world is through the little, tiny TV set I’m wearing on my chest.
Your first trip to China was on tour with Bob Hope. How did his working relationship with Big Bird start?
It was a joke I told when we first worked together three years before we went to China. In 1976, I was invited to be on “The Bob Hope Special.” They wanted Kermit the Frog, but Jim [Henson] was too busy, so he said, “You can have the bird.” One of the writers said they could make some jokes for the bird, but when I got there, they were all Col. Sanders fried chicken jokes. I thought he could do better.
So I was in the bird [suit] when he walked onto the stage in front of 300 people. It was the warmup period before they start the tape. Big Bird looks at him — he was known for his swoopy nose — and says, [Big Bird voice] “Boy, I thought I had a funny-looking beak.” Here he is, one of the greatest comedians in the world and he laughed so hard he almost hit the floor. He laughed so hard, he had to put his hand down to catch himself. That was satisfying. It won him over, and it got me all the way to China.
Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are two of the most popular “Sesame Street” characters, but since you do both, are they never able to meet?
I was asked to be on “The Colbert Report” last year as Big Bird and Oscar. But when we got there, we discovered they wanted both characters on at the same time. Stephen Colbert didn’t know one man plays them both. We called Joey Mazzarino, our head writer, who’s a very good puppeteer as well. He agreed to zip over and do Oscar. I pre-recorded Oscar’s words, so it sounded right.
You’ve gotten to meet and work with so many people through Big Bird. Your wife, Debra, says in the documentary that you still haven’t met Paul McCartney. Has that changed?
Not yet, but I’m determined. One time, we heard when he was a guest on some show, he said he would love to do a children’s show that had rock ‘n’ roll in it. I said, “I want to be with him on that special.” I told our cameraman, Dave Driscoll, who’s also a cameraman for him when he plays big arenas, to mention it to him. He comes back from tour and I say, “Did you see him? Did you tell him?”
He says, “Yeah, I said, ‘Paul, Big Bird wants to do something with you.’” Paul says, “Doesn’t he know I’m married?” That’s not what I’m talking about! I’m a happily married dude!