At 81, The Man Behind Big Bird Sees 'No Reason To Quit'

At 81, The Man Behind Big Bird Sees 'No Reason To Quit'

10:26am May 02, 2015
The documentary I Am Big Bird tells the story of Caroll Spinney (left), who has been the man inside the yellow suit for more than 40 years.
The documentary I Am Big Bird tells the story of Caroll Spinney (left), who has been the man inside the yellow suit for more than 40 years.
Tribeca Film
  • The documentary I Am Big Bird tells the story of Caroll Spinney (left), who has been the man inside the yellow suit for more than 40 years.

    The documentary I Am Big Bird tells the story of Caroll Spinney (left), who has been the man inside the yellow suit for more than 40 years.

    Tribeca Film

  • Spinney, who also plays Oscar the Grouch, says the Big Bird voice is actually just his own voice, but a little higher.

    Spinney, who also plays Oscar the Grouch, says the Big Bird voice is actually just his own voice, but a little higher.

    Tribeca Film

  • Spinney (right) says Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, was a "true, true genius and a kind, warm man."

    Spinney (right) says Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, was a "true, true genius and a kind, warm man."

    Tribeca Film

Big Bird, the towering yellow bird with confetti feathers from Sesame Street, will eternally be 6 years old, but his character is nearly 50. The man behind Big Bird, Caroll Spinney, is 81 — and has no plans to step out of the suit any time soon.

"I see no reason to quit," Spinney tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I can't imagine walking away from being Big Bird. I mean, that's an awfully good job, and there's not too many of them. So, I just want to keep doing it until I can't do it anymore."

I Am Big Bird, a new documentary about Spinney's life, opens May 5. Spinney talks with Simon about what it's like to play Big Bird, and also a much darker character: Oscar the Grouch.


Interview Highlights

On how he created Big Bird's voice

It's just my own voice, a little higher. When he first started, Jim Henson — who created Big Bird and Oscar — said Big Bird was just a big goofy guy. ... And I said, "I think Big Bird might be more useful to the show if he were a child learning all the things we were teaching in the show." And so he didn't know the alphabet, even, for instance.

On whether Big Bird and Oscar are different sides of his personality

I think there's just an awful lot of me in Big Bird, but Oscar is pretty much — I think I know how he thinks because he thinks exactly the opposite of what I think is a good way to be. So the dark side of me [maybe] once in a while, but mostly it's the opposite side of how I am.

On whether he minds that people don't necessarily know who he is

I've been asked: Does it bother me that people don't know who you are? But they know Big Bird and Oscar. And I don't mind a bit because I know I can play them — and also good pay — and I get to take the pay home. Meanwhile, they're back at Sesame Street.

At this point, Big Bird and Oscar join in the conversation — apparently it's news to them that Spinney's been getting paid all this time. Since this is way more fun to hear than to read, we recommend you click the Listen link at the top of this page.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a moment in a new documentary where one of the creators of "Sesame Street" says everybody in the world knows who Big Bird is. Yes, but most people don't know who Big Bird really is. Since Big Bird's beginnings in 1969, the towering boyish bird with yellow confetti feathers has been voiced and animated by one man - Caroll Spinney. He also plays Oscar the Grouch. Big Bird is almost 50 years old. Caroll Spinney is 81, and he has no plans to step out of the suit anytime soon. The new documentary about Caroll Spinney's life, "I Am Big Bird," opens soon. He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAROLL SPINNEY: Hi there, Mr. Simon.

SIMON: Could you have played Big Bird for 40 years if there hadn't been a lot of you under the feathers?

SPINNEY: I think - I think that's one reason why I'm able to continue. I see no reason to quit. I can't imagine walking away from being Big Bird. I mean, that's an awfully good job that there's not too many of them. So I just want to keep doing it till I can't do it anymore.

SIMON: Where did the voice come from?

SPINNEY: It's just my own voice, a little higher. When he first started - Jim Henson, who created Bid Bird and Oscar - he said Big Bird was just a big, goofy guy. And it was - a script came along and I said I think Big Bird would be much more useful to the show if he were a child learning all the things we were teaching in the show. And so he didn't know the alphabet, even, for instance.

SIMON: Are Big Bird and Oscar different sides of your personality - the optimistic, young, boy bird and the grouch?

SPINNEY: I think there's an awful lot of me in Big Bird, but Oscar is pretty much - I think I know how he thinks because he thinks exactly the opposite of what I think is a good way to be. So the dark side of maybe me once in a while, but mostly it's the opposite side of how I am.

SIMON: Jim Henson - genius.

SPINNEY: A true, true genius and a kind, warm man. Humble - he'd never run to be in the forefront. That's why I think he embraced puppetry.

SIMON: There's an arresting moment in the film at Jim Henson's funeral...

SPINNEY: Yes.

SIMON: ...Where Big Bird sings "It's Not Easy Being Green." And I remember at first thinking why is Big Bird singing Kermit's song? And then I realized - of course because Jim Henson's gone, yeah.

SPINNEY: Yes, Jim was Kermit. It was his Charlie McCarthy - his signature character. And his son approached me and said would you be willing as Big Bird to sing Dad's song "It's Not Easy Being Green?" I said I'm honored that you would ask.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM BIG BIRD")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird, singing) It's not that easy being green, having to spend the day the color of the leaves.

The memorial service was open to the public back in - this was 1990. We were all crying. I didn't cry during the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM BIG BIRD")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird, singing) But why wonder? Why wonder? I am green, and it'll do fine. It's beautiful, and I think it's what I want to be.

That was a very touching thing, and I didn't mess it up either (laughter).

SIMON: No, you did - you did beautifully.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM BIG BIRD")

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Thank you, Kermit.

SIMON: I feel this interview would be incomplete if I didn't ask if it would be possible to speak with both Big Bird and Oscar.

SPINNEY: Yes, they might be right here. Are you here?

(As Big Bird) Hi, guys.

(As Oscar the Grouch) Hi, get away from me.

Oscar, don't be rude.

SIMON: Hi there, Mr. Bird. How are you? Scott Simon here.

SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Hi, there. I'm only 6. You don't have to call me mister (laughter).

SIMON: I air on the side of formality. Caroll, has it happened to you over the years that you're introduced as the man who does Big Bird? Well, what kind of reaction do you get?

SPINNEY: I've been asked - does it bother me that people don't know who you are, but they know Big Bird and Oscar? And I don't mind a bit because I know I can play them and also good pay, and I get to take the pay home. Meanwhile, they're back at Sesame Street.

(As Big Bird) Yeah, you never give me any of that money.

SIMON: (Laughter) Carroll Spinney is Big Bird and Oscar. The new documentary about his life is called "I Am Big Bird." Everybody joined us from the studios in New York. Thank you all very much for being with us.

SPINNEY: Thank you very much.

(As Big Bird) Bye.

SIMON: Goodbye.

SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch) Have a rotten day.

SIMON: (Laughter) Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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