By Casey Cipriani | Indiewire June 16, 2014 at 12:57PM
Caroll Spinney has been playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on "Sesame Street" for 45 years when, after making a humble start as a traveling puppeteer, he was invited by Jim Henson to come to New York to work on "Sesame Street." The rest is history. After decades of stretching and extending his arm to work the giant bird's head (damaging tendons and nerves in the process), Spinney, now 80 years old, has no plan to give up playing Big Bird -- a character who he says is a part of his soul. Years ago, Spinney handpicked his own successor, an understudy who has since waited, quite literally, in the wings for almost 20 years.
When his first marriage to a woman embarrassed by his career ended in divorce, Spinney found Debra, the love of his life, who meticulously documented practically every moment of their marriage and life together. These home videos helped documentary filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker piece together a charming film that examines Spinney's story from childhood to small-time puppeteer to portraying one of the most beloved characters in television history.
Years ago, Big Bird's popularity began to wane when stiff competition from other children's programming forced "Sesame Street" to shift its focus to a younger audience. Elmo was introduced, and the writers began to explore different characters. Despite that shift, Big Bird and Oscar remained staples on the show, and it can be said that Big Bird even helped shape the results of the 2012 presidential election. "I am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney" story premiered at Hot Docs this year and screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend. Indiewire spoke with filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker as well as Big Bird himself, Caroll Spinney, on the eve of the film's showing at LAFF.
What made you guys want to shoot the story of Big Bird and Caroll?
Dave LaMattina: In 2005, I interned at Sesame Workshop. I was in the home video department and I had no idea who Caroll Spinney was. I was telling a friend about the internship and she said "Oh, I'm related to Caroll Spinney," and I said, "Oh that's great! But who is Caroll Spinney?" and she started telling me how Caroll has been Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969 and he's still doing it and is a really interesting guy. So Chad, myself and our partner Clay [Frost] who is the executive producer, started talking about this as an idea for a documentary and in 2009 we approached Sesame Workshop. They were so supportive from the very beginning and we met Caroll and thankfully he said yes!
Caroll Spinney: I couldn't resist!
You guys used Kickstarter for a portion of this?
DL: We did use Kickstarter. We had talked about Kickstarter almost as early as when we had pitched Caroll. When we approached Caroll with the idea and explained what Kickstarter was and said that the only way we're going to be successful here is if you're supportive of this and participate in the rewards, he was totally on board. So we were able to tap into this amazing audience of people who, like ourselves, grew up on "Sesame Street" and who wanted to see this movie get made. The fact that Caroll participated in the rewards and was involved gave us some unique stuff.
Chad Walker: We were able to hit our goal, which was $100,000, and we actually even surpassed it and made $124,000.
We're really big fans of Kickstarter here at Indiewire.
CS: Yeah, it's a wonderful idea.
The film has a ton of your home videos, Caroll. It must have been a godsend for you guys as documentary filmmakers, that Caroll and Deb had such an extensive library of home videos. Caroll, did it take you a lot of digging to find them? And Dave and Chad, how did you guys go about digging through and finding what you wanted and needed?
CS: Well Deb, my wife, is a really fabulous archivist. She keeps all kinds of things like that. Had it been strictly up to me, I don't think they would have half the movie! She searched and came up with tons of things and they drove away with about three carloads of films.
CW: When we had the meeting with Caroll and Deb, the first meeting where we pitched them on the idea, Deb said, you know I'm not a professional or anything but I've pretty much videotaped everything we've ever done, and at that moment we knew this was going to be an amazing opportunity. Like Caroll said, there were just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of stuff to go through. In the first box was [footage from] behind the scenes of "Muppet Family Christmas" and "Follow That Bird" and we're losing our minds. Then you had six hours of driving through New Zealand just with the camera sticking out the window that you would go through. But even on those tapes you find little gems, like Caroll running and falling down the hill and Deb laughing at him and stuff like that. It was really remarkable.
There are also a few animated sequences in the film. What inspired those?
CW: That kind of came out of necessity. Caroll would have these amazing stories but there just wasn't any footage of it. So we started thinking about what an interesting way would be to tell the story without anything to cover it and we thought, what's really big in terms of "Sesame Street"? And it was all those little animations and all those little cartoons. That's really where that came from. The whole beginning was this cartoon called "The Noble Ostrich," you can find it on YouTube. that was really the inspiration for the style of the animation, and then also it always seemed like there were numbers and letters flying out of people's mouths to help you learn so that's where the idea for text came from.
They're definitely a nice addition.
CS: It really looks good because it looks like a part of "Sesame Street."
Moving on to "Sesame Street," it's revealed in the film that Big Bird started out as a country yokel and you had the idea to transform him into a big kid. Do you remember where you got that idea?
CS: Well a script came along where Big Bird wondered why all these children were going into a building, and he peeked in the door and they were all having fun. It was a daycare center for slightly older kids. So Big Bird wanted to go in but Jim [Henson] had this idea, he always had wanted to make a silly goofy bird. So his image was that Big Bird would be kind of a yokel, but suddenly I questioned, why would Big Bird be a yokel hanging around in a city street? Because it's kind of a city scene. So I said I should play him like a child, 'cause I remember I was the smallest boy in my class, which makes it rather satisfying that I got to be the tallest character on television, but I felt that if he was a child that would be natural, he would want to go in and play with the other kids. In my class, when I was a little boy, there was a boy who was a head taller than me and yet he was the same age. I took it as: we all come in different sizes and what if I play it as a child from now on? The producers readily agreed.
Next: On whether it's lonely to be inside the Big Bird suit, and what it was like to work with Jim Henson.
You've said that being inside the costume can be a little isolating and lonely. But it sounds like that's the kind of work that you enjoy. The film said you're not a loner but there you like to do your own thing. So is being in there how you like to work?
CS: Yeah, 'cause I'm kind of used to it after 45 years. The first year it was much lonelier because I couldn't see out, but we came up with the idea that I would wear a little tiny television set so I get to see what you're seeing at home as we're taping it. I was able to perform him much better and also I could see the people I was working with in the picture.
It's a really tiny picture, only an inch and a quarter diagonal. That's all I need for the information. I like it that way. There's not much room in there and the scripts are so elaborate in these more recent years that I really need to take scripts in, and you have to include what some of the others are saying, otherwise I don't know when I start talking again. We film a lot of stuff in one day.
Now as for Oscar the Grouch, Big Bird and Oscar are kind of two heads of a coin, they have opposite personalities. Do you think that the characters are two sides of your own personality?
CS: Yeah, well, Oscar is the exact opposite of how I think you should behave. I just think of it as a negative view of the positive mind I have. Big Bird is sweet and nice and also sympathetic as kids can identify with him even though he looks like such a bizarre character – great 8 feet 2 inches, a beak 18 inches long. Children constantly identify with Big Bird, and the mail they got would reflect that. "Hey Big Bird, you're my friend, how about coming over and playing with me? How's Thursday?"
The film is definitely so much fun to watch, but there are some pretty heart-wrenching moments in it, proving that even being Big Bird is not all happiness all the time. Did being the character help you during those hard times in your life?
CS: I was suffering a divorce and I was very unhappy because my children were very young. It hit me when a woman, a fan, was chatting with me. She was pleased to meet Big Bird because her children liked him and liked the show, but she didn't know that my face was streamed with tears. It worked out well, because I ended up with the most wonderful wife I could ever imagine. We're together 41 years as of last week and we just have the most wonderful life. Debbie always says that sometimes when it seems the worst thing has happened, it's actually a door opening to the best thing you've ever had.
Can you tell me about your relationship with Jim Henson?
Well, he was a very amazing person. I've never met anyone similar to him. There are children somewhat like him, but he was a true genius and he also knew exactly what he wanted to do his whole life. I kind of did, but I was not so creative as he was. When I first worked with him I was impressed with how gentle and caring he was in not wanting to make me feel upset. I was doing it all wrong and instead of saying, "Can't you stay in sync? That puppet wasn't opening his mouth early enough when the music started," he'd say, "You know, just notice that there's a little bell and just listen for that little tiny ding, and within half a second just open the beak." He would say that whereas Frank Oz would be more direct, just like, 'Do it right!" He is also a genius and a very funny man and very clever. I was delighted by the things he said in the movie about my work. [Switches to Big Bird's voice] Yeah, you did a really great job guys! It's true!
The video of Big Bird singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Jim Henson's funeral is something I've seen a million times that always brings tears to my eyes. How did you get through that in costume?
CS: Nowadays, from my experience with that, I always take the lyrics inside the costume and the lyrics have to be placed inside Big Bird's neck very close to my eyes. That song I really goofed up. I realized I made a mistake while singing it, and of course we were all incredibly sad losing this incredible man. So it wasn't quite as good as what was written, but I made it rhyme so as I was walking back to sit down after putting the bird away and got back to sitting with Jane Henson and the family and the other puppeteers, she looked at me and said, "Good save!" I did a lot of crying before and afterwards but I managed to hold it back. When you're up there and everyone's watching, it's intimating for you and it helps inspire you to do it right. You only have this chance.
It was just unbelievable to think, he was only 53, and if somebody in their 30s thinks that's quite a ways off, it comes up so quick. I am now 80 and am enjoying life so beautifully and I'm having wonderful time reaping some of the awards because apparently I did a good job. I'm pleased about that. My happiness working with these fine guys who created this movie. I was amazed at how good they did.
I want to ask about the little girl from "Big Bird in China" (Lianzi Ouyang). After filming you lost touch with her but she appears in this film. Dave and Chad, did you guys find her? Or did "Sesame Street" find her?
CS: Well I have a fan club that was started by a young woman named Jenny Rizzio. We never were able to contact the little girl. We wrote letters and she said she wrote letters, but she never heard from us because they were never delivered. But when she was able to get on the internet, she works in Hong Kong, she found the fan club. Jenny called me telling me the little girl, who was 37 now, found an address to get in touch with me through the internet. And that's how we reconnected.
DL: For the film it had been some years and she had changed addresses so it had been a while since she and Caroll had last spoken. I can't remember how we found it honestly, but we got a phone number or an email, and I got a text from her one night saying she was really excited to be a part of the film, and for me personally, it was a really big deal because "Big Bird in China" was such a big deal in my house. I remember watching it with my mom and sister when it first premiered and everything. We still have the tape sitting in the office. My dad taped it off a TV and we wore that tape to death. To have her come out and be as amazing as she was, was one of the real joys of the film for me.
CS: It was so exciting. That contact took some years from first hearing from Jenny, so I was so delighted that she would be in the movie. She flew on her own saved money. There were so many tears. Those are real tears in that scene, which kind of finishes off the movie.
The film addresses how the focus of "Sesame Street" has kind of shifted to a younger audience since the introduction of Elmo. How do you feel about that shift and how does it affect your characters and your future on the show?
CS: Right. Well, Big Bird isn't seen as often, although they still feel he has a good reason to be on. For instance, last year we did a big production of Big Bird getting bullied because bullying was very much on the radar. It is in a sense really not too bad. I was 35 when I got the job in 1969, so I am glad I don't have the pace I was working then. I would be pretty exhausted. But I think he still has a real need to be on the show and so does Oscar. He has a great deal of popularity amongst adults, particularly men for some reason. [Switches to Oscar voice] Well I can't blame them, after all I'm a real guy!
I have to say it's pretty awesome chatting with Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
CS: Well I enjoyed it, and I think the guys did too. You ask some pretty great questions. Sometimes we've gotten rather nebulous ones like, "So, what is it like to live on Sesame Street?" You can't go anywhere with a question like that.
It is the highlight of my career, to have Big Bird tell me I ask good questions.