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The Man Inside the Bird: Caroll Spinney and Filmmakers Look Back on 45 Years of 'Sesame Street'

Photo of Casey Cipriani By Casey Cipriani | Indiewire June 16, 2014 at 12:57PM

A new documentary examines the life of Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on "Sesame Street."
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"I am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story"

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!

Caroll Spinney on the set of "Sesame Street"

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.

"Deb said, you know I'm not a professional or anything but I've pretty much videotaped everything we've ever done."

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. 

This article is related to: Interviews , I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, Caroll Spinney, Jim Henson, Sesame Street, Documentary