Caroll Spinney, the longtime Sesame Street puppeteer who voiced the characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for nearly 50 years, died Sunday at the age of 85.
The Sesame Workshop confirmed that Spinney died at his home in Connecticut following a lengthy battle with dystonia.
After initially meeting Jim Henson in 1962, Spinney joined Sesame Street for its inaugural season in 1969 and remained with the beloved series through his retirement in 2018.
“Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending,” the Sesame Workshop said in a statement.
“His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while.”
In addition to his nearly 50-year stint as the voice of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Spinney also gave life to Sesame characters like Granny Bird, Bruno the Trashman and Beautiful Day Monster. The 2014 documentary I Am Big Bird also spotlighted Spinney’s tenure in the iconic yellow feathered suit.
“Welcomed to Sesame Street by Jim Henson, Caroll thrived under a mentorship that led to a decades-long great friendship. Caroll’s unparalleled career saw Big Bird visit China with Bob Hope, dance with the Rockettes, be celebrated with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a U.S. postage stamp, and named a ‘Living Legend’ by the Library of Congress,” the Sesame Workshop added.
“A favorite highlight for Caroll was conducting symphony orchestras and performing with them across the United States, Australia, and China, allowing him to personally connect with families everywhere through the music of Sesame Street. Caroll Spinney gave something truly special to the world. With deepest admiration, Sesame Workshop is proud to carry his memory – and his beloved characters – into the future.”
Due to his battle with dystonia, a muscle disorder, Spinney was forced to stop donning the Big Bird suit in 2015, but he continued to voice the character through his retirement in 2018. “I’ve been playing a 6-year-old for 50 years,” Spinney told the New York Times in 2018. “And the children bought it.”
Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said in a statement, “Caroll Spinney’s contributions to Sesame Street are countless. He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well. We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to Sesame Street and to children around the world.”