I wanted to take a moment to celebrate the life and work of the legendary Muppet performer Caroll Spinney, who passed away Sunday at age 85. Best known for performing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch — roles he performed for five decades — I thought it might be fun for readers to know a little bit about the circumstances that brought Big Bird, Oscar, and Caroll Spinney himself to Sesame Street.
In July 1968, Jim Henson was brought into the creative meetings that spawned the Children’s Television Workshop organization and the show Sesame Street. Jim was pivotal to the development of the series — co-creator Jon Stone advised his fellow CTW members that if they couldn’t get Jim Henson to perform puppets on Sesame Street, then there was no use having puppets on Sesame Street at all — and Jim immediately delivered, creating iconic Muppet characters like Ernie and Bert. Here’s Jim and Frank Oz working with an early version of Bert in a mirror:
As originally envisioned by its team of educators and child experts, Sesame Street was to move from Muppet segments over to “human only” segments, then back to Muppets, with no crossover–that is, while there were Muppets and human beings featured on Sesame Street, never the twain shall meet. The rationale was that preschoolers couldn’t differentiate between fantasy and reality–that blending the fantasy world of the Muppets with Real People would be confusing.
That was all well and good on paper — but there was a problem.
In the first test versions of the show, “people on the street couldn’t compete with the puppets,” said Jon Stone. “We had children watching these shows, and their attention span just went way down when we cut to the street.”
Here’s Stone with Jim Henson and an early version of Ernie:
The solution, then, was obvious. Muppets were needed on the street.
Jim Henson thought about it, and decided they needed “a character that the child could live through . . . we wanted to make this great big silly awkward creature that would make the same kind of dumb mistakes that kids make.” Big Bird, then — all seven feet of him — would represent the perspective of the children in the audience.
Jim and Jon Stone also decided they wanted another character that was Big Bird’s polar opposite of a wide-eyed innocent: a cynical, complaining grouch named Oscar. “We didn’t want to let it get TOO sweet,” said Stone. Originally, too, Jim and Stone had considered having Oscar live in the sewers, but decided that was “too gross.”
The next question was one of personnel—Jim wanted both characters performed by a single puppeteer, available for 130 shows each year. That was too much work for Jim to take on himself — and the versatile Frank Oz had already sworn off walk-around characters after the misery of performing the La Choy Dragon in the La Choy Chinese Food commercials. Take a look at one of these commercials:
So in August of 1969, Jim went on a recruiting trip to the Puppeteers of American convention in Salt Lake City. It was here he watched a 35-year-old performer named Caroll Spinney, who advertised his performance as “an experimental production” of puppetry and an animated background.
But as Spinney began his performance, an errant spotlight shone down on the screen behind him. “I couldn’t see my films to synchronize my movements,” sighed Spinney. “It was an immediate disaster.” But Jim made of point of greeting him backstage, and asked Spinney to meet with him again later.
When Spinney arrived at their meeting, Henson greeted him warmly. “I liked what you were TRYING to do,” he told Spinney, and offered him a job with the Muppets. Spinney eagerly and immediately accepted.
It would take a bit before Spinney “found” Big Bird’s character. Originally something of a bumpkin, Spinney soon began to play him as a four-year-old, and with a bit of redesigning—making his eyes less droopy and adding more feathers to his head–he became a preschooler in plumage. And played with Spinney’s sense of wide-eyed wonder, Big Bird was now truly representative of the audience.
Spinney was nervous about debuting Oscar — originally an orange shag rug with angry eyebrows and a wide mouth—in front of Henson. Spinney had only decided on the voice to use–based on a gruff Bronx cabdriver that had driven him to the studio–on the morning of the character’s first rehearsal appearance on October 10, 1969. He hadn’t run the voice past Jim first.
Making things even more nerve-wracking, Spinney had another problem in that the set had been constructed in such a way that the right-handed Spinney—once he was wedged behind the scenes and maneuvered himself into place—could only perform Oscar with his left hand. “Left hands are much stupider than your right if you’re right-handed,” he explained. It was a problem it would take a while to fix — note the contorted Oscar shown at right, as seen in Sesame’s first episode.
With Henson watching, Spinney screwed himself in position behind the trash can anyway, and a few moments later, Henson knocked on the can’s lid. Using Oscar’s head, Spinney banged the lid open. “GET AWAY FROM MY TRASH CAN!” he yelled in his Bronx cabdrivers’ voice.
Jim Henson smiled. “That’ll do fine,” he said.
Oscar, too, would be quickly redesigned, turning from radioactive orange to mossy green, a look he debuted on The Flip Wilson Show. (A confused CTW exec asked “What the hell is that?” but Oscar would remain green.)
For the rest of his life, Spinney would insist that Oscar was merely misunderstood — that underneath the grouch exterior there was actually a heart a gold. Jon Stone was having none of it. “The guy is a shit, right to the core,” he insisted. But Spinney invested the character with his own humanity–and despite Stone’s insisting otherwise, there burns a warm spot at the very center of the grouch.
Sesame Street would debut on November 10, 1969. Spinney would perform Big Bird and Oscar for the next five decades—truly the Muppets’ Iron Man. Jim Henson would always warmly and proudly refer to Spinney—the only day-to-day Muppet performer on the street–as “Muppets West.”
So here’s to Caroll Spinney, who played an enormous part in my childhood and my life—and probably yours as well. His childlike wonder made a Big Bird fly, and his humanity made Oscar . . . well, a lovably relatable grouch. Not a bad legacy at all.