Through his close friendship with Henson, Spinney met a big yellow bird and a grumpy green grouch; two characters that would ultimately change his life and career forever. As Big Bird and Oscar, the Muppeteer and voice actor travelled the world, appeared in a staggering 50 seasons of Sesame Street and became an instrumental figure in the childhoods of a generation. In 2014, he was the subject of the documentary I Am Big Bird, which delicately detailed the impact this unusual career choice has had on his personal life.
Earlier this month, Spinney passed away at the age of 85. His final performances as Big Bid and Oscar The Grouch were recorded shortly before his retirement in 2018 and aired during Sesame Street's landmark 50th anniversary show which aired earlier this year. In honour of Spinney's life and work, enjoy an exclusive Q&A in which he discusses his relationship with Jim Henson, the show's impact on little (and big) kids and what Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch would say about working with him for so long...
I saw his stuff long before I met him. He did sensational little things - he loved little characters that looked a little bit like frogs. Actually, Kermit wasn’t even a frog when he began he was just a ‘Frosh’ as Jim called him. He did 8 second commercials and they were the most devastatingly funny things I ever saw. One was a little guy standing beside a short stubby cannon aimed off to the side and over there is a fat little version of the same puppet and he says ‘Do you drink Wilkins Coffee?’ and the other character says ‘No’ and he blows him away with the cannon. Then he turns the canon to face us and he says ‘do YOU drink Wilkins coffee?’ and that’s it – it’s so quick and succinct, it was just amazing. I said, ‘now that’s puppets!’ and nine years later I got to work for him.
Did you have any idea then how much that relationship would impact your life and career?
Well I kind of thought it’d go a long way because it was Jim Henson. Everything I’d seen him do was incredible, original and really right on and so when he hired me and told me he was going to have me play two characters I said ‘I think this is going to be a wonderful opportunity that I’m being given’ and it’s certainly proven to be that.
Did Jim have any future plans for Big Bird that he may have discussed but didn’t come to pass?
Well yes, in a way. I said to him ‘What is this bird going to be like?’ and he said ‘I think it’s like a goofy country local’ so that’s how he was when I started but we were doing that for a little while and I said ‘you know, I don’t think this character has any real merit for this show, I think it’d be far better if he was a child that happens to be a big 8ft 2 bird’. The producers readily agreed and over the period of about a week I lightened his voice and dropped the yokel sound as I didn’t see why a yokel was even on a city street. From then on he was a surrogate child and he was learning the alphabet just like the kids at home.
It must be tricky playing one character for so long. How has Big Bird’s personality changed?
Once I changed him to a child he’s been pretty consistent to what I thought he should be. Jim gave me a lot of leeway with character so I think he’s been pretty consistent. He’s a child but of course, in our story, he’s always six years old. He’s the only one for which time stands still since so many of the people on the show are still on the show like Bob McGrath, he’s a year older than I, so you can see everybody ageing, including children. Once, a child was with us from the time she was six years old and I think the last time she was on the show she was 25 and married! People say ‘Well, how can Big Bird stay six years old?’ and we just say ‘because we say he does!’. Since I’m 81 that makes me the world’s oldest child star.
What about Oscar the Grouch - has his character changed along the way? Wasn’t he was originally orange?
He was orange, yes, and lately people have been asking me how come he turned green. Well, the answer is because Jim felt like making him green just because he could! Often when I’m doing Oscar I seem to know how he thinks because it’s exactly the opposite of what I think should be proper and good but one time he said - and I didn’t plan it - ‘Well people ask why I’m orange, actually I’m still orange, this is moss and algae mostly. If I took a bath I’d be orange again!’
Well I’ve always thought that some of the other characters were very funny. I don’t know which one I like better, Oscar or Big Bird. As a person I like Big Bird better but Oscar is kind of cool which I never was very much at school and so I think I just love the two characters I play. I’ve been asked ‘I bet you’d really like to be a director as well?’ – No, not at all. I love to act and I love to act these two characters and I love the fact that I get to have this opportunity. I’ve just finished taping the 46th season of the show and to keep playing the same characters for literally decades is very exciting.
What do you feel you’ve taken away from your time on the show?
Well it’s fun to know that he’s still liked and now because of this movie Big Bird and Oscar are having a great resurgence of interest and that’s wonderful as far as I’m concerned. People say ‘why is the movie being done now?’ – it’s the first time I was asked if they could make a documentary about me and of course we co-operated every bit, like all those inserts are videos that me and my wife Deb, who is also prominently in the movie, filmed. We didn’t realise when we were making all of those videos and movies that they would actually make it to the big screen!
It must be quite a surreal experience…
Yeah it’s quite strange seeing your life up there on the big screen. Of course, that’s just the surface of it, there’s so many facets to people’s lives but I must say that I like their interpretation of it because one of the most pertinent things to me is my wife – I like to put it this way: becoming Big Bird is the second greatest thing that ever happened to me and, of course, she is the best thing that ever happened to me.
You must get approached by so many children but also an increasing number of adults. What’s the most common thing you get asked by older fans?
Well when people meet me they say ‘I never thought I’d be speaking to the person who voices Big Bird.’ He’s not a regular character because he’s had a life with happiness, sadness, frustrations, successes. So many people say, particularly a lot of people in their 40s, ‘You’ve really meant so much to me during my childhood’ and now they have children themselves and they like the fact that the same fellow is still doing this character decades later. I think that’s a really satisfying thing.
Was there any other character that you would have loved to have voiced if you were given the chance?
I can’t think of one. I work with some awfully clever puppeteers and I love what they do with them. Frank Oz, his stuff was devastatingly funny and Jim himself, he was a marvel to work with because he was friendly and nice and never critical but if he didn’t like something he’d be like ‘Hmmm’ and if he said ‘Hmmm’ it meant ‘Maybe you could do better’ and if did like something he’d say ‘Lovely, lovely…very nice!’ Actually he sounded a lot like Ernie; it was a very pleasant and very nice ‘Hmmm’. Some builders would bring a puppet to him to see if he liked what they were interpreting his drawings like and if he said ‘Hmmm’ tears would flow because they wanted to please him but if he said ‘Oh good!’ you knew you were in - but he was never cruel, I must say.
Everyone must be asking you about working with Big Bird and Oscar for so long but what do you think they’d say about working with you for so long?
Well Big Bird is very polite and he often looks at me and calls me Mr Spinney, actually he’s sort of like my child - but Oscar, if I have him on my hands and he’s talking and being humorous in his manner, I have him turn around with his great big eyes staring at me. He’s never liked me, he’s always very intimidating. I kind of get a kick out of that, that he’ll put me down sharply. It’s probably my own fault but I figure that’s what he should be doing!