Big Bird is, arguably, one of the best-known characters on the planet but how much do we really know about him? We know he’s yellow, 8′ 2″ and lives in a large nest behind 123 Sesame Street but the rest is murky. A new documentary, I Am Big Bird, exposes Caroll Spinney, the man who has spent forty-five years beneath the Muppet’s felt and feathers and knows the bird better than anyone. Spinney is Big Bird and Big Bird is Spinney. Here are five things you might not know about Big Bird and the man behind the mask.
- Muppet mastermind Jim Henson created Big Bird, but Spinney says, “I was given a lot of freedom to create the kind of guy he is. He’s a person like I was as a kid, except he doesn’t get pushed around as much. I was the smallest boy in my class so there is a lot of satisfaction playing the largest character who’s ever been on television. To be loved like a little child but be eight-feet-two, what a strange accomplishment.”
- Caroll’s relationship with Big Bird lasted longer than his first marriage, which blew up because his then wife was “embarrassed” by his career choice but Spinney calls his job “a dream come true. From the moment I first became aware of television I knew I wanted to be on TV regularly for children. So many of the things that have happened for me have been things I dreamed of doing.” As for retiring? “I can’t imagine it,” he says. “It keeps me young.”
- Underneath Big Bird’s feathers is a device called “an electric bra” strapped to Spinney’s chest so he can see what’s happening outside the feathers. “We call it that just as a joke,” says Spinney. “It’s really a TV monitor, a tiny little television set. We have a new one now, an LED monitor and it is too big. It takes up room and it is robbing me of space for the scripts inside.”
- Caroll is President Obama’s ninth cousin, but Big Bird isn’t dogmatic in the least. “Big Bird, I’m told by the owners of him, does not have political opinions. I thought of an idea that would get around that problem if someone [ever asked about it]. ‘I don’t know who that is,’ he says in Big’s voice. ‘I thought we had a king.’ In most fairy tales lands are run by kings or queens.”
- NASA invited Big Bird’s to be a passenger on the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger to get kids interested in the space program. “I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to go.’ About a month later they found out there was no place on the craft to put Big Bird. I realized it would be dangerous, but who could picture what actually happened?”