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Big Bird Was Supposed to Be on the Challenger

An interview with the voice of America's childhood, Carroll Spinney.

Carroll Spinney (left) and Kermit Love. Photo courtesy of Debra Spinney

Like any good American millennial, I grew up on Sesame Street. As an only child in the 90s, I was transfixed by that giant talking bird and his posse of garbage can-dwellers and diabetic monsters. So it was, needless to say, a dream come true to interview Big Bird—THE Big Bird, Carroll Spinney.

Spinney is tasked with playing a giant, six-year-old bird for generation after generation of viewers. He's taught us arithmetic, new vocabulary words, and how to make friends. He's served as the steady voice of American childhood while almost everything else about the nation has changed. In honor of the award-winning documentary about Spinney's life, I Am Big Bird, I spoke with the talented actor and puppeteer about Jim Henson, almost dying on the Challenger, and his goal of spending half a century as America's childhood companion.


At the end of our conversation, Spinney told me that someone had been listening. "Big Bird," he said, "Big Bird wants to say hello." Immediately, Spinney switched on the voice that kept me entranced for the better part of a decade. "Hello, Jennifer!" "Hello, Big Bird!" I was giddy and melancholic and overwhelmed, giggling uncontrollably at how close childhood still was, and how quickly Spinney could take me back.

VICE: I want to start off by saying thank you. I'm part of a generation that grew up loving Sesame Street, and you brought us all a lot of joy.
Carroll Spinney: Well, it was fun for me too!

How did you end up in this industry to begin with?
At eight years old, I tried giving a puppet show with one puppet and a stuffed flannel snake. I had enough of an audience to make me feel like, I want to this when I grow up. My mother saw the show and she made me a [set of] Punch and Judy [dolls]—because she was born in England. That gave me a puppeteer's background. I gave shows through my youth and teens and put myself through art school. I worked hard to get into television, and [ended up] on a TV show in Boston, but I wanted to do something more important. Then I made a very elaborate show that Jim Henson came and saw. He was looking for someone to play Big Bird and Oscar.

Photo courtesy of Debra Spinney

Did you have to audition for Jim?
No, he just decided that what I had was what he needed. Everything went wrong in my show, but I was very funny because I was very desperate. I was desperate because I knew he was in audience. After the show I was quite depressed, because I didn't know if he'd like it. Then he said, after the show, "I liked what you were trying to do."


Is it a strange kind of fame, being Big Bird for 45 years?
I plan to do 50 or more years of the show, which is kind of a unique thing: playing a six-year-old for 50 years!

I think it's amazing that [Sesame Street] crosses such a distance to please the whole audience. There are a lot of children's shows that little kids may like, but it's hard for grown-ups to watch.

Whoa, is Big Bird six years old?
Yes. It means he can be a child, and not just a know-it-all bird.

I read in the New York Post that you were meant to go up in the Challenger.
NASA wanted me to go up [in the Challenger]. They wondered if I would orbit with them, so they could show Big Bird up there to help children become more interested in the NASA space program. It was pretty hard for them to compete with Star Wars and all the rocket ships [on TV]. I think it would have been good if I could have gotten up there and the ship didn't implode.

It turns out, Big Bird couldn't fit on the plane. I even thought of a way I could do it and make [the outfit] fit, but I'm glad I didn't tell them, because I don't think I'd want to be on that ship.

What was it like for your children to see their dad play Big Bird on TV?
My son Ben was nine when his classmates said, "We don't watch your father's television show because it's a baby show and we're not babies." He said, "I don't care." Then I took him to New York and he was on the show one day, he was riding a bike up and down the sidewalk while Big Bird was saying goodbye for the day. After that show went on the air, the kids in school said, "Hey Ben, we saw you on Sesame Street, that was real cool!" And Ben said, "I thought you didn't watch that baby show."


My daughter Jessie, when she first hit 12, she said, "Daddy, some friends are coming over, but please do me a favor and don't do the voices or anything, I don't want them to know what you do." I said, "OK." Then when she was 14, she said, "Daddy, some friends are coming over, will you do the voices for us?" [ Sesame Street] had jokes for grown-ups. [Jessie said,] "My friends are watching the show and we're getting the jokes we didn't get before." That was good because now she realized it's not just a baby show.

What is it about Sesame Street that makes it so special, and has allowed it to go on for nearly 50 years?
I think it's amazing that [Sesame Street] crosses such a distance to please the whole audience. There's a lot of children's shows that little kids may like, but it's hard for grown-ups to watch. It's all "goody goody, we'll have such fun today, just jump up and down and clap your hands together!" Grown-ups don't care, and I can't blame them.

But [Sesame Street] always keeps their finger on the pulse of America, and it shows. They have young writers, and they research a great deal. That's what my wife was doing when I met her, she was in the research department, making sure the children understand the show and like it. It's truly educational. One of the genius [ideas] of Sesame Street is that it should be just as funny as it is educational; it should be fun to learn.

Is it ever difficult to deal with the children on the show?
Well, the way the show is now, there are fewer children on. But I loved having the children there. There was only one time, one boy kept messing up a scene deliberately, shouting out. It was very annoying because it was a physically demanding scene for me: Big Bird was trying to be a ballet dancer!


I was surprised I knew the song and I sang the words all right and I was able to have other thoughts, like, My god, I'm singing and this is the ceiling of Carnegie Hall, this has to be one of the top moments of my life.

What has been the high point of your career as Big Bird?
One of the [moments] that is really in my mind is singing at Carnegie Hall. I sang at Carnegie Hall! I was aware of Carnegie Hall my whole life—as a child, they had a radio show every Sunday, it started with, "The best tunes of all come from Carnegie Hall" and there was all kinds of music. I was asked to be in the show. It was Big Bird and Bob Hope, An Evening with Bob Hope and Big Bird. The piano was played by Julie Stein, who wrote "People who love people are the best people of all," so I sang that song as Big Bird and I tried out for [Hope] and I sang, just standing there by the piano.

I never really thought of myself as much of a singer, and during the song there's a peak part where you really get high and loud. I was standing beside the concert grand piano on the stage, and I hopped backwards and ended up sitting on the piano. I lounged on the piano and leaned my—Big Bird's—head way back. I could see the ceiling of the famous theater, and I was as high as the song took me. I stayed in pitch and all. I was surprised I knew the song and I sang the words all right and I was able to have other thoughts, like, My god, I'm singing and this is the ceiling of Carnegie Hall, this has to be one of the top moments of my life.

I've had some other really fabulous times, like receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmys. They only give one a year! That was pretty wonderful.

Is it hard for you to transition from being Big Bird to being Carroll?
It's just another part of life for me. I've been doing puppets all my life now, so there really isn't any transition. I just pick up the puppet and start talking.

Check out I Am Big Bird and follow Jennifer on Twitter.