Did you know that Big Bird was bullied as a kid?

Or that he once played second fiddle to Bozo the Clown?

Or that he had most of his feathers and an eye plucked out?

'I Am Big Bird'
Image: Tribeca Films

'I Am Big Bird'

Or that he very nearly lost his life in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster?

Or that he was perhaps a little bit jealous of Elmo?

Or that the gentle heart of Big Bird beats right in synch with the man inside?

You’ll learn all this and more in I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, a charming and fascinating new documentary from Tribeca Film, now showing in limited release and available at iTunes.

The above statements apply either to the Sesame Street icon or to the man inside, the 81-year-old Spinney, the brilliant puppeteer who has worn the big yellow suit and voiced the character since 1969. But as the title suggests, the two are pretty much one and the same.

“I know I don’t own Big Bird,” says Spinney, who has slowed down but has no intention of retiring. “But I own his soul, I feel.”

And what a tender, sensitive soul it is. That’s clear to anybody who has ever watched Sesame Street. This big bird has a very big heart, full of unconditional love.

And it’s a heart that can be broken. In one of the boldest moves in the history of children’s television, Sesame Street’s writers decided to be very upfront in dealing with the death of one of its central characters.

When Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, they could have easily decided to say the beloved storeowner has simply moved away. Instead, they tackled his death head-on in the show, for millions of children to watch. When the other human characters tell Big Bird about Mr. Hooper’s death, Bird’s reaction is devastatingly powerful.

Spinney is masterful in his movements, as Big Bird’s body language shows the depth of his pain. But it is his childlike voice, directly from Spinney, that will break your heart. It’s enough to make a viewer weep—and indeed, cast and crew members wept openly when the scene was shot. (See for yourself. Grab a hankie.)

I Am Big Bird is clearly a labor of love by directors Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker (LaMattina also wrote, and Walker did the filming). They’re not great filmmakers, but this is one of those works where the subject matter outweighs the miscues. Unfortunately, one of the miscues, the incessant music, never goes away. They don’t just bring in the violins for the stirring moments; they bring them in for the entire film. It’s sentimental overkill.

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Some of the transitions from scene to scene are also a bit rough, but that’s a minor complaint in what is otherwise a nicely-done doc, sure to please any fan of Sesame Street and/or the big yellow guy.

'I Am Big Bird'
Image: Tribeca Films

'I Am Big Bird'

As the story of Spinney’s life unfolds, we learn about some of the things that formed his sensitivities—starting with his mother’s love. She made him puppets when he was a child, and encouraged his imagination and play. (His father, unfortunately, discouraged his puppetry, and was at times abusive. Their relationship was so fierce that Spinney enlisted in the Air Force as soon as he finished high school, to get as far away as possible.)

Along the way, classmates teased Spinney for his name, Caroll, and for “playing with dolls.” Some teased him for being gay, though he wasn’t. Even as Spinney recounts the story almost seven decades later, his pain is palpable: “It was the worst misery in my life,” he says. “I was so hurt, so angry. I looked out the window with tears in my eyes and said, ‘Some day, those bastards are gonna brag that they knew me.’”

That thought would prove prophetic, but not for a long time. His artistic career got off to a slow start. After a 4-year stint in the Air Force, Spinney performed in Vegas for a few years before moving to Boston, working on children’s shows Judy and Goggle and then Bozo’s Big Top. He was never truly satisfied with those gigs, and hankered for more.

When Spinney performed at a puppet convention in 1968, a young guy named Jim Henson was in the room. Spinney thought he had bombed, but Henson came backstage afterward and invited him to join him and Frank Oz to make a new show called Sesame Street. Spinney jumped on it, and the rest is history.

After some fits and starts in the first year, Spinney found his groove in the second season, and Big Bird became an international star. Spinney also developed a second character for the show, the gruff-but-lovable Oscar the Grouch. One of the show’s directors wanted the character to be all mean and ornery, all the time, but Spinney pushed back, and decided to give Oscar a kind heart beneath his curmudgeonly surface.

Meanwhile, Spinney was working through some personal pain at that time. His first wife did not support his artistic work, and the marriage ended in divorce after they had three young children. Spinney was devastated; he even considered suicide. He says his work and his Sesame Street colleagues helped him get through each miserable day.

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It wasn’t long before he met a woman named Debra at the Children’s Television Workshop, where Sesame Street is made. They quickly fell in love; their wonderful marriage is a recurring theme in the film, and it’s a joy to behold.

It’s also a joy to see Spinney’s friendship with Henson, the creator of The Muppets and one of the most brilliant creative minds of the second half of the twentieth century. “He was a true genius in every way,” says Spinney. “I never lost awe for the man.”

Henson felt the same way: “Big Bird is the most popular children’s character in the world, and I think that’s largely due to Caroll.”

Caroll Spinney, the man inside Big Bird
Image: Tribeca Films

Caroll Spinney, the man inside Big Bird

When Henson died unexpectedly in 1990, Spinney felt it deeply. At the memorial service, Spinney, dressed as Big Bird, sang “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” the theme song for Kermit the Frog—Henson’s most famous character. It’s a lovely moment.

In another scene, we learn that vandals plucked out most of the feathers and one eye of the Big Bird costume while it was in the back of a truck. When Spinney discovered the ruined outfit, he burst into tears. Later he describes how he felt at the time: “It was like seeing my child on the ground, raped and destroyed.”

Emilio Delgado, who plays fix-it shop owner Luis on Sesame Street, says Spinney “was crying like someone had done that to him. That’s when I knew that Big Bird and Caroll were one and the same.”

Bob McGrath, who plays Bob, adds, “When he steps into the Bird, he’s the Bird, and when he steps out, he’s Caroll, and there’s very little difference between those two.”

As for the Challenger tragedy and how Elmo usurped Big Bird’s preeminence on the show, well, you’ll just have to watch.

And you’ll see, as one of the Sesame Street crew members put it, just what makes this large, yellow, winged character so loved and adored around the world.

“It’s the true secret of Big Bird,” he says. “Unconditional love.”

Mark Moring writes for Grizzard Communications in Atlanta. He likes Big Bird, but he’s more of a fan of Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster. Because cookies.

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
Directed By
Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Run Time
1 hour 26 minutes
Caroll Spinney, Jim Henson, Frank Oz
Theatre Release
May 06, 2015 by Tribeca Film
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