Caroll Spinney is an octogenarian puppeteer. He is also a talented artist and the man who has been behind Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since the TV show’s first season. It premiered in the US on November 10, 1969 and is still running today. This documentary captures how the warmth radiating from Caroll has created a worldwide cultural icon and answers why he can’t say goodbye to the characters he so cherishes.
Spinney has dined with heads of state, won Emmys and been named a living legend by the American Library of Congress. He’s handpicked a successor who has waited, quite literally, in the wings as his understudy for almost 20 years. But while Caroll’s peers have long since slipped into cosy retirements or pursued other dreams, he has held on with no intention of retiring. Yielding the Bird would mean saying farewell to characters that are a true expression of his soul and that he treasures like his own children.
His mother handcrafted his first puppets and literally sacrificed her body to protect Caroll from a savage beating from his father. After Caroll’s first marriage to a woman “embarrassed” by his career ended in divorce, he would find Debra, the love of his life. And then there was Jim Henson, who transposed from boss to friend and whose death shattered Caroll. Though it was Henson who had the idea for Big Bird, it is Caroll who made him the character that continues to captivate audiences 45 years after his debut.
I Am Big Bird swings between the past and present, using never before seen home video footage as well as interviews with those who know Spinney best, including friends and colleagues. Among them is his understudy, Frank Oz (Cookie Monster, Bert), the late Jerry Nelson (The Count) and the late Jane Henson (Jim’s widow). It shows Caroll on set today as he transforms himself from a white-haired puppeteer into the six-year-old, eight-foot tall bird known the world over.
Largely funded by a 2012 Kickstarter campaign (Kickstarter being the world’s largest crowdfunding platform for creative projects), this is a fascinating homage to a man about whom I knew nothing. We learn about some of the darker chapters in his life, although inevitably Spinney and his second wife are painted as purer than the driven snow. They are the good guys (I use the term generically) and he is certainly someone who has brought immense pleasure to millions. He is portrayed as sensitive and caring and she as his rock, who brought out the very best in him.
While “puppeteer” is hardly a conventional career choice, Caroll not only made it his own but revelled in it and still does. Now though, other characters, notably Elmo, and newer shows aimed at children are having an impact.
Whether or not you have ever watched Sesame Street, or if your children or grandchildren do, I Am Big Bird is engaging and entertaining. Plaudits must go to the directors and producers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker. LaMattina also wrote the script, while Walker cut and shot the doco.
Rated G, it scores a 7½ out of 10.
Director: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Release Date: 30 July 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television