Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker's documentary, I Am Big Bird, may be the most romantic movie of the year. The film is a portrait, in the truest sense of the word, of Caroll Spinney, the man behind the beloved Sesame Street character. Big Bird is shown in a new light. And this guy, Spinney, this prince among men, has simply lived a fairy tale existence.
Note: This article will give away some of the most interesting parts of the film. So, *semi-spoiler alert* if you want to go in fresh.
Caroll Spinney grew up being ostracized because of his name and big ears which made him a loner which, in turn, made him the puppeteer who caught Muppet creator Jim Henson's eye at an industry festival. That led to a job on Sesame Street where Henson gave Spinney two characters: Big Bird, and later, Oscar the Grouch. These two puppets required a single person to control them — a rarity in the very team-oriented world of puppeteering. But Henson knew he had the right loner for the job.
Spinney would become a sensation as Big Bird, one of the most recognizable and famous characters in entertainment history. I Am Big Bird tells the story through interviews with Spinney's beloved wife, Debra, fellow puppeteer Frank Oz, and Spinney himself, who still gets "inside the bird" today at age 81.
The movie is a romantic look at a fascinating life. These are some of amazing things I learned while watching it:
1. Big Bird started out as a "very goofy guy, kind of a country yokel." And Spinney explains the character clicked for him when he realized Big Bird "just happens to be a big kid."
2. The term "inside the bird" is frequently used by Spinney and the film explains the mechanics of the puppet. Spinney's right hand controls Big Bird's mouth and eyebrows, fully extended above his head, while his left is also the Bird's left hand and it controls the other arm via a wire strung through the head. The work is a delicate dance and Spinney does it blindfolded. He wears a small monitor on his chest so he can see the video feed of himself, but he's essentially flying blind.
3. Spinney was discovered by Jim Henson at a puppet festival in Salt Lake City in August, 1969. He told him, "Work for the Muppets."
4. After a tough first few weeks working with Henson and the Muppets, Spinney decided to quit. He was about to meet with Henson when a friend talked him out of it. Big Bird may have never been.
5. Big Bird was once plucked, which left a large bald spot, and left in the dirt by a group of ROTC students who were entrusted with guarding the puppet. Spinney says, "It was like seeing my child raped and thrown on the ground and destroyed."
6. After his first marriage ended badly, Carrol Spinney, Big Bird himself, contemplated suicide. He explains his fortitude, "If you can just hold on, the sun will eventually come out for you."
7. Oscar the Grouch's voice was inspired by the cab driver who took Spinney to meet with Henson about the character. Spinney recalls repeating the phrase, "Where to, Mac?" over and over.
8. Spinney sang Kermit's song, "Bein' Green," at Jim Henson's memorial as Big Bird.
9. As part of a plan to popularize the Space Program with kids, NASA invited Spinney to orbit the Earth as Big Bird. The puppeteer eagerly accepted, but weeks later, was told there wouldn't be room to fit the huge puppet in the shuttle, called Challenger. On January 28, 1986, the shuttle exploded a little over a minute after takeoff, killing everyone onboard.
10. Spinney is still going strong as Big Bird on Sesame Street at age 81. But he does have an apprentice, Matt Vogel, who has been the Big Bird understudy for over 15 years.