Caroll Spinney may be the most unknown famous person in America…
“It’s the Bird and Grouch who’s famous, not me,” says Spinney, the man who has spent the last 43 years in a bird costume (and a trash can) as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Muppets creator Jim Henson once acknowledged Spinney as “the only genius I’ve ever known.”
It was 50 years ago that the two puppeteers first met — a meeting that would make an indelible impact on Spinney, who was hired by Henson to perform as Big Bird and Oscar on Sesame Street, from the show’s inception in 1969. Over the next four decades, Spinney would create a canon of work in film and television, win Grammys and Emmys, and be named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress.
In celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of that first meeting, Caroll Spinney sat down with Rock Cellar Magazine for an exclusive interview about lessons learned from a life in feathers, and the good friends he made along the way like Waylon Jennings, Will Lee and Jim Henson.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When and where did you meet Jim Henson for the first time?
Caroll Spinney: It was in June 1962, and he came up to a local high school in Old Sturbridge Village for a puppet festival, for the Boston Guild of Puppeteers of America. I had been aware of his work since 1960, when I first saw his Wilkin’s coffee commercials on television. He came up from New York with 55 minutes of the best live show I’ve ever seen in my life, to this day. I was so humbled by his talents.
He did his wonderful show, then I did my show, and he came back stage afterwards and said, “I like what you’re doing, why don’t you come to New York and talk about the Muppets?” Jim was so soft-spoken and under-spoken, that I just thought he wanted to talk shop.
Seven years later he asked me again in Salt Lake City to “come down to New York and talk about the Muppets, and work for me.” I said to myself, “Oh God, that’s what he meant seven years ago!”
RCM: What was it about your puppet show that caught Jim Henson’s attention?
CS: I was doing hand puppets and he particularly liked this googly-eyed bird who was kind of snarky and he’d bite me a lot. Jim liked physical comedy with puppets and how the bird would keep attacking me and bite me on the nose and on the hand.
We were at a puppet festival many years later, 4 or 5 years into the show, and I had my puppet Picklepuss strangle Kermit practically to death. Jim loved it! He loved the dark side, and you’ll see that if you look at some of his stuff before Sesame Street. You’ll see that he never planned to be on a children’s show – in fact, they had to twist his arm. That’s why The Muppet Show years later wasn’t just for kids, it’s for everyone.
But it was after he saw my snarky bird that would bite me, he came up to me and said, “Let’s talk about the Muppets.”
RCM: Do you remember the first conversation you had with Henson about the Big Bird character?
CS: I remember asking Jim, “Is he a parrot?” Jim said, “Why don’t you think of him as a little slow of wit.” But over time, Big Bird emerged as a four-year-old child trying to learn the alphabet.
RCM: So what kind of bird do you think Big Bird is?
CS: It think he’s just a lark, but my wife Debra insists he’s actually a giant condor. Originally, he had only a few feathers on his head.
RCM: Who else was working on Sesame Street at that time?
CS: It was only Jim and Frank Oz, and another guy who did odd stuff for him but Jim didn’t like his work much. Although Jim never said, “I don’t like him–” he would never say anything like that.
With regards to the Big Bird character who Jim was scouting a puppeteer for, Jim just said, “I thought perhaps I’d find somebody who I think might be more suited,” or “I don’t think he would be right for this character.” And indeed the guy wasn’t. He was a hard guy, and I think Jim made the right choice.
RCM: It didn’t take long for you and Henson to strike up a friendship, right?
CS: We became really close friends, as he was a sweet, sweet man. Nothing but wonderful kindness from that guy. Never saw him angry — vexed at times, but never angry. I loved the man, then suddenly, he was gone.
RCM: A year earlier, Sesame Street lost composer Joe Raposo at the young age of 52. He penned dozens of Sesame Street classics like C Is for Cookie, Ladybug Picnic, Bein’ Green, and the Sesame Street theme song.
CS: Joe was born to be on Sesame Street! (breaks into the famous Raposo song “Sing” in his Big Bird voice).
He was a major contributor for the first eight years of the show, then to everyone’s shock, they fired him. We couldn’t believe it and all said, “You fired Joe Raposo?” He was incredibly clever, but he had the biggest ego you have ever seen. I think he was an insecure person, so that was his cover. They hired him back, though. But later in life, he didn’t seem to be able to write them anymore. It was an era.
RCM: Big Bird has done a lot of singing over the years. Did you know that would be a part of the job?
CS: No, I didn’t know I’d be a singer when they hired me, but I’m a pretty fast study to learn a song. Still, I can read music only roughly, so they give me a scratch track where the writer would sing a song, then I learn it from there.
RCM: Of all the musical guests on Sesame Street over the last 43 years, which artists stand out in your memory?
CS: It’s funny, but I’m slightly intimidated by singing certain songs, like when Ray Charles came on the show. I remember standing at the piano practicing it with him and someone mentioned how lucky I was to have the opportunity to be singing the song with Ray Charles not once, but for a second time. I was so nervous, I hadn’t even realized I’d done it the first time.
But of all the musicians I’ve worked with on the show, Waylon Jennings was the only one who I became close friends with. We worked together on the Sesame Street movie, Follow that Bird in 1984.
RCM: That’s a great scene when Waylon Jennings’ character picks up the hitch-hiking Big Bird in his truck and they sing the song, Ain’t No Road Too Long.
CS: He didn’t like how he looked in the movie though, I remember. I was watching it with him when we premiered it in Nashville. When he saw himself he went on a diet, lost a lot of weight and was never heavy again. So he didn’t like the movie for that reason, but obviously he was absolutely fine and because we worked together on that film in Toronto, we actually became really close friends. We even spent Christmas with him one year.
RCM: Why was the movie Follow that Bird made in Toronto?
CS: We did an awful lot of stuff in Toronto, like the Muppet Family Christmas, because the dollar was very favorable. For six million dollars we were able to make an eight million-dollar movie. But of course, that was 25 years ago when a new car was under $4,000. Trouble is, I was the only one in the cast who was paid out of Canada — all the rest were paid out of New York. So I ended up having to pay income tax to Canada, and I ended up paying over 70% of my money to Canada. Boy, I made very little on that, and was very disappointed because I never got any royalties from that movie either.
What really ticked me off was the U.S. government already took their usual amount, even though I told them that I already paid a huge amount to Canada. I think out of the $150,000, I ended up with only $30,000. That was a big disappointment because at PBS, we don’t get that kind of money.
RCM: What about the 1978 hit album Sesame Street Fever, featuring you (Big Bird), Jim Henson (Ernie), Frank Oz (Bert, Grover), Jerry Nelson (The Count) and Robin Gibb?
CS: It was the biggest selling children’s record of all time — sold over a million copies and went gold, almost platinum — and all I got was 50 cents. Two checks for 25 cents is all I ever got paid!
When I asked them why I only got 50 cents, they said, “Well, it was a very expensive record to make.” No it wasn’t — it was made in a regular studio in two and a half days and it was only the four of us who made that record, along with Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees, and he waived his fee. They said it cost $50,000 to make the record, which I don’t believe, because I knew what studio time costs at that time, and it was nothing like that.
So I asked them again, “Why did I get so little?” and they said, “Well, until you pay off your $50,000,” and I said, “I pay it off? I owe you $50,000?” All they said was, “Therefore, anything that comes in after the record is paid for will go to us.” But all I ever got was 50 cents for Sesame Street Fever. I told them don’t plan on making any more Sesame Street albums then.
RCM: But Big Bird and Oscar did end up making more albums, right?
CS: Yes — after I told them that I’m not doing it unless I know what I’m getting paid up front before I make the record. They said, “We never do that,” and I said, “Fine, I won’t be making any new records then.”
They came back and said, “Alright, we’ll give you $17,000 if you’ll make three new records,” and I said, “Now you’re talking.” It ended up being six records, though, all made in a three day period where you spend hours and hours all day in a studio learning one song after another, and guess what– I never saw a penny!
When I asked them why they never sent the money they told me they never agreed to it. “We never said that!” is what they said, and it was then I realized it was never in writing.
I learned a hard lesson, that record companies are the sleaziest things in the business.
Waylon told me that every two years he’d have to sue his own record company. Can you believe that? Waylon would have an accountant go in and threaten lawsuit every two years.
It was really incredible just how crooked they were. I forget the guy’s name, who kept all the money, but I remember him pulling up in his new Cadillac from the profits of being the boss of this record company. They finally fired him because he had embezzled $95,000 from Sesame Street. Then three years later, they hired him back even though he never paid a cent of it back. But that’s the way the business went. So I finally refused to make any more records, and that’s why I don’t make records anymore.
RCM: Didn’t Oscar the Grouch make an album with Johnny Cash?
CS: I worked with him a couple times, but I remember how shocked I was when I was in Australia and walked into a record store to find this big advertisement that read: ‘Get the new Johnny Cash and Oscar the Grouch Record!’ And I said to myself, “Wait a minute, I didn’t sign off on that!” Again, I never got a penny out of that.
Out of all the albums I made the most I would get was a few hundred dollars, for making a whole album. For royalties, I was told that I’d get three quarters of a cent per album. And they never gave me that either.
RCM: Oscar and Johnny Cash came across as kindred spirits on that memorable skit where Cash sings Nasty Dan.
CS: That was a lot of fun to play. Oscar is such a paradox: he gets so much enjoyment out of being miserable, and he really seemed to hit it off with Johnny Cash. It makes sense, because like Cash, Oscar is tough, smart and cool. Unlike me. I’ve never been cool (laughs).
RCM: Oscar is a complicated character, don’t you think?
CS: Yes, and I think he’s sometimes misunderstood even by the people who work on the show, along with the writers. Oscar can be rude and mean, but fundamentally he has a heart of gold. It’s that dichotomy that makes him so immensely satisfying to play. He used to be orange, you know?
RCM: Yes, on the very first episode of Sesame Street. Do you ever sit down and watch those old episodes?
CS: No, I’ve actually never really watched the show. Well, I’ve seen a few of them. That first episode, that was my first time in Big Bird, and that’s why I was so bad. I had no way of seeing a monitor so I had no way of knowing how bad I was doing. So, when I saw the show when it aired, I said, “Oh my God, I don’t know how I kept a job!”
On that Old School DVD, did you ever notice the thing they show at the beginning, warning you not to show it to the children of today?
RCM: The disclaimer? “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”
CS: When I saw that I said, “What the hell is that about?” That’s ridiculous. What are they saying– that standards are so different now and that it would be bad for children to watch old episodes of Sesame Street?!
I asked them “Who wrote that?” but I never got an answer out of them. It’s the strangest thing and I can’t figure it out, because there’s absolutely nothing that’s politically incorrect or harmful to children in those shows.
RCM: So why did Oscar go from being orange to green?
CS: Jim wasn’t happy with Oscar’s face and when he asked the puppeteer builder to change it, he just said, ‘And make him green while you’re doing it.’ I think it was a simple as that. When Jim hired me, the puppets hadn’t even been built yet, because they were built around me. I remember in Jim’s earliest sketches of Oscar, he was kind of a purplish color, and the plan was for him to live in a pile of trash in the gutter.
RCM: Singer-songwriter Judy Collins wrote in her new memoir that Jim Henson named Oscar the Grouch after folk singer Oscar Brand, who was an original board member of the Children’s Television Workshop. Is this correct?
CS: No, Jim named him after a grouchy waiter at a restaurant called Oscar’s. I don’t even know who Oscar Brand is, myself. I just spent half an hour with Judy a little while ago and I had a lovely time with her. She’s very sweet. She was on Sesame Street several times back in the ’70s, and was one of so many memorable artists from that era.
RCM: Perhaps the most memorable Sesame Street episode — one that left an indelible impact on me and probably countless other kids — was the 1983 show on which Mr. Hooper (Will Lee) dies.
CS: We were devastated by the loss of Will, and we wondered how to deal with his passing on the show. It was argued that, since our audience is so young, the storyline should be that Mr. Hooper retires and moves to Florida, to avoid dealing with the subject of death. But then it was decided that the show be honest and teach children about loss.
RCM: And like Mr. Hooper, who gave gentle guidance to Big Bird when he’d go into Hooper’s Store for birdseed milk shakes and advice, Will Lee was a friend to you, right?
CS: Will was a wonderful friend. He was the sweetest man and so fun to work with, and he was totally into his character.
One day on the show, just to be funny, I said “Hello, Mr. Looper” and he replied “No, that’s Hooper, Big Bird.” It developed into a regular routine where Big Bird wouldn’t be able to remember Mr. Hooper’s name correctly. The next time I greeted him it would be “Scooper” or “Tooper” — I even got away with “Mr. Pooper.”
When we shot the final scene of that show where all the adult characters (Luis, Maria, David, Olivia, Bob, Susan and Gordon) explained the death of Mr. Hooper to Big Bird, everyone in the cast had genuine tears in their eyes. We used the first take, because it was so real. I think it was the best scene we ever did on Sesame Street, and it was our tribute to Will Lee.
RCM: Did you and other cast members know Will Lee had prostate cancer?
CS: We knew Will hadn’t been well, but he didn’t tell us what it was. He looked kind of purple — blotchy — and it was obvious he was very ill. I was wearing Big Bird’s legs but not the top, and I walked over to him and said (in Big Bird’s voice), “I love you Mr. Looper.” He looked at me and said, “And I love you, Caroll.” That was our last words together. We hugged and I never saw him gain, as he died three days later. I love the man.
RCM: Do you know that Sesame Street is still seen in over 150 countries?
CS: Yes, that’s three quarters of all the countries in the world. Imagine that!
There are even some schools that won’t let children start kindergarten if they haven’t been watching Sesame Street, because they won’t be prepared.
That’s interesting because Sesame Street was so criticized when we first went on air in ’69, as people said we were trying too much, and it was too advanced for the kids. But it wasn’t, and I’ve seen children who are less than two years old who know their alphabet.
Heck, I was never taught the alphabet when I was in kindergarten. I was in the first grade and the alphabet was brand new to me. At that age, we never did any counting or arithmetic at all, and these days you have to know quite a bit when you get out of kindergarten.
RCM: The recent Disney-produced Muppet film was a huge hit and the highest-grossing Muppet movie of all time. Have you seen it?
CS: Yes, it was quite good. It was really fun and is definitely worth seeing. Jason Segel, who wrote it with another writer, is a huge fan and he wanted to bring back the Muppets, because some people have forgotten who they were.
RCM: Of all the actors you’ve met over the last 43 years on Sesame Street, are there any that hold a special place in your heart?
CS: We do get to meet lots of television stars, more so than movie stars. We had Nicole Kidman on the show last year.
I have lots of pictures of my wife Debbie and me with people like James Stewart and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and that was very special for us. I’ve been on stage with Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn in The Night of a Hundred Stars, which was the most thrilling show I’ve ever been involved in because you’re standing on stage with some of the greatest people in show business.
RCM: You’ve also won a couple Grammys right?
CS: Yes. And I’ve recently been told by the writer and producer of Sesame Street that Big Bird will be up for a new Emmy in June, and that will make my seventh one. I’m also very proud of Big Bird’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
RCM: You’ve lost some special people in recent years – those who have either died, like Alaina Reed-Hall (Olivia) and Kermit Love (designer of the Big Bird costume), or moved on to other projects. Are you in contact with Frank Oz these days?
CS: We have no contact with Frank whatsoever. I’ll always remember how Jim would play Ernie, and the hilarious kinds of things he’d pull on Frank, who was the puppeteer for Bert. Jim was kind of a dickens when it came to Frank, who was very straight, while Jim was a lot like Ernie. Frank was this big scary guy at 6’3″, and he was kind of an intimidating man because of his manner.
The frustrating thing about Frank (Oz) is that he doesn’t do puppets anymore, and I consider him the greatest living puppeteer.
He’s a genius, but in different way than Jim was. I tell you, Jim was such a genius and he died much too soon.
RCM: Can you speculate what Jim Henson would have done with his career had he lived?
CS: I really think he would have gone into science fiction, because he did some of the earliest computer stuff on television, on Sesame Street around ’71. It was very simple stuff, but he was one of the first to do that.
Like I said, he loved the dark side, so I can imagine he would have ventured into science fiction. Having said that, I can only speculate because everything Jim did was a surprise.
RCM: How did you hear the news that Jim Henson died?
CS: It was quarter-to-seven on a Wednesday morning. He died on a Tuesday night and Anne Kinney, Jim’s personal secretary called and told me she had some very sad news. I couldn’t believe my ears as she said that Jim had fallen ill and died. Deb was there with me and we both collapsed in anguish. When he died it was an absolute shock and it was the end of Camelot for us.
He was the busiest person I ever saw, but he loved to hang out with Deb and I, even if it was only once or twice a year. To know Jim, you got to absolutely love him as a person.
RCM: You and your wife Deb are still very much a part of that world Jim Henson created, after all these years since his passing.
CS: Oh yes. My joy is that I’m still the Bird and the Grouch after 43 years. We get to travel the world. Because of Big Bird and Oscar I’ve been to the White House and met six First Ladies. Big Bird was recently in China. This will be a big year for Oscar, with many projects planned.
Jim Henson will always be my hero, and I often think of him when I’ve got my script in my hand and I’m clomping along in my big, funny Big Bird feet on the set of Sesame Street. I’ll chuckle to myself and say, ‘I think I’ve got the best job in the world!’