You didn’t know his name, but you certainly knew his voice and alter ego.
Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for nearly 50 years on TV’s Sesame Street, died Sunday at his home in Connecticut. He was 85.
The Sesame Workshop, which produces the show, says Spinney had been suffering from dystonia -- a disease that causes involuntary muscle movements.
Spinney introduced Big Bird and Oscar on Sesame Street's first episode in November 1969. The show's young audience immediately embraced both characters.
The yellow feathered Big Bird stood two and a half meters tall and had a child's view of the world – he was filled with curiosity, questions, and innocence.
Oscar lived in a garbage can and was perpetually grubby and miserable. But he was still lovable even when he grumbled at anyone who lifted the lid of his can. Oscar let young kids understand that it's OK to be angry sometimes.
"Before I came to Sesame Street. I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important. Big Bird helped me find my purpose," Spinney once said.
The Massachusetts-born Spinney became interested in puppetry as a child and after serving in the U.S. Air Force, brought his skills to early television in the Boston area.
The founder of the Muppets troupe, Jim Henson, discovered Spinney at a puppet festival and helped develop Spinney's trademark characters for the new non-commercial children's series that set the standard for educational television.
In addition to Sesame Street, Spinney played Big Bird on TV game and variety shows and in live stage shows. The character is on the Library of Congress' list of Living Legends.
Playing Big Bird was a physically exhausting job. Spinney had to strap a television monitor to his body to see that was going on outside the huge costume he had to wear. He had to constantly hold his arm up to operate Big Bird's mouth.
Spinney gave up wearing the bird costume when he was 82 years-old, but continued to provide Big Bird's voice until he retired last year.
There is no retirement in sight for Big Bird or Oscar.