RIP Caroll Spinney — Legendary Puppeteer Of Big Bird And Oscar The Grouch Dead At 85

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How Did Caroll Spinney Die? New Details On The Death Of Puppeteer Of Big Bird And Oscar The Grouch At 85
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The legendary Muppeteer who played Sesame Street residents Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch has passed away. How did Caroll Spinney die?

Caroll Spinney died on December 8, 2019 at his Connecticut home. He battled an illness that forced him to retire in 2018. He was 85 years old.

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There aren't many children's shows and characters that are as beloved at the Muppets. From Sesame Street to The Muppet Show to the more recent Muppets, people of all ages fell in love with the "most sensational, inspirational, muppetational" characters and the shows that showcased them. And one of the main people responsible for bringing so much joy to so many was puppeteer Caroll Edwin Spinney.

For nearly 50 years he played the loveable big yellow bird, Big Bird, and the equally loveable neighborhood grouch, Oscar. Let's take a look at everything we know about his life and death.

1. He bought his first puppet when he was 8

Caroll Edwin Spinney was born on December 26, 1933, in Waltham, Massachusetts. His mom named him Caroll because he was born the day after Christmas. When he was five he saw a performance of Three Little Kittens and his love of puppeteering was born.

When he was eight, he bought a monkey puppet at a rummage sale and put on a puppet show. The following Christmas he received a Punch and Judy puppet theatre. He put on puppet shows throughout his childhood and teen years, performances that helped him pay for college. 

2. He got his start as a professional puppeteer in the 1950s

In 1955, Spinny moved to Las Vegas to perform in the show Rascal Rabbit. He moved back to Boston in 1958 to work as a puppeteer for The Judy and Goggle Show, in which he played Goggle. 

In the 1960s he performed on Bozo's Big Top. In 1969, Spinney performed a show that was a mix of live actors and puppets at the Puppeteers of America festival in Utah. Jim Henson happened to be in the audience. 

3. He met and blew off Jim Henson

Although Jim Henson was in the audience at the Puppeteers of America festival in 1969, Spinney and Henson first met seven years earlier in 1962 at another puppeteering festival. At the time, Henson asked Spinney if he would like to "talk about the Muppets."

Henson intended this as a job offer but Spinney didn't realize it at the time. When Henson and Spinney reconnected in Utah in 1969, Henson asked Spinney about the Muppets again. Spinney eventually joined Henson on Sesame Street in 1969.

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4. He was on Sesame Street for 50 seasons

Spinney joined Sesame Street for its first season in 1969. As Big Bird and Oscar, Spinney not only delighted legions of kids (and their parents) for decades, he also visited China with Bob Hope, danced with the Rockettes, celebrated his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was named a "Living Legend" by the Libary of Congress. 

He played Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and a few other more minor Muppets until 2018 when the disease he was battling — a neurological condition called dystonia, causing one's muscles to contract uncontrollably — forced him to retire. His last performances as Big Bird and Oscar were during the iconic show's 50th season which was filmed in 2018 and aired in 2019.

5. The documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is about his life

In 2014, Spinney was the subject of the documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. The film explored his life, his friendship and decades-long collaboration with Jim Henson, and the inspiration behind Big Bird.

And according to the documentary's website, it features "incredible footage of Spinney's earliest collaborations with Jim Henson as it traces Caroll's journey from bullied child to celebrated performer."

6. He leaves behind his wife and children

Spinney married Janice Spinney in 1960. They had three children before divorcing in 1971. He married his second wife, Debra Jean Gilroy, in 1979 and remained married to her until his death.

7. He was suffering from a neurological disorder

Spinney died at his home on December 8 after living with the neurological movement disorder dystonia for some time. Dystonia causes involuntary muscle contractions, cramps and other symptoms. This disease is what forced him to retire in 2018 when he was 84 years old. 

8. Sesame Workshop issued a statement

Sesame Workshop issued a press release about the death of Spinney. It said in part: 

"[Spinney's] enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while. Caroll Spinney gave something truly special to the world. With deepest admiration, Sesame Workshop is proud to carry his memory — and his beloved characters — into the future."

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Amy Lamare is a Los Angeles based writer covering entertainment, pop culture, beauty, fashion, fitness, technology, and the intersection of technology, business, and philanthropy. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.

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