Like fellow fictional icons Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Sesame Street's Big Bird has been one of the most universally beloved children's TV characters for many decades. While that distinction won't be ending soon, longtime performer and puppeteer Caroll Spinney is retiring from playing both Bird Bird and Oscar the Grouch. I do believe that trashcan denizen would be in full agreement with our reaction: "This stinks."
Here's how Caroll Spinney himself put it in the official announcement from Sesame Workshop.
Big Bird brought me so many places, opened my mind and nurtured my soul. And I plan to be an ambassador for Sesame Workshop for many years to come. After all, we're a family! But now it's time for two performers that I have worked with and respected -- and actually hand-picked for the guardianship of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch -- to take my alter-egos into their hands and continue to give them life.
Caroll Spinney first teamed up with Jim Henson and Sesame Street for the show's first season back in 1969, long before the show became a pop culture mirror. (Although his puppeteering career could have possibly taken off sooner, had he recognized the signs when he'd first met a very interested Henson seven years previous.) Then, he came close to vacating Sesame Street ahead of its second season, citing pay issues, but was persuaded to remain with the cast and crew. Thank heavens for that, and that Spinney wasn't on the doomed Challenger mission as planned.
Obviously, it would be weird in retrospect to picture anyone else inside that feathered costume, asking the kinds of questions that make five-year-old kids scratch their heads. Caroll Spinney gets the majority of credit for spinning both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch into timelessly enjoyable characters that have inspired and delighted for nearly 50 years.
As Caroll Spinney also put it, he was able to learn just as much from playing Big Bird and Oscar as others did by watching them. Granted, Spinney's knowledge was of a more personal nature. In his words:
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. Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while! They have given me great joy, led me to my true calling -- and my wonderful wife! -- and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.
Indeed. Songs like "ABC-DEF-GHI" and "I Love Trash" -- not to mention "I'm So Blue" -- will forever remain in my memories, as well as those of millions of other fans around the world. And I'm hoping for at least one return performance at some point after Caroll Spinney has been away from the role for a while.
But just because Spinney is leaving, that doesn't mean Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are moving away from Sesame Street. Rather, the characters will be played by new performers, though they're not at all new to Jim Henson's Muppet-verse. Eric Jacobson, who took over most of the retired Frank Oz's roles (such as the possibly gay Bert, Grover and Fozzie), has been Spinney's Oscar understudy since 2015, and will take on the role in the future. Meanwhile, current Kermit the Frog performer Matt Vogel will fully take over the Big Bird role, for which he has partnered with Spinney for years.
You can check out the special tribute below that was put together to honor Caroll Spinney's magnificent career.
Sesame Street, which has filmed nearly 4,500 episodes in its illustrious run, is set to premiere Season 49 on HBO on Saturday, November 17. Stay tuned for more big (but not necessarily grouchy) news, and head to our fall TV premiere schedule to check out all the non-children's programming heading to primetime soon.