Although he’s enjoyed a daily, masterful presence on television for over four decades now, Caroll Spinney is not a name or a face most people would recognize. With his quiet, reclusive demeanor & truly awful Prince Valiant haircut, Spinney hardly casts the image of a living legend, but his humbly dorky looks are entirely deceiving. As depicted in the profile documentary I Am Big Bird, it’s only when he transforms into the characters Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch on the children’s television program Sesame Street that Spinney’s true, wonderful self comes to light. There’s something magical hidden in those gigantic, yellow & tiny, green costumes that release Spinney’s inner child (& hopeless grump) and allow him to be himself in an extroverted way that he cannot even attempt out of costume. Part of what makes Jim Henson’s muppets so special in comparison to other puppet media is that they legitimately feel like real people. What’s special about Spinney’s relationship with the muppets he operates is that they also make him feel like a real person.
Instead of solely asking the I Was There, Man types in Spinney’s life to talk about how great he is, I Am Big Bird also digs into exactly why its subject is so hermetic. Since his dedication to puppetry dates back to his formative years and his first name happens to be Caroll, Spinney suffered abuse from his childhood peers in which he was subjected to homophobic slurs and asked questions like, “Oh Carroll, are you playing with your dolls?” The abuse persisted in his home life, where his doting mother could do little to compensate for the explosive, violent treatment he received from a father who also disapproved of his artistry. As an adult, Spinney continued to struggle to connect with others. On the Sesame Street set he felt like an outsider, struggling to connect with Jim Henson as a friend & a equal, because of his overwhelming sense of awe that tinged their relationship (can’t blame him there). When he had to deal with romantic, self-worth, and suicidal crises on the set, he had essentially no one close to turn to and would sometimes weep while wearing the Big Bird suit, a thought that will haunt me forever. Today, Spinney is a happily married man who’s proud of his life’s work and the legend he will leave behind, but it was not an easy journey for him. In countless ways, Big Bird & Oscar saved his life.
Although it’s Spinney’s emotional turmoil that anchors I Am Big Bird, the documentary also makes time to deliver a lot of behind-the-scenes information on Big Bird’s & Sesame Street’s history. There’s some insight into how Spinney operates the suit, who will take the reins once he retires, and anecdotes about the feature films & live tours of the show’s past. When Spinney was young he wanted to do something “important” with puppets and it’s a miracle that he found a home on Sesame Street, posed here as a researched educational experiment that has no doubt changed countless lives for the better since its premier in the idealist times of 1969. The story of Caroll Spinney’s career as Big Bird & Oscar the Grouch is extensive & populated with big personalities like Jim Henson’s & Frank Oz’s, but what I enjoyed most about I Am Big Bird is that it looks past the typical Wikipedia bullet points a lot of profile docs would stick to. It instead digs deeper to expose a very sensitive soul the world usually doesn’t get privy to under all of that green & yellow felt & feathers.