- Jared Huizenga
The World’s Oldest Child Star
"If you mean did I think that at 81 years old I'd still be dressing up like a 6-year-old bird, then definitely not," Caroll Spinney jokes before admitting that he knew early on he was a part of something special.
His name might not be one that jumps out at you right away, but if you're a child of the '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s or even of the last week, chances are you're familiar with his work.
Since 1969 Spinney has provided the voice, the body and the soul of some of the most beloved characters in television history. And now his story is being told on the big screen in the documentary, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.”
The film details the early years of Spinney's life – the child who loved art and puppetry; the supportive mother and the strict, sometimes abusive father; and a four-year stint in the military where a young man broke into TV in its infancy.
It touches on his stint as a character actor on the earliest episodes of the Bozo the Clown Show and how a live experimental performance gone wrong caught the eye of Jim Henson and catapulted him into a life and career that few could imagine, playing an 8-foot tall yellow bird and a green, garbage can dwelling grouch (Spinney is also Oscar the Grouch) for parts of six decades.
But more than anything “I Am Big Bird,” shows just how blurred the line between man and bird is. If you ask his family, friends and castmates – as filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker do – Big Bird is Caroll Spinney and Caroll Spinney is Big Bird.
Spinney's gracious and humble nature extends beyond the screen, beyond the bird suit and spills out when you chat with him – whether you're talking about the show (and how it impacted a certain movie critic), about the documentary or about any other unrelated tangent that comes up in a 45-minute phone conversation.
And it's interactions like that, one which left this 36-year-old a bit star struck when Big Bird himself answered a few questions, that Spinney genuinely seems to enjoy.
“It's amazing because I get to talk to so many people that have been touched by the show,” Spinney said of his time promoting the film. “I think they're really going to like [the film].”
And so far they have.
Out of the hundreds of films at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival, it ranked as the tenth most popular presentation. It currently has a score of 7 out of 10 on the Internet Movie Database and has been certified fresh by Rotten Tomatoes with a consensus score of 84%.
Spinney is also a fan of the film.
“We [he and his wife, Debra] were delighted when we saw it for the first time,” he said. “And then we saw it again at Toronto [International Film Festival] ... and it's really different seeing it with a crowd.”
“They really have a wonderful team and they did a great job.”
Among the most compelling topics of “I Am Big Bird” are the friendship that developed between Spinney and Muppets creator Jim Henson and the latter's untiimely death; the fact that Spinney was selected to go to space aboard the ill-fated Challenger (but the Big Bird costume was too big to be taken on board); and a look inside the bird, to see what physically makes Big Bird tick.
But what really makes Big Bird tick, according to those who were interviewed for the film, including Frank Oz, Bob McGrath and Jane Henson, is Spinney. It's all of the characteristics he brings to the table that have kept the character alive and thriving for this long. And many of those characteristics can be seen throughout “I Am Big Bird.”
Spinney said he still loves what he does and until he no longer does or is no longer physically able to, he plans to keep suiting up as Sesame Street's perpetual feathered child.
“I guess in a way that makes me the world's oldest child star.”
“I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” opens Friday, May 15, at the St. Anthony Main Theatre in Minneapolis.
★★★★ of ★★★★★