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FILM: Meet the Man Behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch

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Caroll Spinney on the set of Sesame Street. (Courtesy PBS)

Who is Caroll Spinney? If your answer was I Am Big Bird then you’ve already seen the documentary by co-directors Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker.

If you haven’t, then you’ll also find out that, in addition to being the man inside that giant avian puppet, Spinney has also been portraying Oscar the Grouch since the day Sesame Street was first broadcast into our living rooms. Jim Henson was the mastermind behind the show’s creations but Caroll Spinney endowed them with his soul -- and as we watch his life story unfold in the film, Spinney knew from the inside out that “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”  I spoke with the filmmakers behind I Am Big Bird on bringing Spinney's story to the screen:

Before you went into production on a film about Big Bird, am I correct in assuming you were fans of Sesame Street?

Dave LaMattina: We both grew up with and loved the show. I loved the show so much, that it's actually where I wanted to work. I had an internship there in 2005, which is where this project started. I had a friend, who happened to be family friends with Caroll Spinney. I was rather embarrassed when I told her, I didn't know who that was. She explained to me that Caroll was Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Chad and I thought this would be a fascinating film. Thankfully Caroll, and his lovely wife Deb said, "Yes" and allowed us to make the movie.

Chad N. Walker: Until we started making this movie, I had forgotten how much of an effect Sesame had on me, how deeply ingrained it was. Seeing the archival footage, and especially old episodes as we were doing our research, it was amazing how many times I would see something small, and then be brought right back to where I was when I was watching that episode when I was kid.


Did you know in pre-production, or after you started filming, that this would be a film for adults?

Chad N. Walker: Our intent was never to make a film for children. We thought his story was interesting, and it happened to be about a children's character. We have festival screenings that we've had a lot of kids go to. I think the kids who are 12 and older get it a little bit more. We really wanted to tell a complete story of Caroll and Deb's lives. That really was the driving force behind the movie.  To do that justice, there's going to be the story about Caroll’s divorce and his other challenges.

There's an interesting moment of unveiling, when we see the man inside of the costume: did you think that might be confusing for younger kids?

Dave:  I haven't really seen the kids’ reactions to that moment specifically. Honestly, parents who bring their kids to a documentary in a theater may explain things differently to that kid. You are not necessarily getting kids into that theater who think Big Bird is a real being. I think that when Caroll gets into Big Bird, (even though Chad and I have been with Caroll now for 5 or 6 years), it really is still like Big Bird is there. It doesn't matter that we know Carol, that we know how it works, that we know there's a monitor inside, with a script inside. It's still this really weird feeling that there's a new person in the room, and that person is Big Bird that you've known forever. It's really a testament to not just Caroll, but the whole muppets and Sesame family that can design a character like that.

Chad: We do Q&As after screenings and sometimes Caroll will bring out Oscar. When we had our first meeting with Caroll and Deb, he brought out Oscar. You see Oscar doesn't have legs or anything, he's just dissolved into a pile on Carol's lap. Everyone sitting there looking at Oscar is like, "Oscar is alive. Oscar is right there." Carol often says, "That's the power of the puppet.” When it's done right, you can really forget that there's a performer manipulating the puppet.

In your interviews with Caroll, he comes across as staid and serious. It’s hard to put that person together with the character of Big Bird.

Dave: There are parts of Caroll that are still like a shy kid. I think when he has a puppet, he is allowed to be who he really is. Chad and I have gone to family barbecues at his house. When we do, there's always this part of the day where Carol brings out the puppet. When he doesn't have the puppet, he's little bit more quiet, more reserved. Some of the bigger personalities in his family take over. He is perfectly content to to live that way.

Oscar the Grouch and Caroll Spinney. (Courtesy PBS)
Oscar the Grouch and Caroll Spinney. (Courtesy PBS)

Chad: You can have a conversation with Caroll (this happens a lot when he has Oscar on his arm) and he'll be himself and then Oscar just interrupts him, as if it's totally somebody else. Then, he can go into the Big Bird voice. He's so much Big Bird, he's so much Oscar, he's so much himself. When he's performing that way, he can go in and out of all those characters.

At the beginning of his career, the film points out that he didn’t initially fit in with the crew at Sesame Street, but that same his individuality led to the creation of Oscar and Big Bird.

Dave: I think that comes back to Jim Henson and his ability to spot the right people for the characters he had in mind. Jim was looking for someone like Caroll, who could be the star of Sesame Street, someone who was more independent. One of the things that we both wish, is to have been able to have 5 minute conversation with Jim just to...

Chad: Just to speak with him and say like, "Why Caroll? What did you see in him?" You know Caroll addresses it in the film, but it would be really fascinating to hear what Jim had to say. Although he couldn’t have predicted that he would become the super star of Sesame Street.

What were your memories of Big Bird in China, a TV movie made in 1983?

Dave: It was the first Sesame Street primetime TV special. Sesame Street is all over world. There is a version of Sesame Street all over the world, but no one was ever allowed to have their own Big Bird, except China. The reason China was allowed to have their own Big Bird on their version of the show, was because Big Bird in China was released in China. It was a massive hit. China said, "If we have this program, then we have to have Big Bird. No one will watch it without Big Bird." For me particularly, that was the tape in my childhood that I wore out because I watched it so much. To really go revisit that as an adult was really special.

Caroll Spinney and Xiao Foo on the set of Big Bird in China. (Courtesy PBS)
Caroll Spinney and Xiao Foo on the set of Big Bird in China. (Courtesy PBS)

Being Elmo came out in 2011. Did that influence your approach to I Am Big Bird?

Dave: Years before Being Elmo came out, Sesame said, “There's an Elmo doc in the works, and it's been in the works for five years." We're sports fans and my stand was, you could make a documentary about Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter, because they both play for the Yankees.They're very different people, with very different lives.

Chad: When we went into that first meeting with Caroll, Dave and I both thought, Caroll is almost 80, he's probably going to retire in the next year or two. They’ve been working on the Elmo doc for a long time, which probably won’t affect us because we’re going to be done pretty soon. This just happens in documentary filmmaking all the time, right? In the first meeting with Caroll he says, "I have no plans to retire. I've been doing this for 40 years and I want to do it for 50." We looked at each other like, "Oh, well that changes the whole way we're going to make this movie." That's why we love making documentaries. You learn as you go, and it's always an adventure.



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