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Bullet Points: The Puppet Master

The legend behind Big Bird is ready for his unfeathered close-up

Author Nicholas Derenzo

culture1

Caroll Spinney may be one of the most iconic performers in pop cultural history, but you probably wouldn’t recognize him if you passed him on the street. After all, the puppeteer has spent the better part of the past 45 years (and counting) covered in thousands of canary-yellow turkey feathers or inside a trash can, as the “Sesame Street” characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

This month, the 81-year-old is getting the bio-doc treatment with the release of I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, an emotional and candid spin through his long career. Here, the decidedly ungrouchy puppeteer dishes on life inside the bird. (May 6)

• ON PLAYING “BIG”
“I was probably the smallest boy in my class; I didn’t grow until I was 19. One of the biggest satisfactions for me is that Big Bird is the biggest character probably ever on television, at 8-foot-2. And I’m playing a six-year-old, which also makes me—since I’m now in my early 80s—the world’s oldest child star.”

• ON BIG BIRD BEING A BIG KID
“When I step into Big Bird, I know him from the inside out. He’s vulnerable, like children who are in a big world. I don’t know if I’d ever want to be a kid again. It’s so much work, so scary! And so I think that Big Bird reacts to life like that. I think children see themselves in him, even though nobody really looks much like him, which is probably a good thing—his beak is 18 inches long.”

• ON HIS YOUNG FANS
“The letters that I get to Big Bird have been wonderful through the years. Fun little ones like, ‘Dear Big Bird, You’re my best friend. Please come over and play with me. How ’bout next Thursday?’ Another one said, ‘Dear Big Bird, I just got bunk beds, and they’re fabulous. Please come and stay. You can have the top bunk.’”

• ON GUEST STARS
“I remember I was singing with Ray Charles, and his manager said, ‘How’s it feel that you’re singing for the second time with Ray Charles?’ And I said, ‘I was with him before?’ Not that he wasn’t a memorable, fabulous, beloved singer. It’s just that there are so many!”

• ON PERSONAL RECOGNITION
“It never bothered me that I wasn’t famous, but I must say there’s a satisfaction that this film will do some-thing about that now. I guess I like that!”

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