Carroll Spinney portrays two of the most recognizable characters on television, yet his face might not be a familiar one. He spends most of his time either in a yellow, feathered suit, or hidden behind a trash can. For over 40 years now, Spinney has performed both “Big Bird” and “Oscar the Grouch” on the beloved children’s show, Sesame Street. Surprised that “Big Bird” and “Oscar” are played by the same person? According to Spinney, “that’s the fun of the job, doing them both. It’s refreshing to get to be ‘Oscar’ after being so sweet all day.”
Spinney’s interest in puppetry began at age eight, when he started making his own puppets at the urging of his mother. He attended art school, soon had his own show, Rascal Rabbit, and in 1962 met a young man named Jim Henson, who at the time was beginning to enjoy his own success in the field of puppetry. Henson asked Spinney to come work for him in New York, but it wasn’t until 1969 that Spinney took him up on the offer. The show Spinney traveled to New York to work on: Sesame Street.
Below Spinney shares the genesis of his two characters:
Carroll Spinney on the first version of “Big Bird”:
And on the earliest incarnation of “Oscar the Grouch”:
In his three hour Archive interview, Carroll Spinney discusses his early interest in drawing and puppetry. He describes his first work in television puppetry, with his “Rascal Rabbit” puppet, outlines his time on Boston’s Bozo’s Circus, and recalls the first time he met Jim Henson. Spinney then details joining the cast of Sesame Street and explains the intricacies of performing “Big Bird” and “Oscar the Grouch.” He describes the two characters, what he’s added to their personalities over the years, and why he loves getting to play them both. Spinney speaks of his castmates on Sesame Street, how the death of Will Lee (“Mr. Hooper”) affected the show, and what it was like to shoot the memorable, “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” episode of Sesame Street. Spinney also illustrates the educational nature of the children’s program and offers advice to aspiring puppeteers. Michael Rosen conducted the interview on May 12, 2001 in Woodstock, CT.
A child of the ’80s, I was one of those kids who wanted (and still wants) to see the world as Kermit sees it. He believes in dreaming big, following your heart, and in bringing together creatures of all sorts to sing and dance. Kermit was, and still is, the friend you want in your corner – the peace-keeping, loyal frog who also happens to play a mean banjo.
And now he’s back on the big screen! In honor of the new Muppet movie out today, we’ve uncovered memorable Muppet moments in the Archive’s collection, and there are a-plenty! Many of the cast members of Sesame Street, including Roscoe Orman, Loretta Long, Sonia Manzano, and Bob McGrath, spoke with us about working with Muppets. Several interviewees recalled guest appearances on The Muppet Show, and many shared what it was like to work with the Muppet Man himself, Jim Henson. Our collection holds a plethora of Muppet memories, and has once more brought out the Kermit-loving kid in me.
When you hear the word Muppet, a few characters probably come to mind: Kermit, Miss Piggy, Bert and Ernie, maybe Fozzie and Cookie Monster, or even Red from Fraggle Rock. I was always a fan of Snuffleupagus and The Swedish Chef. There are a lot of Muppets out there, and each has its own distinct personality. Yes, technically, they’re puppets fashioned of fabric and rods, but through their facial expressions, voices, movements, and interactions with others, they seem as real as the flesh and blood actors with whom they appear on screen. For inanimate objects, they’re always sooo animated. (Think of Kermit’s “sheesh” and his gulp, when he scrunches up his face, or Miss Piggy’s snout when she’s mad at Kermit.) In his Archive interview, Sesame Street’s Roscoe Orman, who plays “Gordon Robinson,” sheds light on why the Muppets always feel like living, breathing beings: “The Henson puppeteers are extremely talented actors,” Orman explains. “They just happen to act with dolls. Whereas we act with our own selves, our own bodies, they act with these dolls. They become these dolls.” Gifted individuals like Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Kevin Clash, and Carroll Spinney performed the Muppets – skilled actors whose puppets were extensions of their personae. Enjoy for yourself as Orman and others on Sesame Street describe what its like to have Muppets and Muppeteers as co-workers:
The Muppet Show was more adult in nature than Sesame Street, and a hard sell for that very reason. In his 2001 Archive interview, Jim Henson’s manager, Bernie Brillstein shared the difficulty he encountered in convincing people that Muppets did not have to be solely for young audiences. The Muppets appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1975, in sketches that Bernstein described as not a great fit, but the Muppets finally found a primetime home in London, where The Muppet Show was shot in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Brillstein and Archive interviewees Andy Williams and Florence Henderson, who appeared as special guests on the program, recall their experiences with Jim Henson on The Muppet Show:
Statler and Waldorf, “Pigs in Space,” “Mahna mahna”- which my sister and I mistakenly believed was called “Phenomenon…” so many incredible characters and skits emerged from The Muppet Show. Turns out the Muppets were ready-for-primetime players, and Jim Henson knew how to make them shine. So when Henson’s own light went out on that day in May of 1990, his death came as a shock, and many wondered what it would mean for the future of his beloved Muppets. Several of our Archive interviewees reminisced on working with Henson, and on the atmosphere he fostered on his shows:
Though there will never be another quite like Jim Henson, his death did not signify the end of all things Muppet. Disney, Jim Henson Studios, and The Sesame Workshop continue to provide the world with the joy of Kermit, Ernie, and friends, and I sincerely hope that there will never be a world without Muppets. I hope that today’s new Muppet movie is simply the latest adventure in a long list of great Muppet capers yet to come, and that the film honors the characters I cherish from my youth. In my book, every child should have the chance to see the world according to Kermit.
“It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to meet the Muppets on The Muppet Show tonight!”
Thirty-five years ago this month, The Muppet Show premiered. Its creator, Jim Henson, had a vision to create a program with his Sesame Street puppets that would appeal to both young and old alike. The show featured the popular Sesame character Kermit the Frog as the manager of “The Muppet Theater”. New muppets were introduced: Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, The Swedish Chef, Rowlf the Dog, Animal, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, the critics Statler and Waldorf and many others. The puppeteers Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt and Henson performed the characters that would appear in a half-hour program with a rotating cast of guest stars, skits, and musical numbers. Henson’s manger, Bernie Brillstein, tried hard to sell the idea to networks but no one believed the puppets would work as anything except children’s entertainment. Eventually, a British network agreed to produce the series. It was later sold in the Unites States as a syndicated series and first aired on September 5, 1976 with special guest Joel Grey. Over the next five years, the show featured a who’s who of talented performers, including George Burns, Alice Cooper, Diana Ross, and Rudolf Nureyev. It went on to be nominated for twenty-one Primetime Emmy Awards. See below for some of our Archive interviewees who appeared on the show!
Jim Henson’s Manager Bernie Brillstein on how difficult it was to sell The Muppet Show, because “puppets wouldn’t work at night”: