Some very sad news has arrived on Sesame StreetCaroll Spinney, the man who originated the characters of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and continued to perform them as recently as last year, has died at the age of 85. The press release from the Sesame Workshop notes that he had been “living with Dystonia for some time.” Dystonia is a disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions.

Even with the disorder, Spinney only fully retired from Sesame Street last year, and he worked long enough to contribute to the series’ 50th season on television. Spinney was part of the show from the very beginning; he performed Oscar — who was originally orange! — on the pilot for Sesame Street way back in 1969. In addition to performing Big Bird, Spinney is widely credited with defining the character’s lovable, innocent persona. (In a recent interview, Spinney explained that Big Bird was originally created to be “a funny, dumb country yokel.”)

In recent seasons, he had mostly contributed voices of Big Bird and Oscar while their puppeteering was performed by his understudies, Matt Vogel and Eric Jacobson, respectively. (Both have since assumed full-time duties for each character, who will continue to appear on Sesame Street in the future.) Here’s how the Sesame Workshop describes his career and legacy:

Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending. His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while.

This was the tribute to Spinney created by Sesame Street when he retired last year:

If you want to know more about Spinney, I recommend the recent documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which is available for rent or on Kanopy. It takes you behind the scenes of Sesame Street, and shows how completely Spinney threw himself into his roles (and just how physically demanding they were to perform).

I grew up watching Sesame Street in the early 1980s when Big Bird was the focal point of the series; my parents credit it with teaching me to read before I even made it to preschool. 30 years later, I returned to the show with my oldest daughter, and was delighted to find Spinney was performing Big Bird. There was something very comforting about that; about how his voice, and smile, and sweet disposition hadn’t changed.

While my older daughter is more of an Elmo girl, my youngest gravitated to Big Bird. For her first birthday, I bought her a stuffed toy of him. Over a year later, she hasn’t been without it for a single night; it’s been so loved, in fact, that it’s starting to fall apart. I look at this ramshackle toy, and I see how utterly adored it is, and it makes me think about how many millions of children felt this way about Big Bird; how many lives he touched and made better and warmer and happier. And that is thanks to Caroll Spinney. That is quite a legacy.

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