Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who played Sesame Street‘s Big Bird as well as Oscar the Grouch character since the iconic children’s show’s premiere episode in 1969, is retiring. Producer Sesame Workshop announced the news Wednesday.
The world famous Big Bird has had a great flight in the hands of Spinney, having visited China with Bob Hope in 1979, danced with the Rockettes, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and named a “Living Legend” in 2000 by the Library of Congress.
“Caroll has been one of the leading lights of Sesame Street from the very beginning,” said Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of Sesame Workshop, in a release announcing the news. “His genius and his talent made Big Bird the most beloved yellow feathered friend across the globe. But the sheer artistry of Caroll is that he also brought Oscar to life and made him the most lovable Grouch in the world.”
Sesame Street, created by Jim Henson and now airing first-run episodes on HBO after 45 years on PBS, said a pair of puppeteers mentored by Spinney will take over his roles. Matt Vogel, the series’ Puppet Captain and part of its Emmy-winning directing team, will take over Big Bird while continuing to perform Count von Count on the show as well as Kermit the Frog for Disney’s Muppets franchise. Oscar the Grouch will be performed by Eric Jacobson, who also performs Grover, Bert, and Guy Smiley for Sesame Street, and Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy for the Muppets.
“Big Bird brought me so many places, opened my mind and nurtured my soul,” Spinney said. “And I plan to be an ambassador for Sesame Workshop for many years to come. After all, we’re a family! But now it’s time for two performers that I have worked with and respected – and actually hand-picked for the guardianship of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch – to take my alter-egos into their hands and continue to give them life.”
Spinney exits with six Emmy Awards, an Emmy lifetime achievement award and two Grammys. He also co-wrote and illustrated his 2003 biography The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar The Grouch), and was the subject of Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker’s 2014 feature documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.
“Before I came to Sesame Street, I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important. Big Bird helped me find my purpose,” he said. “Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while! They have given me great joy, led me to my true calling — and my wonderful wife! (he met her on the Sesame Street set in 1973) — and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.”
Here’s a tribute video from Sesame Workshop: