Caroll Spinney, 'Sesame Street' Icon Behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Dead at 85

Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney passed away on Sunday, according to a press release. The Sesame Street workshop posted the news of Spinney's passing just after noon, and fans were heartbroken. For years, Spinney was the man behind Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and other beloved characters.

Spinney passed away peacefully in his home in Connecticut, according to the Sesame Workshop. The puppeteer had reportedly been "living with Dystonia for some time." Dystonia is a muscular disorder that can be caused by damage to the part of the brain associated with movement. It is unclear whether this disorder directly led to his death.

Spinney was a part of Sesame Street from the very beginning, and his performance shaped the show and drove its development. He showed a range of talents between his role as the affable Big Bird and the surly Grouch. His colleagues at the Sesame Workshop described him as an "artistic genius."

"[H]is legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending," they added.

Spinney was mentored by Jim Henson starting in 1969. In the course of his life he performed around the world, got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as Big Bird and even got that big yellow face on a U.S. postage stamp. The Library of Congress recognized Spinney as a "Living Legend.

Spinney was born in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1933. He served in the U.S. Air Force after high school, while at the same time illustrating a comic strip called Harvey. He worked in animation as well, and pursued puppeteering after leaving the service. After a few years of seeking opportunities around the country, he began work with Henson.

Spinney's colleagues said that one particular career highlight for him was conducting symphony orchestras, which he did in the U.S., Australia and China in huge live performances of Sesame Street music. He is survived by his wife, Debra Jean Gilroy, whom he married in 1979, as well as three children and many grandchildren.


"Caroll Spinney gave something truly special to the world," said the press release. "With deepest admiration, Sesame Workshop is proud to carry his memory – and his beloved characters – into the future. Our hearts go out to Caroll's beloved wife, Debra, and all of his children and grandchildren."

"Caroll Spinney's contributions to Sesame Street are countless," read an additional statement from Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney. "He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well. We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to Sesame Street and to children around the world."