UNMASKED

My Secret Life as Big Bird: The Dark Past and Sunny Days of Caroll Spinney

For 45 years, Caroll Spinney has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on 'Sesame Street.' Now 81, Spinney stars in a documentary that reveals how he overcame his dark past.

This 8-foot-tall canary needs no introduction. With his helium voice and eternally childlike wonder, Big Bird has lumbered down Sesame Street and into the hearts of generations of audiences whose lives have been brightened by him over the last 45 years.

As it turns out, inside that giant puppet costume there has been a real, beating heart all along. And it belongs to Caroll Spinney.

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is an unmasking of sorts, a documentary about the life and legacy of the now 81-year-old man who has played both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street since the show's inception. So many of us probably never bothered to think that the two characters that would make such an impact on our lives were even played by a person. Let alone that the same person would have the stamina, dedication, and boundless spirit to play them for all this time.

Over the decades, when people would find out that Spinney is the man behind the beloved feathery friend, "they would always ask me, 'Does it bother you that Big Bird is very famous and nobody knows you from Adam?'" Spinney says. "I think that's the cool part of it."

Spinney wrote a memoir a decade ago, but this documentary will be his highest-profile unveiling yet.

He sits in a conference room at the office for Tribeca Films autographing I Am Big Bird movie posters. He's sporting a kelly green blazer and tie polka-dotted with the mug of Oscar the Grouch. The actual puppet is lying just a few feet away in a duffel bag under a drawing of Big Bird that Spinney sketched on a chalkboard, captioned "Big Bird Wuz Here!"

"I've been asked, 'Why now?' a lot," Spinney says, referring to the documentary—a veritable coming out party. "Well, I'm alive. I've played Big Bird for over half my life and now I'm in my 80s. It does feel older than 79. Someone said it's just a number, and I said, no, I genuinely feel older. So it's a good time to be doing this."

I Am Big Bird, true to its title, is comprehensive in its telling of the story of Caroll Spinney. It's not just a film about the legacy of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, though there's plenty of that, too. It chronicles Spinney's childhood with an abusive father. He confesses contemplating suicide when he divorced his first wife. There's footage of Spinney cursing in the Big Bird costume, which is both quite hilarious and slightly disturbing to see.

He discusses the feelings of jealousy and betrayal when Big Bird was cast aside to make way for the rise of Elmo. He reveals that he was originally supposed to be on the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger, but was replaced because the Big Bird costume was too large.

But more than all that, I Am Big Bird is a love story. It's the story of how his second wife Debra rescued him from depression, saved his life, and reinvigorated his love not just for living his own life, but for the 8-foot-tall bird he gives life to, too.

"It really did surprise us," Debra, who had been tidying things in the corner of the room, says. "When we saw it we were flabbergasted, and quite flattered. It was our love on the screen."

In June, Debra and Caroll will celebrate their 42nd year together. Doing those things you always read about in happily ever afters but always wonder if they actually exist—finishing each other's sentences, stealing loving glances at each other, genuinely enjoying each other's company after decades together—their swoon of a relationship is wonderful to simply be around.

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And when Spinney's stories begin to adorably meander—tales of being in the Air Force and old family reunions were a delight, but, in the grand tradition of amiable octogenarians, not relevant to any question asked—Debra serves as Caroll's verbal wrangler, reining him back in and at times even serving as a bit of a translator, speaking on his behalf.

"I think it's in your nature anyway," Debra chimes in when I ask whether Caroll had any qualms about sharing such deep and personal stories. After all, this is Big Bird, and he's revealing past suicidal thoughts in a very public forum. "Caroll is the kind of person who will tell you stories about things that other people wouldn't talk about. But he's very open. And always has been."

Caroll leans back in his chair a bit. "Sometimes I tell too much personal stuff and wonder if I shouldn't have said that," he says. "Nothing was terribly shocking, though. I didn't mention the triple murders." He pauses for the perfect beat. "That's a little joke."

There will be so much written about the surprising dark revelations in I Am Big Bird, and, deservedly, about what an inspirational run Spinney has had. But the documentary also does a suitable job painting a portrait of a man with a wonderful sense of humor and ceaseless joie de vivre, and, as his wife giggles at his "triple murders" joke, a love story that provides that joie with its fuel.

Still, as Caroll will be the first to tell you, it hasn't all been sunny days.

His mother gave him that name because he was born the day after Christmas. "He's a Christmas Caroll," Debra says, laughing at herself. "I was called such names as a kid," Spinney remembers. "Being the smallest boy in the class with a name like Caroll. I remember going home and saying to my mom, 'What were you thinking?'"

The bullying he received as a kid informs his passion for playing Big Bird. He's reliving a better childhood than the one he had through the eyes of a bird who happens to be a child. It's that passion that has always provided Big Bird with that special thing so much of us have related to or even been changed by.

"Big Bird went through his very human kind of struggles as a child," Spinney says. "No other children's character has been that complete and detailed."

Seeing the human beneath the character in I Am Big Bird and hearing that he's had dark days and his own struggles, too—as much as some people might be surprised to learn that there was darkness in the man who plays Big Bird—only adds to the completeness of the character.

"It was like the end of the world for me," Spinney says about his divorce. "He used to fly off so easily," he says about his father. "It was hard for him," Debra says about Caroll being sidelined as Elmo took over pop culture.

At festivals where I Am Big Bird has screened, people have come up to the Spinneys with tears in their eyes, gushing about how much the film means to them.

"Some are saying the film changed their lives," Debra says. "Because it gave them the courage to maybe call their dad if they hadn't spoken to them in a long time. Or the fact that Caroll said I'm going through a terrible divorce and didn't think that anything was ever going to be good again, and now I see it can be even greater. It really impacted a lot of people."

The story is that when directors Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker first set out to film Spinney, they thought they were going to end up capturing Spinney's final season of Sesame Street. The puppeteer was approaching 80, after all. Quickly, it became apparent that there was no swan song in the near future for Spinney's Big Bird.

So Spinney's reluctance to retire became an important element of I Am Big Bird. In turn, people have become downright obsessive about it.

"Frankly, I think if I won the lottery and won a billion dollars, I'd still want to continue doing this job," Spinney says. "I love expressing myself through it. I've gotten to really love acting. And I've gotten to know Big Bird from the inside out so thoroughly it's like playing my kid. I can't imagine deliberately stopping."

Debra thinks we're just so used to tradition—turn 65, retire—that Caroll's work ethic is hard to relate to. "It's different from other jobs when you're looking forward to retiring," she says. "And he's still able. He's not an old, crotchety man who can't do anything."

And so Spinney soldiers on with this 46th year, left arm in the air controlling a giant beak, navigating around the stoops of Sesame Street inside the costume of a fluorescent bird. But for a moment, even if it's brief, Spinney's stepping out of the shadow of the famous fowl. The sunny days are shining a light on him for once.

"We all have lives you, you know?" he says. Then, addressing me directly, "People will read what you write, but they don't know you. So now this is something where they will actually know me. And I thank them for that because I'm not ashamed."

He pauses and glances at Deb with a twinkle in his eye, cracking a sly grin. "And they didn't find out about the triple murders."