He moved through life largely unrecognized in visage or voice, yet Caroll Spinney had a global fan base of all ages and a career the envy of many show business A-listers.
And while he did not invent “Sesame Street” or the Muppet family — that distinction belonged to the late Jim Henson — Mr. Spinney played an outsized role in their success. For half a century, he portrayed two of the show’s most beloved characters, Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch.
Mr. Spinney, who was born in Waltham and performed for birthday parties as a preteen and learned the art of puppeteering in gigs and shows around the Boston area, died Sunday at his home in Connecticut, according to the Sesame Workshop. He was 85. The statement from the show said he had suffered for several years from dystonia, a neurological disorder affecting movement.
Big Bird, an 8-foot-tall avian mimicking a sensitive 6-year old, was Mr. Spinney’s career-defining role. He donned the feathered costume from 1969 to 2018, wearing a massive yellow suit flexible enough to roller skate in and facially expressive enough to seem almost, well, human.
For a young puppeteer with big ambitions, it was literally the role of a lifetime.
“I am,” boasted Mr. Spinney, by then well into his 80s, “the world’s oldest child star.”
If mostly anonymous in street clothes, on “Sesame Street” Mr. Spinney was recognizable royalty.
“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,” the Sesame Workshop said.
“Big Bird is the most popular children’s character in the world,” Henson once observed, “and I think that’s largely due to Caroll.”
The two first met in 1962 at a puppeteering festival in Sturbridge. Henson proposed a tryout with the Muppets, which he had begun creating in the mid-1950s, yet nothing came of it. Seven years later, Henson saw Mr. Spinney performing at a puppeteering conference in Utah and made another job pitch. Mr. Spinney accepted this time — he likened it to being invited to join the Beatles — and moved to New York City, where “Sesame Street” was being readied for broadcast.
His tenure on the show was initially rocky, and he nearly left over what he felt was inadequate pay and an undersized role for Big Bird. A fellow cast member talked him out of quitting.
When Mr. Spinney proposed recasting Big Bird as a shy first-grader, not an awkward adult, the character was transformed into a budding star — and, soon, a worldwide icon.
Oscar was also a hit, albeit in his own grouchy way. He and Big Bird were nevertheless polar opposites in personality, one gruffly cynical, the other gently goofy.
Mr. Spinney relished playing both characters, crediting Oscar with having “a power I never had,” while modeling the Muppet’s voice on a Bronx cabbie who had driven Mr. Spinney to his first show taping.
No character played by Mr. Spinney had Big Bird’s impact, though.
By the late 1970s, the Feathered One was a featured headliner. Bob Hope took Big Bird along to China to film a network special (one of two China shows in which Big Bird would star). In portraying the long, tall Muppet, Mr. Spinney conducted with symphony orchestras (including the Boston Pops), starred in feature films, visited the White House on several occasions, and co-wrote and narrated books for kids and grown-ups.
“Sesame Street” writers often used Big Bird to address difficult topics, relying on Mr. Spinney to strike the appropriate tone. After the actor who played Mr. Hooper died, cast members gathered around Big Bird to express their grief. Big Bird insisted he would see Mr. Hooper again, just not right away. No, he was told, that would not happen.
Mr. Spinney’s reaction — confusion, sadness, quiet acceptance — helped young viewers process an otherwise unsettling concept. Along with “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the show became a model for how to handle tough subjects for young viewers in a sensitive, age-appropriate manner.
Henson’s own unexpected death, in 1990, prompted Mr. Spinney to reflect upon what he wanted Big Bird’s legacy to be. Like Henson and the characters he invented, Mr. Spinney said, he hoped that Big Bird, “with his suffering and his joy,” would leave the world a better place.
One of Mr. Spinney’s most memorable performances occurred at Henson’s memorial service. Appearing in costume as Big Bird, he sang “It’s Not Easy Being Green” to a moist-eyed audience. “It tore people up,” Frank Oz, another Muppet cast mainstay, said.
Caroll Edwin Spinney was born in Waltham on Dec. 26, 1933. One of three sons, he was a shy, awkward boy who was teased by other kids and often terrorized by his father, Chester, who could be physically abusive, as Mr. Spinney recounted in the 2014 documentary film “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.” One example he gave was when, at age 6, he knocked over a paint can and was thrown across the room by his father. (The two became closer later in life.)
His mother, Margaret, an artist and clothing designer, was more supportive. When young Caroll showed an interest in puppets, she supplied him with handmade puppets, a portable stage, and tips on storytelling.
By age 12, Caroll was doing local birthday parties and aiming for a career as a puppeteer. As he told a reporter in 1998, he liked the art form because, “You can hide whatever you are at the moment and be only what they see. And you can get adults to laugh.”
After graduating from Acton (now Acton-Boxborough) High School, Mr. Spinney studied at the Art Institute of Boston before enlisting in the Air Force, where he spent the next four years. He continued to draw and write, inventing a comic strip about military life that kept his creative juices flowing.
Returning to the Boston area, he found work on a local kids’ show, “Judy and Goggle,” costarring puppeteer Judy Valentine. The two soon joined the cast of “Bozo’s Big Top,” on which Mr. Spinney played several characters.
Ultimately, though, he found “Bozo” rather silly and lightweight. Then, along came “Sesame Street.”
“Caroll really was in synch creatively with what the show was all about,” said Terry Fitzpatrick, WGBH vice president for children’s media and education and a former executive with the Children’s Television Workshop. “He truly cared about kids and their healthy development.”
In the film “I Am Big Bird,” Mr. Spinney noted how revolutionary “Sesame Street” was when it debuted in the late ’60s.
“The world was waiting for a change,” he said, “and we were part of it.”
Mr. Spinney’s longevity on the show was remarkable for many reasons. For one, the mechanics behind playing Big Bird were not easily mastered.
Mr. Spinney operated the character’s head with his right hand held high above his own head, while his left hand controlled its left wing. Meanwhile, he wore a video monitor around his waist — visibility through the suit was severely limited — while reading lines taped inside his costume.
With all that going on, Big Bird was required to skate, ride horseback, pedal a unicycle, and perform other athletic feats.
Such was Big Bird’s fame that in the mid-1980s, Mr. Spinney was approached by NASA with an odd request. Might Big Bird be interested in orbiting the Earth on the Space Shuttle? The idea was seriously considered — kids and educators would love it, the thinking went — before NASA officials determined that the feathered suit wouldn’t fit in the spacecraft.
An actual schoolteacher was recruited instead. To the world’s horror, Christa McAuliffe perished along with her crewmates in the Challenger disaster in 1986.
While “Sesame Street” seldom waded into political waters, Big Bird was thrust into the 2012 presidential campaign, improbably, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney threatened to slash PBS funding. (He maintained that he was really a Big Bird fan.)
Mr. Spinney was deluged with media requests. “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart ridiculed Romney and his obtuseness (“the [expletive] fired Big Bird!”). When “Saturday Night Live’s” Seth Meyers welcomed Big Bird to the “Weekend Anchor” desk and invited him to comment, Mr. Spinney sweetly demurred.
“I don’t want to ruffle any feathers,” he explained.
Mr. Spinney’s first marriage, in 1960, ended in divorce. In 1979, he married Debra Jean Gilroy, an employee in the Muppets office. In addition to Gilroy, he leaves three children from his first marriage — Jessica, Benjamin of West Springfield, and Melissa Spinney Stanizzi of Framingham — and several grandchildren.
As Mr. Spinney aged, so did “Sesame Street” — mostly in reverse, by skewing toward a mostly preschool audience and elevating such characters as Elmo over old standbys Big Bird and Oscar.
Mr. Spinney retired from the show in October 2018 and was replaced by his longtime Big Bird understudy, Matt Vogel. A number of shows taped with Mr. Spinney before his retirement were broadcast this year, the 50th anniversary season of “Sesame Street.”
“Caroll taught me to keep an innocence and childlike quality alive — not only in Big Bird, but in myself,’’ Vogel said in a tweet.
Mr. Spinney earned many honors over his long career, among them four daytime Emmys, two Grammys, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Arts and Sciences, and recognition by the Library of Congress as a Living Legend.
In retirement, he continued to draw, paint, and travel.
As his career wound down, Mr. Spinney addressed several of the darker chapters in his life with unflinching candor. In print interviews and on camera, he recalled his troublesome relationship with his father and the breakup of his first marriage, after which he spiraled into depression and at one point even contemplated suicide, jolting news to his many fans.
He credited Debra Spinney with restoring his emotional equilibrium while helping bolster, and eventually manage, his acting career. In retirement, the couple settled in Connecticut, on a piece of property that grew to include a roller-skating rink and ample room for the type of childlike play Big Bird fans might come to expect.
In “I Am Big Bird,” Mr. Spinney mused that while not afraid of dying, he could not imagine being without his soulmate. Alluding to a dream he’d once had about a celestial berry patch, he said he and his wife had made a solemn pact.
“If one of us goes first,” Mr. Spinney said, “we’ll meet at the raspberries.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org