I’m Mesmerized By This Documentary About The Man Behind Big Bird

“I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” began showing at festivals last year, but it’s newly available on iTunes and on demand, as well as on the big screen at New York’s IFC Film Center. It’s about exactly what it sounds like — the life of Caroll Spinney, who’s played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street” for the past 46 years and still rocks it to this day. The trailer alone has me all emotional and wide-eyed, and I’m so excited to watch it this weekend. The trailer features images of Spinney’s vibrant life and career, and paints a picture of a man who’s embraced a joyful and full life in whatever way he can.

I can’t imagine what an honor it is to be bigger than life in the minds of millions of children, and to the adults who knew him when they were kids. He’s helped shape minds all over the world! What an incredible vocation that is. It makes me feel some welcome optimism about something good shaping young people, as opposed all the negative headlines and grim realities they see on the regular. If you’re in New York City, Spinney will be doing a few in-person Q&As this weekend at the IFC Center. Here are a few sweet quotes from his Reddit Ask Me Anything this week that speak to what a fascinating and kind person he seems to be.

On the most meaningful interaction he’s had with a child who loved the show:

Okay, here’s one.

This is a very sad story, but it’s real.

I got a letter from a fan who said his little boy, who was 5 years old, his name was Joey, he was dying of cancer.

And he was so ill, the little boy knew he was dying.

So the man, in his letter, asked if I would call the little boy. He said the only thing that cheered him at all in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television.

So once in a while, he wouldn’t see Big Bird on some days, because he wasn’t necessarily in every show. So he asked could I telephone him, and talk to the boy, tell him what a good boy he’s been.

So I took a while to look up a phone, because this was before cell phones. And they got a long cord to bring a phone to the boy.

And I had Big Bird say “Hello! Hello Joey! It’s me, Big Bird!”

So he said “Is it really you, Big Bird?”

“Yes, it is.”

I chatted a while with him, about ten minutes, and he said “I’m glad you’re my friend Big Bird.”

And I said “I’d better let you go now.”

He said “Thank you for calling me Big Bird. You’re my friend. You make me happy.”

And it turns out that his father and mother were sitting with him when the phone call came. And he was very, very ill that day. And they called the parents in, because they weren’t sure how long he’d last.

And so his father wrote to me right away, and said “Thank you, thank you” – he hadn’t seen him smile since October, and this was in March – and when the phone was hung up, he said “Big Bird called me! He’s my friend.”

And he closed his eyes. And he passed away.

And I could see that what I say to children can be very important.

And he said “We haven’t seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled, as he passed away. It was a gift to us. Thank you.”

On the weirdest appearance he’s made as Big Bird:

Well, one time I was in Georgia, at a small TV station, surrounded by children – Big Bird was sitting on an ottoman – and his pupil let go, and left him with one eye with a black pupil, and one eye blank white! I saw what happened on a monitor, through some feathers we pulled off, and I said “Oh you better stop!”

Well, there I am on television, and one eye is blank. And I said “You can’t show this! You’ll have to stop.” It wasn’t live TV, it was on tape, and they wouldn’t stop, so I said “I have to apply a new eye” and they said “No, we think it’s funny!” and I said “No – It’s barbaric – the kids are saying Big Bird’s eye fell out!”

It’s never just a puppet.

Because I feel that’s diminishing what Big Bird does. He’s not just a puppet.

On why Snuffy (a.k.a. Mr. Snuffleupagus) started as someone only Big Bird can see and became someone all the other “Sesame Street” characters could see:

Well, for some time, they had a lot of people who were objecting to the fact that people weren’t believing Big Bird. Because you should believe, and children don’t lie (I don’t think that’s always necessarily true – when I was a child, although I tried to be a good kid) – anyways, they decided it was better for everybody to see it. Because Snuffy was REAL.

The only trouble, I felt, was if you missed the Thursday show, you missed everybody seeing Big Snuffy. So on Friday, he was standing around talking to everybody, and they said “What happened!?” if they didn’t watch it on Thursday. I think they should have had 1-2 of them discover Snuffy, to explain what it’s like not to be believed when you see something you know is true.

On why “Sesame Street” is still so beloved after all these years:

I think Sesame Street is fascinating to a lot of people, not just children. Because we tried to make it appealing to little children and to grownups. There’s a period of time in children’s lives where they don’t like things they perceive as “made for babies.” And my daughter, Jessie, loved the puppets until she was 9 or so. And then she sat with her friends, and they said “That’s such a baby show.” But when she got to be 13, or 14, she said she loved watching the show and got the jokes we put in for grownups.

So the children come back.

After a little period of saying “I’m a big girl now!” or “I’m a big boy now.”

So we try to make the show great for EVERYBODY who wants to watch.

It’s an age between 8-14, I think, where they have to feel that they’re more “grown-up” than they really are.