I AM BIG BIRD: The Caroll Spinney Story

Even though I post on Facebook nearly every day, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged “formally,” but I felt this topic was important enough for me to shake the cobwebs and reactive the blog.

This inspiring project is about a man name Caroll Spinney, who is known to most of us through his characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

I had the honor, privilege, and pleasure of meeting Caroll last October at the Chiller Theatre convention in New Jersey. There were dozens of celebrities there, but he was one of the only people I was really interested in seeing. As I made my way towards him, I felt myself becoming nervous, but he was so genuinely sweet, calm, and friendly that my jitters quickly subsided and I found myself engaged in a fifteen or twenty minute long conversation with him and his wife.

We spoke about Big Bird, my all-time favorite Sesame Street character, of course. I told him how much I loved the film Follow That Bird and he shared my sentiments (not in a cocky way, but I got the sense that he was sincerely proud of his work on the film and how it turned out overall). We talked about his family and he asked me about mine. We also spoke about writing and the joys of creating, after which he purchased a copy of my book, Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

“I love Pee-wee Herman,” Caroll told me. “He has done so much great work for children. I think he’s brilliant.”

Once again, he and I were in agreement.

Before our conversation ended, Caroll told me about a film project called I AM BIG BIRD that was documenting his life and long career. I reached out to Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, the film’s producers and directors, and spoke with them about this project, which they are currently fundraising for right now on KickStarter until August 16.

CASEEN: How did the idea for I AM BIG BIRD come about?

DAVE: One of my first jobs in the entertainment industry was as an intern at Sesame Workshop. I’ve always been in love with what Sesame and the Henson people do. They’re amazing. I wanted to be a part of that. Later that year, I was raving about the internship to a friend whose fiancé is good family friends with the Spinneys. She was telling us all these great stories about Caroll–who I knew had been Big Bird and Oscar forever, but I never realized what an amazing person he was. I was fascinated and thought it would make an interesting film, so I told Chad about it.

CHAD: Once Dave told me about Caroll, and how it was one person who has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969, I couldn’t believe it! It was so interesting. I mean, he’s 78 years old and he’s still doing it. The Bird’s head weighs 5 pounds–can you imagine holding that up, take after take, day after day, for 43 years? Unbelievable.

CASEEN: Did you know Caroll before working on the project? Assuming you reached out to him about your idea, what was his reaction to the request and how easy was it for you to gain his participation?

DAVE: We didn’t know Caroll beforehand, but because we shared a common friend, the introduction was relatively easy. Sesame Workshop has been great too. We thought it would be months before we heard back from them, but within days of us sending the initial email, we received a phone call from the Workshop, saying that they thought it was a great idea. We asked what the next step would be and they said it was meeting with Caroll. We had the meeting scheduled with Caroll and his wife Deb soon thereafter. They were remarkably receptive to the idea.

CHAD: Actually, when we were in the pitch meeting with Caroll and we were pitching the idea of a documentary to him, Caroll leaned down and took Oscar out of a bag from under the table. Now, Caroll is talking to Dave but Oscar is staring me down. Oscar is totally alive. Blinking. Moving his head. It was surreal. Then, out of nowhere, Oscar yells out “boring!” It was so funny! So crazy.

CASEEN: Reaction to this project already seems to be high. Have you gained any surprising or seemingly-unlikely allies or high-profile supporters so far?

DAVE: The reaction has been unreal. We’ve been thrilled with it. One surprising ally–well, surprising to outsiders anyway–is Constance Marks, who directed BEING ELMO. People always assume that we decided to make this movie after the success of BEING ELMO. What actually happened was that, when we reached out to Sesame Workshop in the summer of 2009, they told us an Elmo doc was also being made, which didn’t phase us because Caroll and Kevin Clash are both such remarkable performers with amazing stories. We decided early on that since Ms. Marks was a few years ahead of us in her process, she’d be a great resource–and she has been. We’re thankful to have her on our side!

CHAD: It was really great to get to work with OK GO. They are such huge Muppet fans and it was great to sit down with them. We also got to shoot a scene in which Caroll rehearses with Michael Bublé. That was really fun.

CASEEN: When I was growing up, Big Bird seemed to be the most popular character on Sesame Street. Now, it’s undeniably Elmo. What do you think is similar about these two characters that makes children relate to them so strongly?

CHAD: Great question. I think that both characters represent the age demographic that Sesame Street was/is aiming for at the time. When Big Bird was so popular, it seemed Sesame was writing for kids around 6 years old, and that is how old Big Bird is. Now it seems Sesame is writing for a slightly younger audience and Elmo is right in that same age range. So, this made/makes the characters extremely relatable for kids. The kids see them as an extension of themselves. They are experiencing the same things/emotions that Big Bird and now Elmo are experiencing on the show.

DAVE: Chad pretty much nailed it, but I’d add to this that people of our generation sort of write off Elmo because they are of the Big Bird generation, which I don’t think is fair. We’ve watched a lot of Sesame lately and Elmo is frickin’ adorable. He’s hilarious. Kevin Clash and Caroll are brilliant performers, but I think the reason that kids relate so strongly to them is that both Caroll and Kevin infuse themselves into the characters. They are honest portrayals of people, not just characters written for kids. So, it doesn’t matter if you prefer Big Bird to Elmo or vice versa, you’re reacting to Caroll and Kevin baring their souls, which I think is rare in programs created for children.

CASEEN: What are your personal favorite aspects of Big Bird’s character?

DAVE: I think this has actually changed for me since we’ve met Caroll, but I would say my favorite aspect of Big Bird is how compassionate he is because I think there is a direct correlation to how compassionate Caroll is. I can’t tell you how many emails we’ve received from people who have a story about how Caroll has impacted them directly. Be it a fan who Caroll calls every birthday or a coworker who Caroll lifted up in a dark time, his compassion is unmatched, and I think that shines through in the way Big Bird lives his life.

CHAD: I love how pure and innocent he is. He never tries to deceive or trick people. He is 100% genuine. I’ve always loved that about Big Bird. When he talks, you know that is exactly how he is feeling. That, for me, is why when he is sad it is so powerful. It is heart-breaking really.

CASEEN: What are your thoughts on Follow That Bird, and if they were to have made a sequel of that film, what would you like to have seen happen?

CHAD: I LOVE FOLLOW THAT BIRD!!! That’s a perfect example of how when Big Bird is sad, you totally feel bad for him. Heart-breaking! I personally would love to see Big Bird really find his family in a sequel.

DAVE: Yeah, I know there’s been a lot of rumors about a Sesame movie in development and I think it’d be awesome if it were a sequel to FOLLOW THAT BIRD. I think the Sesame specials are amazing–personally, my favorites were BIG BIRD IN CHINA and DON’T EAT THE PICTURES. I know that a lot of the market now is for home video, but I think there’s something awesome about a Sesame special or movie. Even a few years ago, before we started this film, ABC aired Elmo’s Christmas Countdown when I was home with my family. Not one of us was under the age of 25, but we all watched it. There’s something awesome about seeing these characters break out of the daily routine of the show and I’d welcome more chances to see that!

CASEEN: Do you see your film as more of a biography of Spinney as an actor or Big Bird as a character?

CHAD: For me, it is definitely about Caroll Spinney. He’s done so much as Big Bird but he has also affected so many lives out of the suit.

DAVE: Absolutely, it’s about Caroll and how Big Bird, as an extension of who Caroll is, has had such a remarkable impact on generations of people.

CASEEN: Was Oscar the Grouch jealous when he was informed that the film would be titled I Am Big Bird? Did this inhibit your ability to get Oscar’s involvement?

CHAD: He was mad about it, but being mad made him happy, and being happy of course made him mad… it was pretty crazy day for him.

If you’d like to help I AM BIG BIRD get made, contribute to their KickStarter campaign. The campaign ends on Thursday, August 16, so please don’t delay. If you’re like Dave, Chad, and myself, you’ve been effected by Caroll’s work. I’m so excited that Dave and Chad have taken up the charge of documenting his career in this way for all of us to see the man beneath the mask.

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