“Everybody in the world knows who Big Bird is.”
This documentary exists because many fewer people know Caroll Spinney, the man who has inhabited the iconic Sesame Street character for 46 years and counting. (Spinney is also the man behind my personal favorite Sesame Street character, Oscar the Grouch, but working that into the movie’s title would’ve made it truly unwieldy.) The film takes us behind the feathers and works best as a loving tribute to a man who has entertained millions of children across the globe.
“Funny to watch him all the time, and I didn’t recognize him. But here’s Caroll Spinney’s story…”
I Am Big Bird opens with footage from a To Tell The Truth segment featuring Spinney and two impostors. The action quickly flashes back to Spinney’s childhood — supportive mom, abusive dad, enlisted with the U.S. Air Force as soon as he could — and mostly proceeds in chronological order. Spinney loved staging puppet shows ever since he was a kid, and he wound up working on The Bozo Show throughout the ‘60s in a variety of roles. (The multi-talented Spinney played Mr. Lion and created animated segments for Bozo.) However, his life-changing professional breakthrough didn’t occur until later that same decade; Spinney was performing at a Salt Lake City puppeteering festival in 1969, and a man named Jim Henson was in the audience.
This is obviously the part of the story where Spinney dazzled the entire audience with his skill and creativity, and Henson hired him on the spot! The truth is an errant spotlight caused Spinney to bomb. Henson, who was already famous for creating The Muppets, was nevertheless impressed by Spinney’s intent and his ingenuity. Spinney joined the inaugural cast of Sesame Street in 1969, and the rest is history.
Even the most casual Sesame Street fan is aware of Big Bird and the indelible he’s left on popular culture. The movie chronicles the character’s ascension towards becoming the face of Sesame Street: we get clips from 1983’s Big Bird in China (along with a touching reunion with Spinney’s young co-star from the TV special) and from 1985’s Follow That Bird feature film. The most startling revelation for me was the fact that Big Bird/Spinney had been invited to take part in the ill-fated Challenger expedition, but couldn’t go through with it because the costume was too big to fit in the space shuttle.
But as with any respectable narrative, the ascension is accompanied by an inevitable fall. Fortunately for Spinney, Big Bird’s wings — and the puppeteer’s own prodigious talent and relentless work ethic — prevent anything truly devastating from happening. While that’s good news for Spinney and his family — his kids periodically pop up to remind us how much fun their dad is — it doesn’t exactly make for a gripping documentary. The worst thing that happens to Big Bird in this film involves some dopey college kids stealing some feathers from the costume and Elmo supplanting him as the most popular Sesame Street character.
The movie, however, is rather quick to assure us that even the conflict in Spinney’s own life (the abusive dad, his struggles to fit in during his first year at Sesame Street, the divorce from an unsupportive first wife that left him contemplating suicide) turned out ok in the end (he and his dad reconciled late in life, Spinney obviously found his groove on Sesame Street, and he is still married to second wife Debbie, the love of his life).
Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker include plenty — I’d argue too many — talking head interviews from people (understandably) talking about Spinney’s mastery. (Interview subjects include Judy Valentine, fellow Sesame Street-ers Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and archival footage of Henson.) I prefer the bits that *show* us Spinney’s genius. The film features a few lively animated segments that break down the mechanics of the Big Bird costume (way too complicated to get into here) and the origins of Oscar the Grouch (Spinney found the voice thanks to a New York City cab driver). I also enjoyed hearing about the delicate balancing act that went into bringing Oscar to life; more than just a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, the character represents the idea of accepting people who have a totally different perspective than everyone else.
I Am Big Bird also succeeds in highlighting the great care Spinney has taken with his signature character. He talks about walking away from Bozo because he wanted to do something more substantial. He found his ideal outlet in the educational programming of Sesame Street, and Big Bird gave Spinney the chance to address children as a co-conspirator rather than someone talking down to them. That education includes harsh lessons about life and death: the two most touching clips are Big Bird coping with the death of Mr. Hooper, and Spinney-as-Big Bird singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” at Henson’s funeral.
The documentary also lets us know the 81-year-old Spinney isn’t slowing down a heck of a lot. (He doesn’t travel as much, and Big Bird’s posture is a little more hunched now.) In the second half of the film, we meet talented puppeteer Matt Vogel, who is Spinney’s presumptive successor. Vogel has been Big Bird-in-waiting…for 15 years.