I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Echoing the conflicted emotions that led Leonard Nimoy to title his first autobiography “I Am Not Spock” and then later publish another volume titled “I Am Spock,” the man who has given life to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since the inaugural season of “Sesame Street” in 1969 articulates the intricacies of creating something simultaneously of himself and beyond himself in “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.” Making its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, “I Am Big Bird” offers a comprehensive portrait of Spinney’s life and career in and out of the vividly colored costume.

Now 80 years old, Spinney is the last of the original Muppeteers to perform on “Sesame Street,” even though apprentices Rick Lyon (for the opening theme song sequences) and Matt Vogel have crawled under the feathers. Vogel, who has been Spinney’s Big Bird understudy for nearly two decades and is the character’s heir apparent, is one of the movie’s many interview subjects. Blending newly shot content and never-before-seen film and video, “I Am Big Bird” includes Jim and Jane Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Judy Valentine, Sonia Manzano, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, and Spinney’s wife and protector Debra, among others.

Directors Chad Walker and Dave LaMattina combed through hours and hours of TV history and several boxes of home movies provided by obsessive memory preservationists Caroll and Debra. Hardcore true-believers will be impressed at the sight of the original puppets Spinney’s mother made for him more than 70 years ago, as well as Spinney’s illustrations and animated cartoons, and clips of early performances on Boston’s “Bozo’s Big Top” as Mr. Lion. More riveting is the tale of Spinney’s disastrous gig at the 1969 Salt Lake City Puppeteers of America convention that attracted the attention of an admiring Henson (seven years after the two had first met).

Given the monumental popularity of Big Bird, the movie spends less time on Spinney’s other signature role, but the importance and value of Oscar the Grouch as a kind of unfiltered, curmudgeonly, miserable flip side to Big Bird’s positive, exuberant, and sunshiny optimist is a crucial component of Spinney’s genius. At Hot Docs appearances Spinney brought Oscar to the stage. Astounded audience members were quick to address questions directly to the green sourpuss. When a woman said she had always related to and identified with the furry monster’s irritability and impatience, Oscar immediately quipped, “What are you doing after the show?”

“I Am Big Bird” is effectively paced, but the filmmakers attempt to cover so much ground that some segments function as truncated, anecdotal asides that would have merited a closer look had the running time allowed it. Like “Being Elmo,” the documentary addresses the considerable time demands that come with performing a beloved, iconic character, and Spinney’s grown children allude to a bittersweet upbringing that required them to share their father with the world. The 1990s surge in Elmo’s popularity is attributed to the red Muppet’s fixed preschool age aligning with the younger demographic of evolving “Sesame Street” viewership, but Walker and LaMattina make no direct mention of the rough period that ended with Kevin Clash’s resignation following allegations of sexual relationships with teenage boys.

Plenty of darker chapters take viewers behind the scenes, including acknowledgment of physical and emotional abuse meted out by Spinney’s father, the cancellation of a trip on the space shuttle Challenger (teacher Christa McAuliffe took Spinney’s place on the doomed mission), and the murder of Judith Nilan by a man who worked for the Spinneys. Professionally, Spinney faced what many colleagues believe was unfair and unwarranted animosity and antagonism from longtime writer/director Jon Stone, whose brilliance was accompanied by a level of perfectionism and high expectations that could be construed as cruel and cantankerous.

For the millions of fans whose early childhood included the intimacy and comfort of a deep parasocial relationship with the large yellow fowl, “I Am Big Bird” will bring tears to the eyes on multiple occasions (both the death of Will Lee’s Mr. Hooper and Spinney’s Big Bird performance of “Bein’ Green” at Henson’s funeral call for the handkerchiefs). The filmmakers know and understand that Big Bird’s curiosity and innocence, often manifested in the simple misunderstandings of very young people, are the keys to his longevity and acclaim. Spinney’s own gentleness and kindness, shining through so clearly in “I Am Big Bird,” will make every viewer feel eight feet tall.

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