At 75, legendary Sesame puppeteer Caroll Spinney is spry and quick-witted – maybe it’s the 40 years he’s spent performing as the acerbic, yet charming, Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street that have made him so sharp. Spinney, Oscar and his other alter-ego, Big Bird, have been on the show since day one. And on a chilly October evening at a dress rehearsal for a performance being mounted in the name of Canada’s National Recycling Week at a local elementary school in Toronto, KidScreen‘s editor Lana Castleman got the chance to talk to Spinney about what it’s been like to be an integral part of the iconic children’s series.
Can you tell me how you got to Sesame Street?
Jim Henson was in the audience scouting for talent at a puppetry festival in which I was performing. I was very funny, aware of the audience, had quick comebacks and Jim came backstage after the performance and said, ‘I like what you were trying to do. I’d like you to join this show Sesame Street. There are two characters, a large bird and this grouchy character who lives in a pile of trash. Would you be interested?’ To me, it was as if I were a drummer and the Beatles had asked me to join. I had seen the Muppets on TV since 1960 and thought, ‘Now that’s puppets.’ So a month later, I went to New York. At first they offered me US$200 a week to work on a show that was going to be on 275 stations. I said, ‘You’re crazy right?’ I ended up taking a huge pay cut to take the job – what a good move it turned out to be. I didn’t realize it would be a life-long job.
Oscar started out as orange, right?
Oscar was orange. Jim changed him to green arbitrarily at the end of the first year. I made up a story to explain it, saying he went moldy.
What did you learn from Jim Henson?
He didn’t give a lot of lessons and liked my work and humor. I remember working with him the day he hired me. I put on a puppet and he showed me to hold it so the bottom of its head did all the work, but mostly he said, ‘Watch Frank [Oz] a lot.’
Did you develop the characters?
I did. On the air. Big Bird was pathetic in the first year because I couldn’t see what I was doing.
How would you define both of them now?
Oscar is a character I never thought I’d be playing. He’s kind of the equivalent of the Fonze. Big Bird was originally conceived as a Goofy-like character, with a funny voice. But a few months into the show, I was thinking why would you want an eight-foot-tall goofy guy hanging around your kids? I said he should be more like a kid himself.
Can you identify some career highlights?
I’ve worked with so many fabulous people. Michelle Obama was wonderful; she was so excited to be on the show. But it’s hard to pin just one or two down. I’ve worked with more than 200 movie stars/celebrities. Robin Williams took my wife and I to a party in L.A., that was fun. He was the funniest thing there.
After 40 years of playing these characters, how do you keep your performance fresh?
Sesame Street‘s still so well-written. I just worked with Ryan Reynolds, who’s a very clever performer. He played the letter A and we did a riff on the ’80s TV show The A Team, and Telly Monster was playing Mr. T. The kids don’t get it, but one of the things that makes Sesame so good is that it’s just as funny as it is educational. Some of the jokes only the adults will get, but it’s never at the expense of what the kids are learning.