Since 1969, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch have all been voiced and, for the most part, controlled by the same man: Caroll Spinney. The puppeteer has for the most part stayed off-camera, OK with a few generations of “Sesame Street” viewers not knowing the man who was an integral part of their childhood. That changes with “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” a new doc that covers his life and work, and has since made him recognizable on the street. Not that Spinney — as warm and funny as one would expect — minds the fame.
What convinced you to step into the limelight after all these years?
People love to ask me why I decided at this time to do this. The answer is [directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker] were the first people to approach me. I didn’t think I’d lived a life important enough to make one. I’m so proud to be so humble, ha ha ha. That was a little joke.
It’s also a film about the evolving state of “Sesame Street.”
There have been a number of changes to suit the people of America. If you look at how the world changed from 1900 to 1945 — and we’ve spanned that amount of time since we started the show — there were a lot of changes in America. The show has always tried to reflect what America is as much as possible.
I was actually just watching the first ever episode, from 1969…
It looked real amateur hour, didn’t it?
Well, Big Bird, for one thing, looks significantly different.
I was kind of disappointed how he looked. He looked kind of raggedy. The feathers were just plastered on, and he didn’t have any feathers above his eyeballs. It didn’t look like he had any IQ whatsoever. And he wasn’t a kid. I rarely disagreed with Jim Henson, because Jim was an incredible genius. He always wanted to build a silly, goofy puppet of a bird. My first voice for him was [slips into a dumb person voice] “Oh, you’re a dumb bird, ha ha” — like a local yokel. But eventually some of the writers wrote a thing where Big Bird sees these children going into a day care center, and they wanted him to go with them. I thought I should play Big Bird like he happens to be a big kid. And they went along with it. I don’t think if he remained a yokel he’d even be on the show today.
You’ve done a rare thing for a performer, which is play the same characters for 45 years. What has kept you interested in Big Bird for that long?
The difference between Big Bird and the other muppets is Big Bird got to be very sensitive and complex. He’s not just into cookies or something. I’m not putting [Cookie Monster] down.
He’s also, at 8’2”, probably still the tallest character on television.
It’s kind of satisfying for me because I was the smallest boy in the class in high school. That wasn’t so much fun. When I joined the Air Force when I was 19, I grew three inches during basic training. I guess it was all the marching.