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AFI Docs Review: “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story”

Meet the man who’s brought the beloved Sesame Street character to life for more than four decades.

Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

Before Elmo hugged and giggled his way into the hearts of America’s youth, Big Bird was the undisputed star of Sesame Street. Now, I Am Big Bird, a new documentary by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker, tells the story of the man behind the feathers: Caroll Spinney, who’s performed the beloved character for the past 45 years.

Through home videos, archival footage, and interviews with the cast and crew of Sesame Street, the film portrays Spinney as a humble, soft-spoken family man who comes to life in his most famous puppets, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Spinney got his start in show business straight out of the Air Force, performing with puppets on a children’s TV show in Boston. His big break came in 1969, when Jim Henson spotted him at a puppetry festival and recruited him for Sesame Street. Despite a rocky start on the program—Spinney struggled to make ends meet after moving to New York for the job—he stayed on to transform the character of Big Bird from dopey goofball to innocent little kid and, eventually, international icon.

The film finds sure footing on the Sesame Street set, where Spinney is in his element and, mostly, on his own. Unlike the other puppeteers, who take visual cues from one another while their hands are occupied, Spinney is nearly blind inside the Big Bird suit and behind Oscar’s trash can. He reads lines taped to the suit’s interior while watching a monitor strapped to his chest, which shows a mirror image of his performance. Meanwhile, Spinney extends his right arm straight up through the neck of the bird to operate the head, which weighs about five pounds. Spinney’s left hand controls the left wing, which in turn moves the right wing in a kind of pulley system. The seemingly effortless persona of Big Bird is revealed to be an extraordinary feat of strength, skill, and empathy—one that Spinney pulled off by himself for 30 years.

For all its charm, though, I Am Big Bird invites largely unfavorable comparisons to Being Elmo, the 2011 documentary about fellow Sesame Street puppeteer Kevin Clash. Spinney doesn’t have Clash’s charisma, and his story is frustratingly untidy, interrupted by misfortunes the filmmakers don’t quite know how to deal with. Spinney’s difficult childhood and divorce, Big Bird’s aborted mission on the doomed space shuttle Challenger, a homicide that takes place on Spinney’s property—these events fit uncomfortably in the film’s narrative, prompting abrupt shifts in tone and an overreliance on sappy instrumental backing tracks.

Some of the most poignant moments show Big Bird being eclipsed by the new kid on the block, Elmo. The little red monster’s rise to stardom coincided with a shift in the show’s creative direction; Sesame Street began to appeal to a younger audience of two- and three-year-olds, for whom Elmo, not Big Bird, was an immediate favorite. Spinney and other Sesame Street cast members express weary resignation to the changes, as they wistfully remember the show’s—and Big Bird’s—good old days.

At 80 years old, Spinney has passed on an increasing number of his Big Bird duties to understudy Matt Vogel; now the veteran puppeteer spends much of his time drawing and animating. But it was Spinney’s Big Bird who appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2012, after Mitt Romney’s ill-advised quip about cutting funding to PBS, and it was Spinney’s Big Bird who recently appeared on Sesame Street to tackle the serious subject of bullying. Watching him perform after all these years, it’s clear he hasn’t missed a beat.

Playing Saturday, June 21, 1:45 PM at the National Portrait Gallery, and Sunday, June 22, 11 AM at AFI Silver Theatre.

Return to AFI Docs page.