Sesame Street icon Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch during his nearly five decades on the children’s show, has died at 85.
His death was announced by the Sesame Workshop, which said Spinney had been living with the movement disorder dystonia “for some time”.
He died at his home in Connecticut, the nonprofit organisation that puts on Sesame Street said.
“Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending,” reads a tribute to Spinney on the Sesame Workshop website.
“His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children and countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while.”
Spinney joined Sesame Street for the inaugural season in 1969 and played a variety of characters over the years, but none were more prominent than the yellow, 2.4 metre-tall Big Bird or the rubbish-can-inhabiting Oscar, both of whom have remained among the show’s most popular characters for decades.
He retired from the long-running series in October 2018.
Spinney is survived by his wife, Debra, and their three children. His death on Sunday was mourned by many, including Joan Ganz Cooney, a co-founder of Sesame Street.
“Caroll Spinney’s contributions to Sesame Street are countless,’ she said in a statement. “He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well. We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to Sesame Street and to children around the world.”
Meanwhile, New York Mayor de Blasio offered condolences to Spinney’s loved ones on behalf of the 8.6 million New Yorkers.
“Generations of children learned kindness, compassion and friendship from Caroll Spinney – and his characters embodied the heart of our city,” he tweeted.
Spinney operated the beloved puppet characters in hundreds of episodes of Sesame Street. Upon announcing his retirement last year, Spinney shared what his many years on the series meant to him.
“Before I came to Sesame Street, I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important,” Spinney said at the time. “Big Bird helped me find my purpose. Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while! They have given me great joy, led me to my true calling and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.”