Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind the iconic Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch died Sunday at the age of 85. He passed away at his Connecticut home after living with dystonia, a movement disorder that causes painful and involuntary muscle spasms, according to Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street.
“His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to generations of children,” the organization said in a statement, “and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while.”
Sesame Workshop praised Spinney’s “artistic genius” and emphasized just how important his impact and legacy was to Sesame Street. Spinney’s “kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades,” the statement said.
Sesame Workshop said that Spinney had a special love for the music of Sesame Street, even conducting symphony orchestras and performing with them around the world. “Caroll Spinney gave something truly special to the world, the statement said. “With deepest admiration, Sesame Workshop is proud to carry his memory – and his beloved characters – into the future.”
Spinney retired from Sesame Street in 2018. He said in a statement at the time that Big Bird helped him find his purpose. “Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while!” Spinney said. “They have given me great joy, led me to my true calling and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.”
Co-founder of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney, said in a statement that she felt an “immense gratitude for all he has given to Sesame Street and to children around the world.”
“Caroll Spinney’s contributions to Sesame Street are countless. He not only gave us Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, he gave so much of himself as well,” Cooney said.
A 2014 documentary, I Am Big Bird, unveiled the life of the man behind the bird. Although Big Bird has reached celebrity status for decades now, Spinney has been less well known. The film did make him more recognizable though. “I’m almost never recognized. Lately because of the publicity for the movie, a few people have come up to me in airports,” he told TIME in a 2015 interview.
Spinney told TIME he loved puppets from a young age, saying he saw his first puppet show when he was just five years old. As a child, his mother even built him a little theater.
“After I saw the puppets, my eyes popped out. She didn’t realize she was giving me my career that day,” Spinney previously told TIME . Asked whether he thought Big Bird would change in the future, he acknowledged that eventually someone would be “taking over, and the voice will be slightly different.”
Spinney recalled how Jim Henson said the day he hired him that he hoped “these characters can live on beyond our own lives.”