New film examines the life of the man inside Big Bird

7 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story’ review: The man behind feathered ‘Sesame Street’ star.

Generations of children have fallen in love with Big Bird and learned from him how to steer through life to avoid pitfalls. While viewers have long identified Oscar as being a fuzzy mop of green, the new documentary, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” depicts the “Sesame Street” puppet as being a different hue in the show’s earlier years. “The first year I show myself in my true colors, which is orange.For nearly 50 years, at “Sesame Street,” he’s been inside the Big Bird costume and crouched behind Oscar the grouch’s garbage can, giving life to those beloved creations.There aren’t many octogenarian entertainers who have managed to stay relevant in the ever-changing cultural zeitgeist, but then there haven’t been many people who have played Big Bird.

“Sesame Street” character Big Bird sits onstage to accept lifetime achievement award at the 36th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, August 30, 2009.Big Bird almost had a seat on the doomed Challenger space shuttle which exploded just seconds after take-off in 1986, killing seven people onboard, a documentary on the beloved “Sesame Street” character has revealed. “It made my scalp crawl to think I was supposed to be on that,” Caroll Spinney, the man who has donned the 8-foot-2 yellow bird costume since 1969, recalled. Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird for 46 years, told HuffPost Live’s Nancy Redd on Wednesday that he was invited to ride the rocket and said yes, “because I could not ever imagine that I would be in the situation to orbit the earth.” Sign up here for Live Today, HuffPost Live’s morning email that will let you know the newsmakers, celebrities and politicians joining us that day and give you the best clips from the day before! REUTERS He’s done it a few times, most notably while singing “Bein’ Green” at mentor Jim Henson’s funeral; another was during the darkest period of his life, when divorce and depression made him thankful the suit hid his tears.

Spinney, now 81, apprehensively agreed, but was later told Big Bird “would not fit in the spacecraft,” which would have been the Challenger, a TODAY show segment on the documentary revealed Wednesday. Big Bird — with Spinney in the suit — was originally slated to be a part of the Challenger space-shuttle mission in 1986, in the hopes of renewing kids’ interest in America’s space program. NASA instead launched teacher Christa McAuliffe, considered the first “citizen in space,” aboard what became the first in-flight disaster and the worst record space catastrophe in the history of the U.S. space program. The 37-year-old high school social studies educator from Concord, N.H., was chosen from 11,146 teachers to give lessons to 25 million students from space.

The shuttle exploded soon after takeoff, killing its seven crew members — including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who was selected in Spinney’s place. NASA confirmed talks between “Sesame Street” to send the iconic character to space, but “that plan was never approved,” spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton said in a statement.

In his Big Bird persona, Caroll Spinney has made the cover of Time, visited the White House as a guest of six first ladies, visited China with Bob Hope, received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and figured into a presidential debate, when Mitt Romney professed, “I love Big Bird,” but nonetheless as president would have cut PBS funds. The now octogenarian Spinney reveals himself to be much like the character he portrays: a sunny optimist with a childlike nature, who clearly takes great delight in performing. In the early days of “Sesame Street,” the show was a hit, but Spinney’s $375-a-week paycheck left him unable to afford rent for his Upper West Side apartment. And he’s working on his 12th book, about the professional practices of scientists. “I’ll keep writing until the time comes for me to stop, and that’s death,” he says.

For years, I was not brought to people’s attention so much.” It was after the show’s first few months in 1969 that a scriptwriter hit on the idea of Spinney playing Big Bird as a kid who struggles to learn the alphabet as much as his listeners do, speaking in a childlike high-pitched voice. Seymour Bernstein shares his love of music: Bernstein retired from his pressure-filled career as a concert pianist at age 50 and began teaching young musicians in New York City.

Spinney believes that this ability to go back in time and incorporate feelings a child would have imbues Big Bird with emotional qualities the other Muppets lack. “I’m still a kid. After an initial stint working for Bozo the Clown, he attracted the attention of Jim Henson after delivering a mishap-plagued performance at a puppet festival. The Muppets creator offered him a job anyway, telling him, “I liked what you were trying to do.” His early years working with Henson weren’t immediately successful.

It’s now documented in the critically lauded Seymour: An Introduction. “Seymour has thought a lot about what it means to live a life in the arts and a long life in general,” says producer Greg Loser. “He loves to share these thoughts.” Iris still in bloom: Fashion icon and interior designer Apfel calls herself an “geriatric starlet,” after a 2005 Metropolitan Museum of Art show of her idiosyncratic fashion collection became an international sensation. Iris, one of Albert Maysles’ last completed films (he died in March), looks at the woman behind the famously oversized glasses (along with her beloved 100-year-old husband Carl) and her unstoppable passion for her job. “I love to work — working is a blessing and I enjoy what I do,” says Apfel. “If more elderly people were employed, they would be feeling much better. They came in three separate cars to our house, and their back seats and trunks were completely filled with boxes of films and videotapes and photographs. By the time of his reunion, he was literally big. “People came up to me and asked, ‘Are you really Big Bird?’ Then some of them claimed we were friends in school, but I knew we weren’t.” The documentary goes into great detail on how Spinney controls Big Bird.

The footage of him as Big Bird delivering a sorrowful rendition of “Bein’ Green” at Henson’s memorial is one of the film’s most powerfully emotional moments. There’s also fascinating, behind-the-scenes footage that details the arduous physical demands of playing the character, which involves painfully holding his arm upright — it controls the puppet’s head — for long stretches at a time. Other interesting segments involve his hand-picked successor, Matt Vogel, who has been patiently waiting for nearly two decades for Spinney to retire; the character’s diminishing popularity in favor of Elmo when Sesame Street began skewing younger; and the amusing brouhaha that ensued after Mitt Romney declared “I love Big Bird,” even while vowing to end funding for public television.

It was too much of a risk, and I just love the job so much.” One bittersweet revelation of “I Am Big Bird” concerns an invitation Big Bird received from NASA to join the Challenger’s crew in 1986. Spinney watched from a PBS studio as everyone in the shuttle perished as it broke apart in a cloud of smoke and fire. “What went through my mind was a feeling of ‘Oh, my God, that lovely young woman,’” he recalls. “Because it was such a tragic thing, they decided not to mention it on air,” Spinney recalls. “But Big Bird was deeply involved with the Challenger until the very last minute.” For much of his reign, he had no understudy.

Although he’s mastered all of Spinney’s moves, Vogel mostly remains in the background handling physically difficult tasks, like when Big Bird is required to drag the scenery behind him. (Vogel also produces and directs episodes of the show.) Did you tell him?” He says, “Yeah, I said, ‘Paul, Big Bird wants to do something with you.'” Paul says, “Doesn’t he know I’m married?” That’s not what I’m talking about!

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