Sometimes he stood 8 feet 2 inches tall. Sometimes he lived in a garbage can. He often cited numbers and letters of the alphabet, and for nearly a half century on “Sesame Street” he was Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, opening magic doors for children on the secrets of growing up and the gentle arts of friendship.
His name was Caroll Spinney — not that many people would know it — and he was the comfortably anonymous whole-body puppeteer who, since the 1969 inception of the public television show that has nurtured untold millions of children, had portrayed the sweet-natured, canary-yellow giant bird and the misanthropic, furry-green bellyacher in the trash can outside 123 Sesame Street.
Mr. Spinney, who also performed his characters in live concerts around the world and at the White House many times and was featured in films, documentaries and record albums, died on Sunday at his home in Woodstock, Conn. He was 85.
His death was announced by Sesame Workshop. It said in a statement that he had lived for some time with dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions.
For generations of preschoolers in America and scores of countries where the program is broadcast, Big Bird and Oscar were vivid playmates and subtle tutors in a Jim Henson Muppet menagerie that included Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie and the voracious Cookie Monster.The dialogue is scripted, but it was up to puppeteer-actors like Mr. Spinney to provide the voices and personalities.
Joining “Sesame Street” for its first season, Mr. Spinney, who had loved puppeteering since childhood, had problems at first adjusting to the Big Bird puppet suit created by Kermit Love. Mr. Spinney was 5 feet 10 and had to maneuver the giant from inside with hands, wires and a TV monitor strapped to his chest to guide him around studio sets.
But, raising his voice to a childlike pitch, Mr. Spinney easily picked up the talk of a perennial 6-year-old canary. He ascribed it to a lifelong ability to think like a child.