The man inside the Big Bird

WOODSTOCK, Conn. -- When you see Caroll Spinney from a distance riding on a four-wheeler you may not recognize him, even though you've seen him countless times before. But the second he assumes his trademark voice - you're sure to know exactly who he is.

Spinney, 81, is Big Bird and has been for 46 years. He has logged some 4,000 episodes since the start of "Sesame Street" in 1969, operating what's essentially one of the world's largest hand puppets. Since Big Bird is 8 feet 2 inches tall, Spinney's head only goes to the bottom of Big Bird's neck. He operates the mouth with his right arm.

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Caroll Spinney, the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch
CBS News

Spinney will be the subject of an upcoming documentary entitled "I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story," set for release Friday May 15.

But Caroll Spinney didn't just create one iconic character -- he also created Oscar the Grouch. The character was inspired by a grouchy waiter at an old seafood restaurant in Manhattan and the voice from a New York City cabbie who once gave Spinney a lift.

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Caroll Spinney with his other character Oscar the Grouch
"I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY"

His wife Deb says Spinney isn't very grouchy, except maybe in traffic.

"When he first asked me out I went home, I really did do cartwheels," said Deb. "I mean I'm dating Big Bird for Pete's Sake!"

Caroll Spinney is much more like the lovable, slightly goofy, fine-feathered friend of generations of children.

In one instance, the parents of a 5-year-old boy named Joey, sick with cancer, asked Big Bird to give their son a call.

The boy's father later told Spinney his son Joey hadn't smiled in month but passed away with a smile on his face thanks to Big Bird's call. In Joey's final moment, described the father to Spinney, Joey said: "Big Bird called me. He's my friend."

Spinney, whose been playing Big Bird for 46 years, says he'd like to make it an even 50. And who better to make kids feel safe, loved, and grounded than a bird who never flies?

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.