Sesame Street Favorite Big Bird to Star in Documentary

By Della Hasselle on August 22, 2012 6:57am 

NEW YORK — At a party celebrating the 15th season of Sesame Street, director Jim Henson made a speech honoring one of the most diverse and treasured members of his cast — the man behind the masks of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

"I am sure that Big Bird is the most well-known children's character in the world," Henson said on a video that still preserves the event, more than 20 years later.

"It's really neat. And I'm sure it's due to Caroll and his talent."

The man Henson was speaking about was Caroll Spinney, 78, who has played both characters since the show's inception in 1969. The video is part of archival footage being used for the first documentary created about him, "I Am Big Bird."

Produced by the New York-based company Copper Pot Pictures, the documentary traces the life of the man who has captured the hearts of kids around the world by playing both characters on the famed Manhattan and Queens-filmed television show for more than 40 years.

Filmmakers Clay Frost, Chad Walker and Dave LaMattina — the trio behind the independent production company — gathered hundreds of hours of video for the current project, which is slated to premiere in New York this spring.

As fans, they all grew up watching the famous TV show, and hope to educate fellow fans about the man behind the big yellow beak.

"The film will peel away the instances in Caroll’s life that inspired his creation of characters that influenced generations of children," the company said in a release. "And as the yellow feathers give way to grey hair, it is the man, not the puppet, who will steal your heart.”

The documentary reveals that the inspiration from Oscar actually came from a "cantankerous cabbie," and that a fire in the character's trash can once almost killed Spinney.

It also shows the original Oscar the Grouch, who was orange, and takes viewers through what has changed over the years (the color of Big Bird's feet) and what has not (Spinney's demeanor while operating Big Bird).

In one of the stranger twists, the documentary reveals that Big Bird was supposed to board the Challenger, until NASA changed it's mind at the very last minute.

LaMattina, who once worked at Sesame Street Workshop as an intern, called Spinney "the real-life Forrest Gump" because of his fame and association with people throughout history.

Aside from behind-the-scenes footage of Spinney with other characters on Sesame Street, the archive also includes paintings, sketches, home movies and his personal puppet collection, crafted by his mother more than 70 years ago.

These pieces connect to form the picture of a very tender and personal side of the bubbly, commercial characters that everyone knows, according to the filmmakers — the Spinney that was devoted to his wife and family, that once served in the army, and that once went bungee jumping in his middle age.

The film isn't just a measure of success. It also shows a young, struggling artist, yearning to make it as either a puppetter or as an animator.

"Apparently I was very funny in my desperation," Spinney said in a teaser video created for a Kickstarter page, which raised more than $100,000 by the time it expired Thursday.

Nearly 2,000 people backed the project, donating a total of $124,115, which will be used to finish the feature-length documentary in its post-production stages.

The filmmakers announced plans to release the documentary in time for the film festival season of 2013. The announcement comes just a year after another Sesame Street documentary, "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," swept awards in Sundance, Nantucket and other film festivals.

"Being Elmo," the Constance Marks film about puppeteer Kevin Clash, received warm-hearted reviews from critics around the country. So far, the proposal for "I Am Big Bird" has received similiar accolades, according to feedback that Copper Pot Pictures received from the Kickstarter page.

After just a few weeks of receiving an outpouring of support via emails, Walker and his co-workers encouraged the donors to start posting their opinions on YouTube.

"Like many others, Sesame Street was a big part of my childhood," said John L. an amateur filmmaker. "The fact that Caroll continues to perform these characters amazes and inspires me."

In a response, the Copper Pot Pictures crew agreed.

"It seems like as people have gotten to know Caroll, even in the brief clips we've released, they've realized that the man behind the Bird is the man that makes the Bird."

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