Caroll Spinney, who played the parts of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for nearly 50 years, is retiring. Spinney’s departure this Thursday will be one of the last of Sesame Street staff members who have been at the show since it started in 1969. A Sesame Workshop spokeswoman estimated that the actor has likely appeared in “thousands” of the over 4,400 episodes that have aired.
In an interview with The New York Times, Spinney said “I always thought, How fortunate for me that I got to play the two best Muppets? … Playing Big Bird is one of the most joyous things of my life.”
Physical limitations led in part to Spinney’s retirement. Issues with his balance meant that in 2015 he stopped doing puppeteering for Big Bird and Oscar, and since has only provided voices for the two characters. But Spinney says Sesame Street’s imminent 50-year anniversary also makes this feel like a suitable time to appear in his last episode. He has already recorded voice parts for the show’s 50th-anniversary special, which will air on HBO in 2019.
The role will be taken over by Matt Vogel, who also voices Kermit the Frog and has worked as Spinney’s apprentice on Big Bird since 1996. “The more I do the character, the more that I try to preserve what I think Caroll’s intentions were,” he said to The New York Times.
President and chief executive of Sesame Workshop Jeffrey Dunn says that Spinney’s influence on the show’s philosophy will also endure. “Big Bird has always had the biggest heart on Sesame Street, and that’s Caroll’s gift to us,” said Dunn, “I think it’s fair to say that Caroll’s view of the world and how we should treat each other has shaped and defined our organization.”