Where did Big Bird come from?

You've likely never been asked that question before, yet you're ready with the answer. You're thinking of Sesame Street, which makes total sense. After all, the world's favorite feathered friend has been a staple at that magical address for 55 years.

Sesame Street is a fine answer but it's also wrong. The truth is cooler and more unexpected.

Big Bird is from Waltham, Massachusetts.

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Caroll Spinney, who originated the internationally beloved character in 1969 and played him to perfection for half a century, was born and raised in the Boston suburbs. He graduated from Acton High School, served in the U.S. Air Force and later traveled as a young entertainer until one fateful day, his work caught the eye of Jim Henson, who brought him onto the cast of a little PBS children's show.

It might be reductive to say Spinney played Big Bird. He embodied the character. He suited up in the costume every day, orange legs and all, stretching an arm high above his head to support the friendly face of an eternally 6-year-old bird. He also supplied the character's famous voice.

Sesame Street's Big Bird And Puppeteer Caroll Spinney Light The Empire State Building
Getty Images

I loved Sesame Street in my early years, especially Big Bird, which makes me no different from the generations before and after me. I had no idea at the time, sitting cross-legged on the floor most mornings in front of my boxy old TV, that I'd grow up to interview the man behind the puppetry and have one of the most surreal moments of my media career.

READ MORE: The Fall River Man Who Wrote Songs for Sesame Street, Kermit 

While writing a story about Sesame Street songwriter and Fall River native Joe Raposo in 2014, I spent about an hour on the phone with Spinney, who rang me from his home in Woodstock, Connecticut, just over the Massachusetts border. He was everything I wanted him to be: generous, sweet, humble and willing to share many priceless memories. He seemed particularly proud of I Am Big Bird, a documentary that had just been made about his remarkable life.

Spinney asked me to send him the article when it was done. I immediately mailed a few copies to his house with a note thanking him for his time. I thought that would be the end of it.

Imagine my surprise when, a few weeks later, Big Bird mailed me back. He sent me a handwritten note on bright yellow paper, describing recent travels and inviting me to visit him on the New York City set of Sesame Street, a plan that sadly never panned out. He signed it, "Later! TA TA! Caroll." He also included a copy of the Christmas card he and his wife Debra had sent to loved ones that year.

The highlight for me was the envelope, upon which Spinney had painted a cute mouse holding up a stamp. The detail was incredible and a reminder of one of Spinney's other lifelong talents. He signed the bottom right corner with his last name, the cherry on top of a little work of art.


Spinney retired from Sesame Street in 2018, having devoted much of his life to the show. He was diagnosed with dystonia, a condition affecting his muscles, several years earlier. Matt Vogel stepped into the Big Bird role when Spinney bowed out.

Big Bird, always technically 6 years old, turned 55 in March 2024.

Spinney died in 2019 at 85 but he lives on in the giant, loveable character he created and all the kindness he showed to people in and out of those iconic yellow feathers.

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