TORONTO — Forty-five years into his tenure as Big Bird on “Sesame Street,” Caroll Spinney doesn’t plan to leave the nest just yet.
“I want to do at least 50 years, perhaps longer, if I can,” the 80-year-old puppeteer said in a recent interview.
“Only five to go for 50.”
Spinney’s life and career playing the friendly fowl and Oscar the Grouch are outlined in “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” which is making its world premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.
Chad Walker and Dave LaMattina directed the documentary, which tugs at the heartstrings as it explains his triumphs as well as his personal struggles.
Spinney saw the film on the big screen for the first time at the festival on Sunday and said he was so moved he “lost control.”
“I was heading for the steps for the question-and-answer part at the end of the movie and I was in tears. I had to gather myself so as not to bawl onstage, because it was just so moving.”
LaMattina said he got the idea for the doc about five years ago when he heard about Spinney while working as an intern at Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind “Sesame Street.”
He felt compelled “to try to figure out who this man is that has touched so many people but no one really knows about.”
“The fact that they’ve gone and made a film about me is moving to me, and seeing it up on a big screen, I never thought I’d see anything like that,” said the soft-spoken Spinney.
“I was moved beyond words. ... But the whole thing suddenly overwhelmed me at the end, that I was in a movie about me. Amazing. I couldn’t believe it.”
Spinney grew up in Massachusetts but said his father was born in New Brunswick and his mother grew up in Cape Breton.
As the film shows, Spinney was bullied as a kid, but he found solace in puppets.
He served in the Air Force for four years before joining the Bozo the Clown show as a performer and animator.
He eventually started doing his own puppet shows and in 1969 was discovered by Jim Henson at an industry festival.
Spinney’s start at “Sesame Street” was rocky, as he had trouble getting into the rhythm of songs and felt like he didn’t fit in.
“Big Bird was just a little light thing to throw into a show. He had no real purpose,” he said. “I was kind of shaking my head, because he was so ugly and so raggedy. His feathers were put on actually the wrong-side out, which made them curl out the wrong way. ... He had hardly any feathers on the top of his head, which made him look rather lacking a brain.”
But puppeteer Kermit Love started adding new touches to the eight-foot-tall yellow character, re-building a sturdy head that Spinney still uses to this day.
Spinney admits in the film he wanted to quit when he first started, but he was talked out of it by a colleague.
The decision to stay paid off as Big Bird became a much bigger personality along with Oscar, who is also played by Spinney.
Spinney also became good friends with Henson and travelled the world, shooting screen projects including “Follow That Bird” and “A Muppet Family Christmas” in Toronto.
Spinney also admits in the film that he had suicidal thoughts after his divorce from his first wife, but his work and colleagues helped him get through the pain.
He eventually fell in love again, with Debra Spinney, and the two married and are still together.
“It was very hard times, but mostly, I’ve had a wonderful time doing the show and I can’t even believe how 45 years have gone by so quickly,” said Spinney.
“And I love the fact that I’m still playing my six-year-old bird guy. It’s a long time to play a six-year-old.”
Spinney said “Sesame Street” “has grown and changed” over the years as it evolves with its young audiences.
In the beginning, the show was “so incredibly criticized with the scholastic part of America,” he said.
“At first some of them greeted us with arms open but other said, ’You’re trying to do too much, little children can’t learn the alphabet.’ ... But we wanted to be pre-kindergarten, help kids learn more language and more things about what colours are.”
Now, Spinney feels like he’s “gotten to be a teacher of a lot of kids.”
And he only plans to step away from the role if he finds he “can’t hold up that great big silly goose of a bird.”
“It’s exhausting, it’s physically demanding, but I’m still holding my own. I have assurance that I will be doing it for 50 years at least. I want to, unless someone has a different plan for me.”