Caroll Spinney, a man who’s played a big part of many kids’ lives, recently shared one of the most heartbreaking stories you’ll read on the internet.
For the last 46 years, Spinney has made Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch come alive on Sesame Street. He sat down this week for a reddit AMA, in which a users asked him what has been his most meaningful interaction with a child.
Grab your tissues:
Okay, here’s one.
This is a very sad story, but it’s real.
I got a letter from a fan who said his little boy, who was 5 years old, his name was Joey, he was dying of cancer.
And he was so ill, the little boy knew he was dying.
So the man, in his letter, asked if I would call the little boy. He said the only thing that cheered him at all in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television.
So once in a while, he wouldn’t see Big Bird on some days, because he wasn’t necessarily in every show. So he asked could I telephone him, and talk to the boy, tell him what a good boy he’s been.
So I took a while to look up a phone, because this was before cell phones. And they got a long cord to bring a phone to the boy.
And I had Big Bird say “Hello! Hello Joey! It’s me, Big Bird!”
So he said “Is it really you, Big Bird?”
“Yes, it is.”
I chatted a while with him, about ten minutes, and he said “I’m glad you’re my friend Big Bird.”
And I said “I’d better let you go now.”
He said “Thank you for calling me Big Bird. You’re my friend. You make me happy.”
And it turns out that his father and mother were sitting with him when the phone call came. And he was very, very ill that day.
And they called the parents in, because they weren’t sure how long he’d last.
And so his father wrote to me right away, and said “Thank you, thank you” – he hadn’t seen him smile since October, and this was in March – and when the phone was hung up, he said “Big Bird called me! He’s my friend.”
And he closed his eyes. And he passed away.
And I could see that what I say to children can be very important.
And he said “We haven’t seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled, as he passed away. It was a gift to us. Thank you.”
Spinney also shared his thoughts on Big Bird’s “controversial” appearance on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Well, see – other people make arguments in favor of us being totally honest, that does not fit with my feeling of the joy of being a little child. I’ve seen a child discover me – we thought we were alone in a park, filming a scene outdoors on some great stretches of rock, we had to do a shot for a China film – and a little boy came along, and he saw me take Big Bird off! And he screamed, and cried, and I said “Quick!” – he looked so funny with his little legs, running away, crying and crying – and I chased after him, with the costume back on- and I said “Little boy, I’m okay” and he said “I thought that man was hurting you, Big Bird.”
When children see that Big Bird – Mr. Rogers wanted me to lift the puppet which is so big I have to get inside, off – it’s a series of hoops that create the shape of Big Bird, and then there’s netting and feathers, they’re all real feathers so he looks nice and real – we found out that children would NOT have liked seeing Big Bird take it off on Mr. Rogers. I said “I’m sorry, I can’t do that!” Jim Henson didn’t want me to do it either.
So we made a compromise with Mr. Rogers.
And that was that I would just go to the Make-Believe Land, and say “OK, this is Make-Believe” and have some other puppeteers – a good friend of mine, Bob Brown, would show how HIS puppets worked – little marionettes on strings – they don’t look so real anyway, like Big Bird did to little kids.
We’re not trying to fool them, we’re just trying to entertain them, and let them know that their friend Big Bird is not just a man in a giant suit.
Check out the whole AMA here. It’s worth your time.
Image via Neil Grabowsky, Wikimedia Commons