Big Bird is one of the most beloved characters on one of the most beloved television shows in history, "Sesame Street."
Originally conceived by Muppets creator Jim Henson as "Nutty Bird," and meant as a goofy-looking, tattery country yokel to provide comic relief, Big Bird instead became a compassionate, gentle, somewhat insecure 6-year-old. With his open outlook, earnest questioning and sweet, sunny tenor, he has helped young viewers understand everything from the alphabet to death and disability.
Bird has appeared on the cover of Time magazine and a U.S. postage stamp and visited China, Japan and the White House, and is performed by Caroll Spinney — who also does Bird's next-door neighbor, Oscar the Grouch.
His best friend is Mr. Aloysius Snuffleupagus, a rust-colored mammoth look-alike that no adults could see, from his debut in 1971 until 1985. Despite Big Bird's constant efforts to introduce them, his grown-up friends would always just miss the enormous Muppet and insisted he was nothing more than Bird's imaginary friend. But the show's creators ended Big Bird's frustration when they decided the near-misses could discourage children from telling things to their parents, for fear they wouldn't be believed, according to Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces "Sesame Street."
When a hurricane wrecked his nest, Big Bird helped show children how to cope with loss and change. But Spinney believes Bird's finest hour came after the death of Mr. Hooper, the shopkeeper. Big Bird and he had a special relationship, even though, in a running gag, he could never get Mr. Hooper's name right. Actor Will Lee died in 1982, and instead of explaining away the character's disappearance, producers decided to deal with death head-on. When Bird wanted to give Hooper a portrait he'd drawn, the other adult characters helped a tearful Bird undertand and accept the idea that Hooper was gone and not coming back.
Spinney works the eight-foot canary, as he's usually described, with a raised right arm to work Bird's head, and his left arm working the left wing. As Spinney has gotten older — he turned 76 in 2009 — puppeteers Matt Vogel and Rick Lyon have also donned the costume.
"Sesame Street's" first target audience, older preschoolers and above, has skewed younger over the years as more viewers not yet out of diapers tune in. That, and the advent of an adorable scene-stealer named Elmo, has meant that Big Bird is more big brother than the little kid on the block.
Lynne Heffley and Robert Strauss in the Los Angeles Times