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Behind the Feathers

'I Am Big Bird' celebrates the man in the yellow suit


BIG SHOES For 40 years, Caroll Spinney has played the big beloved bird.
  • BIG SHOES For 40 years, Caroll Spinney has played the big beloved bird.

In the pantheon of popular children's characters, Big Bird, the eight-foot-tall feathered friend with orange feet, is as iconic as Mickey Mouse. And for more than 40 years, one man has embodied the bird with a gentle and lasting heart. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story celebrates that man with a tender touch.

The documentary by directors Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker traces the path of puppeteer Spinney, who was discovered by Jim Henson in the 1960s while performing in college. Invited to join Henson on a burgeoning project called Sesame Street, Spinney's work as Big Bird, as well as Oscar the Grouch, catapulted the show to the forefront of kids programming.

Using archival footage and current interviews with Spinney, his wife, Debra, and colleagues like puppeteer and director Frank Oz, I Am Big Bird takes a loving look at Spinney's career and celebrates his natural wonder and joy.

It's obvious that Spinney's personality is the reason why Big Bird works, and the story of his life is largely a happy one. If there is one quibble with the film, it's that it lacks any conflict. The whole thing is just so gosh-darn heartwarming, it can feel like too much candy after Halloween.

Of course, Spinney's life has not been free of tragedy, and events such as his first divorce are not forgotten. The darkest moment of the film comes when Spinney looks back on the death of his friend and mentor Jim Henson, who passed away in 1990 at the age of 53. There is also the strange tale of how NASA invited Big Bird to ride aboard the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger before deciding he wouldn't fit. They sent teacher Christa McAuliffe instead.

Spinney has endured and at 81 he is still working and inspiring new generations of kids and plenty of adults too.

'I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story' is playing at Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol. 707.525.4840.

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