Caroll Spinney, the man behind Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for nearly 50 years, died at the age of 85 on Sunday.
Spinney died in his home in Connecticut and had been living with dystonia, a disorder that causes a person's muscles to contract uncontrollably, a Sesame Workshop statement announced on Sunday.
"Since 1969, Caroll's kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street," the nonprofit organization behind the beloved children's show said. "His enormous talent and outsized heart were perfectly suited to playing the larger-than-life yellow bird who brought joy to countless fans of all ages around the world, and his lovably cantankerous grouch gave us all permission to be cranky once in a while."
"Sesame Street is proud to carry his legacy — and his beloved characters — into the future. Our hearts go out to his beloved wife, Debra, and all of his children and grandchildren. We miss him dearly."
Spinney joined Sesame Street in its inaugural season in 1969. According to the New York Times, playing Big Bird proved physically challenging for him, as he was only 5 feet, 10 inches tall and the character was 8 feet tall. Spinney also had to raise his voice several octaves.
Meanwhile, for his famously gruff Oscar voice and character, Spinney reportedly modeled them after a rude waiter he'd encountered at one point and a New York taxi driver.
In October 2018, Spinney officially retired from the show and passed on his characters to be portrayed by fellow puppeteers Matt Vogel and Eric Jacobson, who he'd chosen for the jobs.
In addition to his two most widely recognized roles, Spinney also held four honorary doctorates and was known for his lectures and public speaking. He earned a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award in addition to six other Emmys, two Gold Records, and two Grammys.
During his life, Spinney described playing Big Bird and Oscar as his calling.
“Before I came to Sesame Street, I didn’t feel like what I was doing was very important. Big Bird helped me find my purpose,” Spinney said when he retired. “Even as I step down from my roles, I feel I will always be Big Bird. And even Oscar, once in a while! They have given me great joy, led me to my true calling — and my wonderful wife! — and created a lifetime of memories that I will cherish forever.”
The 2014 documentary I Am Big Bird chronicled his life on- and off-screen, including falling in love with puppeteering and then meeting his wife at Sesame Street. "I was walking through headquarters and there was this girl typing and I was said, 'Oh my God, I'm in love.'"
Online, people who had grown up with Sesame Street were heartbroken by the news and expressed the sincere impact he and his characters had on their lives.
"Kids, all over the world learned incredible lessons from him and are hopefully better adults. What an amazing person. Met he and his wife once. So much love," wrote one person.