Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer and voice behind Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, recounted one of his most emotional fan encounters during a Reddit AMA on Thursday.

Caroll Spinney Tells Heartbreaking Big Bird Story

Spinney, who has been voicing Big Bird since Sesame Street’s inception over 45 years ago, took part in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ Q&A on Reddit to promote the new documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. In addition to sharing fascinating tidbits on his rise to Big Bird fame and Sesame Street, Spinney was asked to recount a particularly meaningful fan interaction.

User man_mayo asked, “What has been your most meaningful interaction with a child during filming? Or maybe from someone who grew up watching you relayed a poignant story?”

Spinney responded to the question, writing the heartbreaking story of a five-year-old boy, Joey, who was dying of cancer. One day, Spinney said, he received a letter from Joey’s father asking if he might be willing to call his sick son as Big Bird. “He said the only thing that cheered him at all in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television,” Spinney wrote.

After looking up Joey’s telephone number – this was before the age of the cell phone – Spinney called Joey:

“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 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.’”

Later Spinney received another letter from Joey’s father to inform him that Joey had died right after their phone call. “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,” Spinney wrote.

Spinney revealed that his interaction with Joey stands out as one that truly taught him the importance of his relationship with his young fans, adding, “And I could see that what I say to children can be very important. And he [Joey’s father] 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, 81, also offered fans a few laughs during his AMA and revealed he has no intention of leaving his post as Big Bird. When asked if he had plans to retire, Spinney answered, “Well, NO! I suppose when I can’t make him sound right? But my father lived to be very old…So I might not feel like doing it in my 90’s. But I hope that doesn’t happen!”

I Am Big Bird is currently playing in limited release and is also available for pre-order on iTunes.

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