Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, died Sunday in Connecticut at the age of 85 after living with dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. For 49 years, he brought everyone joy as he voiced two of some of the most iconic characters in television history.

His death comes on the same day that Sesame Street is set to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in Washington, D.C. On the announcement of his death, Sesame Workshop called him “an artistic genius” whose “legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending.”

Spinney was with Sesame Street from the beginning working as Big Bird and Oscar from 1969 to 2018. As both characters, he conducted several orchestras across the United States, China and Australia.

Performer Bob McGrath said of Spinney that, “He managed to learn to speak directly to the hearts of probably anything from 2-year-olds to 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds – and to grown-ups, as a matter of fact. It was most apparent to us the first time we got out and really performed for kids.”

Sesame Street co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney said, “We at Sesame Workshop mourn his passing and feel an immense gratitude for all he has given to ‘Sesame Street’ and to children around the world.”

Before Sesame Street, Spinney served in the Air Force. He then worked on the TV show Bozo’s Big Top in Boston, serving as characters such as Kookie the Boxing Kangaroo and Mr. Lion. He has since appeared in films such as The Muppet Movie and in 2009’s “Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian”.

He earned five Daytime Emmy awards for his work on Sesame Street and was nominated for a Grammy in 1976 for the album Merry Christmas from Sesame Street. He was awarded the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

“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 as he announced his retirement in 2018.

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