Big Bird is flying the coop. Caroll Spinney, the 84-year-old puppeteer who's portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street since the show's premiere in 1969, announced his retirement Wednesday, telling the New York Times that the physical requirements have become too much for him. Still, "I'll be 100 years old, doing Muppet stuff," says Spinney, who plans to become a Sesame Workshop ambassador. It seems an appropriate post: "I think it's fair to say that Caroll's view of the world and how we should treat each other has shaped and defined our organization," says CEO Jeffrey Dunn. It was Spinney, winner of a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award, who made the decision to play Big Bird as "a child, a surrogate," rather than "a funny, dumb country yokel."
The character "came to embody the tender, nurturing soul of the show," reports the Times. But Big Bird also "nurtured my soul," Spinney says in a statement, per CNN. Fans of the show feel the same way. "Spinney created a character I could trust and, as an autistic child, connect with," reads one of several "emotional" tweets published by Mashable. Matt Vogel, aka Kermit the Frog, will take over as Big Bird, while Eric Jacobson of Grover and Bert will assume the role of Oscar the Grouch. Yet Spinney, an author and visual artist, won't be far removed from his characters. Apart from a half-century of experience with them, he also has a rocking chair fitted with a massive pair of Big Bird's pink and orange legs, per the Times. (Spinner was nearly on the doomed Challenger shuttle.)