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Big Bird puppeteer Caroll Spinney recounted emotional call to dying boy

He said 'Thank you for calling me, Big Bird. You’re my friend. You make me happy.'
/ Source: TODAY

Caroll Spinney, the actor who played Big Bird and Oscar on "Sesame Street," died on Dec. 8 at the age of 85. His cultural impact was enormous, but one phone call he made behind the scenes, recounted in this story from 2015, shows the depth of his legacy.

Caroll Spinney, the actor who played Big Bird and Oscar on "Sesame Street," said he considers his phone call to a boy dying of cancer to be the most meaningful interaction he's had with a child while filming.

Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird, will always remember the day he reached out to a dying boy.Danny Moloshok / Reuters

"I got a letter from a fan who said his little boy, who was 5 years old, his name was Joey, he was dying of cancer," Spinney wrote in 2015, during his Ask Me Anything session on Reddit. "And he was so ill, the little boy knew he was dying. So the man, in his letter, asked if I would call the little boy. He said the only thing that cheered him at all in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television."

The father, Spinney said, asked the actor to tell Joey what a good boy he's been. Spinney said he obliged, and tracked down a land line — as this was a time before cell phones were popular — to try to cheer up Joey.

"I had Big Bird say, 'Hello! Hello Joey! It’s me, Big Bird!'" Spinney recalled. "So he said 'Is it really you, Big Bird?' 'Yes, it is.' I chatted a while 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.'"

Spinney said Joey's parents were by the boy's side during the phone call.

TODAY Show: Caroll Spinney has been breathing life into the Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscarthe Grouch since its inaugural season in 1969. Spinney is now 81, and hopes never to grow up.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

"[Joey's father] 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."

That's when Spinney realized the emotional impact of his work.

"I could see that what I say to children can be very important," he wrote. "And [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 has shared other emotional stories in the days surrounding the release of his new documentary, "I Am Big Bird." For more, check out his recent chat with TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager.

Follow writer Chris Serico on Twitter.