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Big Bird puppeteer talks 46-year career, Challenger flight he almost took

Big Bird puppeteer Caroll Spinney talks about his life in feathers.
/ Source: TODAY

He's 8 feet tall, yellow and beloved by children all over the world.

For 46 years, Big Bird has been played by one man: Caroll Spinney. And a newly-released documentary, titled "I am Big Bird," goes behind the beak to tell the story of Spinney's life and career.

TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager recently paid a visit to "Sesame Street" to chat with Big Bird/Spinney about what makes our feathery friend one of the most beloved characters of all time.

Here's what we learned:

1. Spinney, 81, has been playing Big Bird since "Sesame Street" first began in 1969. He calls the role “a dream come true.”

Caroll Spinney: the man behind Big Bird
Bringing life to Big Bird requires a lot of coordination, both physically and technically. Before donning the 8-foot-tall costume, Spinney is equipped with a chest monitor and ear pieces so he can coordinate his movements. Big Bird’s head is supported by Spinney’s right arm, and if you listen closely you’ll hear that his voice actually comes through his chest, not his beak!Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

2. Muppets creator Jim Henson handpicked Spinney for the role of Big Bird. He saw Spinney perform at a puppet show and asked it him to join his new television venture, "Sesame Street." Henson and Spinney went on to become close friends, up until Henson’s untimely death in 1990. Spinney paid tribute to his friend and mentor at Henson’s memorial service, donning the Big Bird costume and singing Kermit the Frog’s signature song "Bein’ Green" — and breaking hearts in the process.

3. It’s been 46 years since Spinney first wore the Big Bird costume, but he has no plans to retire anytime soon. He says he’d like to make it to 50 years, and ideally go beyond that, provided it doesn’t change “the value of the performance.”

"I Am Big Bird"

4. Big Bird is not Spinney’s only "Sesame Street" character. He also plays Oscar the Grouch! While Oscar’s personality is quite different from Spinney’s, he enjoys playing the role because of the differences and because Oscar is “kind of cool.” And while Oscar may have been consistently grouchy for all these years, he’s been known to change his colors. In Sesame Street’s first year, Oscar was orange, before switching to his iconic green.

5. NASA reportedly approached Spinney in the '80s with the idea of sending Big Bird into space to get children more interested in the space program. While initially nervous about the venture, Spinney eventually said yes, but it was later determined that Big Bird “would not fit in the spacecraft.”

In an eerie twist of fate, the shuttle that Spinney would’ve been sent up on was the Challenger. NASA sent teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died along with the rest of the crew when the shuttle exploded on January 28, 1986. Spinney watched the launch and explosion from the "Sesame Street" set: “It made my scalp crawl to think I was supposed to be on that.”

Caroll Spinney wearing the Big Bird pants
The original Birdman: It's not uncommon to see Spinney walking around the set as half man, half bird. The bottom half of his costume is a felt-like material that is actually quite comfortable (once you get used to the webbed feet, of course!).Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

6. The character of Big Bird was initially a goofy grown-up. Spinney had the idea that Big Bird would be more useful as a surrogate child, representing all the kids watching him on television. "Sesame Street" producers agreed, and from then on, Big Bird was portrayed as a 6-year-old, albeit the tallest bird in his class at 8-foot-2 tall.

What's a day in the life of Caroll Spinney (aka Big Bird) like? Check out these behind-the-scenes photos from the set of "Sesame Street":

The famous Sesame Street sign
Taking a stroll down the famous Sesame Street, it's hard to miss Big Bird's cozy nest. For a perpetual 6-year-old, Big Bird sure has a flair for interior design. And it wouldn't be complete without a photo of his best friend, Snuffy!Samantha Okazaki / TODAY
Jenna Bush Hagers gives Big Bird a kiss
A quick peck! TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager stops mid-interview to steal a kiss from Big Bird.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY
Caroll Spinney's artwork made just for Jenna Bush Hager
Outside of the costume, Caroll Spinney is an avid artist. He sketched this piece as a baby gift for Jenna, who's expecting her second child this August.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY
Caroll Spinney voicing the character of Oscar the Grouch
In addition to Big Bird, Caroll has played the character of Oscar the Grouch since 1969. Some days he takes a break from the confines of the can, and voices Oscar from a comfy director's chair. His wife, Debra, is never far from his side to help with lines or give words of encouragement.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY
Caroll Spinney on the set of Sesame Street
Caroll continues to play an active role in Oscar the Grouch's life. Here he lends a hand (literally!) to the newest wave of puppeteers.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY
Caroll Spinney's dressing room at the Sesame Street studios
And that's a wrap! Work may be done for the day, but Caroll Spinney's legacy has got legs. Long, pink, striped legs, that is.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY