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Caroll Spinney turns 82: A birthday tribute to the man behind Big Bird

The puppeteer behind a most beloved "Sesame Street" character starred in the autobiographical documentary "I Am Big Bird" earlier this year.
/ Source: TODAY

Happy birthday, Caroll Spinney!

A look back at the man behind Big Bird, as he turns 82.

The puppeteer, perhaps best known for bringing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life on "Sesame Street" for the past 46 years, marked his 82nd birthday Saturday, near the end of a high-profile calendar year for the longtime performer.

In August, the Big Bird adventure caper "Follow That Bird" celebrated its 30th birthday. Thankfully, the movie — featuring fun cameos by Sandra Bernhard, John Candy, Chevy Chase and Waylon Jennings — did not mark the "end for our feathered friend," as the trailer voice-over teased.

As TODAY contributor Jenna Bush Hager discovered earlier this year on the set of "Sesame Street," there's a reason Spinney has become a beloved figure on and off the set of the long-running children's television series, which would later make the jump from PBS to HBO.

Her segment with Spinney, which aired May 6, focused on the man beneath the 8-foot Big Bird costume, whose character he described as "a dream coming true."

"I was one of these kind of kids who wanted to do the right thing, so that's what Big Bird is always trying to be, is trying to be a good kid," Spinney told TODAY. "He happens to be a kid that's a bird, 8-feet-2."

Spinney reflected on his life and career, both of which are chronicled in his autobiographical documentary, "I Am Big Bird," which was released May 1.

Spinney told Bush Hager that Muppets creator Jim Henson invited him to join the cast of "Sesame Street" and assigned him the role of Big Bird after seeing him perform at a puppet show. The character debuted in 1969.

Spinney has played him ever since, launching the character as a goofy grown-up before making him a curious 6-year-old. He told Bush Hager he hopes to make it to the 50-year mark of playing Big Bird, provided age doesn't limit the "value of the performance."

Through the years, Big Bird has made some deeply emotional appearances. He helped kids process and mourn the 1982 death of actor Will Lee, who portrayed shopkeeper Mr. Hooper on "Sesame Street." Eight years later, Spinney wore the Big Bird costume to perform Kermit the Frog's "Bein' Green" at a memorial service for Henson.

A day after TODAY aired its segment with Spinney, he shared another emotional story about the time he made a phone call to a young fan named Joey, who was dying of cancer.

"I had Big Bird say, 'Hello! Hello Joey! It's me, Big Bird!'" Spinney told Reddit users. "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.' [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.'"

We're thankful for Spinney, too.

Follow writer Chris Serico on Twitter.