Right now, this news is so new that the IMDb drop-down menu lists his year of death as 2018 because they haven’t fixed that typo and his IMDb profile page doesn’t list a year of death at all. That is the world we live in now, I suppose; someone who has been such a profound influence on your life can drop out of it so quickly that you get it before the news is really out there. And he’s one of the few people who arguably has influenced my entire life; my older sister used to refer to Sesame Street as “the Big Bird and Oscar show,” when we were kids.
He was five when he knew he wanted to be a puppeteer. It took him a little longer to join with the fine people at the Children’s Television Workshop, of course; it didn’t exist yet at the time. But when he finally came to work for Jim Henson in the ’60s, he settled right away into the two most prominent puppets on the Street, which was new at the time. He joined for the inaugural season and only retired in the last year, due to failing health and the fact that puppetry is work, especially on the Bird.
Oh, he loved the Bird. I have his autobiography around here somewhere, signed, and it talks a lot about how fun it was to be the Bird, as he generally called him. He got to do things he otherwise never would have done. He loved Oscar, too, in a very different way, and I suspect he’d be a little disappointed at how many articles talked about the Bird and never mentioned the Grouch. So let us take a minute and talk about the Grouch, the other factor that drove his life and whose impact is frankly understated.
Oscar was grouchy, and it was okay. The other characters could be annoyed at him, but they never stopped caring about him. And he was still funny, and in his own grouchy way, he cared about several of the other characters. I wouldn’t say everyone; that wasn’t Oscar’s way. But underneath it all, he even cared about Big Bird, and you just had to know him well enough to be able to work that out. He was also more than just a bunch of insults; he caused more mayhem with just a clever question that Big Bird couldn’t answer than you might believe possible.
His puppeting philosophy was not the same as Jim’s; he really believed that it was important that kids not see him inside the costume. Jim once tossed down a puppet when he was done with it, and Carroll apologized to it. (You see these are people who I think of by their first names.) Jim was a little surprised—but he also accepted that Carroll’s philosophy was okay, and he hired him for the show for kids, where he fit right in.