Caroll Spinney isn’t accustomed to having people recognize his face. Or at least, not his real face.

“I was in New York and this woman passed me by with her baby in carriage and said, ‘Oh you’re somebody, aren’t you?’” Mr. Spinney said. “I’m not used to being recognized.”

Brian Ditchfield interviews Mr. Spinney and Oscar the Grouch. — Maria Thibodeau

Mr. Spinney has just recently been thrust into the spotlight free of feathers for the first time as part of the release of the new documentary I Am Big Bird, which chronicles his life and career playing both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since their introduction on the show Sesame Street.

The movie was screened on the Island as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival last Thursday under the nighttime sky of Owen Park, where Mr. Spinney spoke to the crowd about his experience as one of the most iconic children’s characters of the 20th and 21st centuries.

“For years, Sesame Street didn’t want us out there in the forefront,” Mr. Spinney said recently in an interview with the Gazette along with his wife, Debra Spinney. “They wanted to preserve the illusion.”

So for now, the experience of being recognized on the street is new. But Mr. Spinney’s fame has been years in the making. While sitting in the lobby of the Mansion House hotel, the desk manager came over to personally shake his hand and thank him for his childhood. Several groups of tourists passing through Vineyard Haven give him curious looks, to which he replied “Hello” in Big Bird’s signature high-pitched squeak.

Mr. Spinney has not only physically played the part of Big Bird, having to operate a hulking eight-foot tall puppet and taking it around the world from New York to China, but he also formulated the character’s personality, as documented in the film.

Early stages of a career as a puppeteer. — Maria Thibodeau

“We had a script come down where Big Bird sees all these kids going into a school and Big Bird wants to know where they’re going. And I said, if he’s not a kid, why should he be going in where all these other kids are going?” Mr. Spinney recalls. From then on, Big Bird was no longer the country bumpkin that he had originally been imagined as. Instead, he matched the younger age of the show’s targeted demographic.

His other character of note, possibly television’s most famous curmudgeon, Oscar the Grouch, has shifted since the show’s origins as well. Oscar was once orange, an idea of Jim Henson’s, before being turned green shortly into the show’s run. “I’m still orange if you give me a bath,” Mr. Spinney said at one point while doing his Oscar voice as naturally as if it were his real one.

Mr. Spinney has no doubt made it big in the world of puppetry, but getting this far can be extraordinarily difficult as a puppeteer, and even the “big time” of puppetry can still be tough.

“I wasn’t even getting equitable pay with the actors,” Mr. Spinney said of his early years at the show. “I mean, you’d think I was a female for chrissakes!”

Years earlier, Mr. Spinney was hard pressed to find support for his chosen career in the arts. His father could be highly abusive, even physically at one point in his life, and bullying was a recurring problem for him in high school. One incident, which struck him particularly hard, was when a group of students insulted him on the bus and called him a name he would not repeat even off the record.

“My eyes just stung, that’s how mad, that’s how hurt,” he recalled.

After becoming known as the performer for Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters, Mr. Spinney noted how many people from high school come up to talk to him at reunions, but only one apologized. Nevertheless, despite bullying and an abusive father with whom he eventually reconciled later in life, Mr. Spinney maintains a cheery attitude about his childhood, as he tends to about most things. “It wasn’t all horrible. When my dad wasn’t home, it was fun.”

Mr. Spinney’s work with Big Bird started soon after he had left home to serve in the Air Force. He then worked in several jobs in the children’s entertainment industry before being noticed by Jim Henson after a particularly bad performance.

Mr. Spinney has helped formulate Big Bird's personality. — Maria Thibodeau

“Jim saw me doing a show, and it was a disaster,” Mr. Spinney said. “But I was very funny in my desperation of trying to save the show.”

Mr. Spinney took on the part of Big Bird, and the rest is puppetry history.

Playing the part does require a certain degree of physical and mental dexterity. The film showcases the multitasking abilities required to look at the internal monitor in the suit while simultaneously operating the jaw and eyes with one hand and making sure that Big Bird’s own hands are moving normally as well.

“I call it acting at the end of your arm,” Mr. Spinney explained. “It’s still acting. He’s a big puppet, you have to manipulate him.”

Mr. Spinney has helped hire an understudy and backup for Big Bird, Matt Vogel, who will likely take over once Mr. Spinney retires or can no longer perform the part. “He’s a very patient man because that should’ve been 15 years ago,” Mr. Spinney jokes in the film.

It is clear, however, that Mr. Spinney loves his job. While many of the other original performers have left or since moved on from the show, Mr. Spinney has remained, even while the cast has grown to include new characters. And now he has the experience of starring in a film that is primarily geared for adults; the kids who first watched Mr. Spinney so many years ago.

Mr. Spinney shares the art of puppetry, which he calls "acting at the end of your arm." — Maria Thibodeau

“This isn’t a kiddie movie. It’s about my life,” Mr. Spinney said. “I mean, there’s even an f-word in it.”

Part of the focus of the film that surprised both of the Spinneys was its attention to the couple’s own love story. Mrs. Spinney said viewers often come up to them after screenings and ask advice on how they can have a marriage like theirs.

“I can’t tell you how many people that come have tears rolling down their cheek,” Mrs. Spinney said. “It really is moving for us.”

A big part of the film’s story is the ageless appeal of Big Bird, who after 45 years on screen still remains only six years old. And even after Mr. Spinney leaves, Big Bird will continue on the show with another performer, most likely Mr. Vogel.

“Big Bird is my child, but eventually he’ll be adopted,” Mr. Spinney explained in the documentary.

Big Bird, then, will continue to entertain and inspire children for another generation, even after Mr. Spinney is no longer under the yellow feathers. But for now, he plans on remaining on Sesame Street to learn and live alongside the kids who watch him.

“I’m the world’s oldest child star,” Mr. Spinney said with a proud smile.