Caroll Spinney, who gave Big Bird his warmth and Oscar the Grouch his growl for nearly 50 years on Sesame Street, has died at the age of 85 at his home in Connecticut, according to the Sesame Workshop.

The legendary puppeteer lived for some time with dystonia, which causes involuntary muscle contractions.

Spinney voiced and operated the two major Muppets from their inception in 1969 when he was 36, and performed them almost exclusively into his 80s on the PBS kids' television show that later moved to HBO. He died on the same day that Sesame Street is being honoured for lifetime achievements in the arts as a Kennedy Centre Honours recipient.

"Before I came to Sesame Street, I didn't feel like what I was doing was very important," Spinney said when he announced his retirement last year. "Big Bird helped me find my purpose."

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Through his two characters, Spinney gained huge fame that brought international tours, books, record albums, movie roles, and visits to the White House.

"Caroll was an artistic genius whose kind and loving view of the world helped shape and define Sesame Street from its earliest days in 1969 through five decades, and his legacy here at Sesame Workshop and in the cultural firmament will be unending," the Sesame Workshop said.

But he never became a household name. "I may be the most unknown famous person in America," Spinney said in his 2003 memoir.

"It's the bird that's famous."

Spinney gave the series its emotional yin and yang, infusing the 2.49m Big Bird with a childlike sweetness often used to handle sad subjects, and giving the rubbish bin-dwelling Oscar, whose voice Spinney based on a New York cabbie, a street-wise cynicism that masked a tender core.

"I like being miserable. That makes me happy," Oscar often said. "But I don't like being happy, so that makes me miserable."

- AP