From from 1997 to 2006, the television show Bear in the Big Blue House taught children life lessons, like the importance of hard work and the value of friendship. You might remember the title character of the Jim Henson show for his large stature, lovable demeanor, and sweet, gentle voice. In the mornings, he heard the weather from Ray the Sun, and at night, he sang the goodbye song with Luna, the moon.
But who was behind Bear? Like Barney, this popular children's show character was a man in costume, voiced and performed by puppeteer (and now TV writer and director) Noel MacNeal.
The Bear in the Big Blue House, which aired on the Disney Channel, garnered three Emmy awards, including two for Outstanding Directing in a Children's Series, and sparked the spin-off Breakfast with Bear. The series followed Bear, who yes, lived in the Big Blue House in Woodland Valley, and his adventures with his friends Ojo the bear cub, Tutter the mouse, Treelo the lemur, Shadow the shadow girl, and otters named Pip and Pop.
Interestingly, Bear's voice is actually MacNeal's natural voice. Of auditioning for the role, MacNeal told the blog Muppet Mindset, "When I get there, immediately I'm told, 'Do your own voice.' What!?! We're the Muppets, we don't do that. But Bear was designed as the anti-Barney; a character and show kids and adults could watch together so, it was important to have a gentle voice everyone could relate to. They had the prototype foam head attached to the upper half under structure, like a hoop skirt, and I got in 'cause he was designed to be a walk around. 'Oh God, I love this,' I remember feeling while inside. This would be great to do."
Noel MacNeal wanted to be a puppeteer since he was a kid, he told the blog.
"The height of The Muppet Show was during my high school years. So when it was time to choose a career, I thought, 'This Jim Henson and those other folks are doing this for a living. Why can't I?'" he said. "I did research, found two colleges that offered puppetry programs (Pratt, where I went, and UConn in Storrs, Connecticut) and when I presented them to my mom she just said, 'Okay. What do we need to do?' And that's what she kept saying after I gave her more info. Not once did she shoot me down or say I needed a back-up plan. She always told me, 'Don't get a job; get a career.' And I did."
He started out on Sesame Street, first as a wrangler (prepping puppets) and then as a puppeteer for the show and the first movie, Follow That Bird, as Madame Chairbird—all the while learning from two of the best in the business, Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
You might be surprised to learn how many other beloved characters he has played, beyond Bear. His resume includes Nick Jr. characters Kako on Oobi, Blue on Blue's Room, and Magellan on Eureeka's Castle.
MacNeal was also Rabbit on Disney Channel's The Book of Pooh, Leon on PBS's The Puzzle Place, and Knock-Knock on The Great Space Coaster. He's written books, taught puppetry classes, produced musicals, and is currently the resident puppeteer on HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
And he's performed with or for big names like Regis and Kelly, Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, Whoopi Goldberg, Dave Chappelle, and more.
Still, he is most known for playing Bear. He even earned an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series."
But the best part of being Bear? "The best memories are when Bear and I did appearances in the real world," MacNeal told Muppet Mindset, "especially at children's hospitals. Because, it wasn't another doctor or nurse coming into the room, it was Bear. And the kid could stop being a patient for those few minutes and be a kid. And the parents could enjoy seeing their child be a kid again, too."
Now, he lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife, novelist Susan Elia MacNeal, and son, Mattie, who has performed puppetry with his dad.
Now how about a goodbye song, for old times' sake?