The Kermit the Frog drama shows how we can't separate men from Muppets

Steve Whitmire played an amphibian for nearly 30 years — then things got weird

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 23, 2017 1:00PM (EDT)

Muppet Kermit the Frog and his operator Steve Whitmire (Getty/Lawrence Lucier)
Muppet Kermit the Frog and his operator Steve Whitmire (Getty/Lawrence Lucier)

So deeply ingrained into the cultural consciousness are Jim Henson's iconic offspring, so happily entwined are they with the childhood memories of generations of television and film viewers, that it's easy to forget that they are portrayed by grown men and women with outside lives of their own. Yet the backstage drama this week over the October firing of Steve Whitmire, who provided the voice of Kermit the Frog for 27 years, has once again made clear the human side of the famed felt figures.

The private dispute became very public news after Whitmire posted on his blog about his dismissal, tracing his career with the Muppets back to 1978 and declaring that the Muppets are "a calling, an urgent, undeniable, impossible to resist way of life. This is my life’s work since I was 19 years old." He said that since he was told his role was being recast, "I have offered multiple remedies to their two stated issues which had never been mentioned to me prior to that phone call."

In a Monday conversation with the New York Times, one the paper noted was "a rarity without a piece of felt on his hand," Whitmire maintained that the friction stemmed from his feedback on the recent short-lived revival of "The Muppets" TV series. "They were uncomfortable with the way I had handled giving notes to one of the top creative executives on the series," he claimed, adding, "Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals. It was strictly that I was sending detailed notes. I don’t feel that I was, in any way, disrespectful by doing that." He further stated there had been a minor contract issue over a video shoot involving Kermit and some other Muppet characters, that he then declined to participate in.

But Brian Henson, Jim Henson Company chairman and son of original Kermit Jim Henson, claimed to the Hollywood Reporter this week that Whitmire had made "outrageous demands and often played brinkmanship" and displayed "appalling" behavior to colleagues. Though Henson said that Whitmire's behavior issues had stretched back to the nineties, he suggested the more recent issue had been one of character evolution, claiming, "Kermit has, as a character, flattened out over time and has become too square and not as vital as it should have been."

But Henson's sister Cheryl, a company board member, had stronger words about Whitmire, saying in a recent Facebook post that his "version of history is ridiculously self-serving" and that he had performed Kermit as a "bitter, angry, depressed, victim." The Muppets Studio, meanwhile, issued a formal statement this week that the firing had been over "concerns about Steve’s repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years." The role of Kermit has been taken over by puppeteer and Muppets veteran Matt Vogel.

Kermit is for many of us, whether we're applesauce-smeared kindergarteners or nostalgic grownups, a fun-loving old friend. He's the heart of the Muppet gang, the de facto grownup of the group who manages everyone else's ego trips and eccentricities while cultivating plenty of his own. What he rarely has seemed to be has been a long-haired, middle-aged man accused of "appalling" behavior and "destructive" energy, a guy who would reportedly imply that "If you want the Muppets, you better make me happy because the Muppets are Kermit." 

The flawed humanity behind lovable children's characters became a far more disturbing public story five years ago, when three men accused "Sesame Street's" longtime Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash of sexually abusing them when they were underage. A judge later dismissed the charges, but Clash resigned from "Sesame Street" and eventually sold off his New York apartment. And the Muppets world courted a different outrage last year over after "Sesame Street" appeared to be squeezing out original — and human — cast members Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman and Emilio Delgado, better known as Bob, Gordon and Luis. 

It's impossible — though perhaps understandable if kids and former kids still do — to expect people who work in children's entertainment to be as genial as their innocent characters. Yet the most durable figures do seem to have an organic connection to them. The 2014 documentary "I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story" offered an intimate portrait of the man who has occupied the role of "Sesame's Street's" gentle yellow giant, showing the inspiration behind the character.

Writing in HuffPo Thursday, David Fagin, who worked on "Sesame Street" roughly a decade ago, recalled Spinney as "the nicest, most docile person you could ever hope to meet . . . . So much of Caroll is in the character. Gentle, compassionate, inquisitive, and funny." The late Fred Rogers similarly was regarded by friends and neighbors to be as warmly curious and empathetic as his sweater-clad PBS counterpart. And for many of us, even 27 years after Jim Henson's death, it's forever Henson who embodies Kermit, the creative, ebullient ringleader.

Cheryl Henson told "Today" this week, "He's not Kermit — he's a performer who was hired to do Kermit. There's a difference." But for Whitmire, who has played the character most of his adult life, slipping out of Kermit's skin is proving even harder than being green. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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