Kermit voice actor, Disney clash over dismissal

Steve Whitmire (above) portrayed Kermit for 27 years in numerous films and television shows and took the puppet all over the world.
Steve Whitmire (above) portrayed Kermit for 27 years in numerous films and television shows and took the puppet all over the world.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Steve Whitmire portrayed Kermit (above) for 27 years in numerous films and television shows and took the puppet all over the world.
Steve Whitmire portrayed Kermit (above) for 27 years in numerous films and television shows and took the puppet all over the world.PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES • Like Miss Piggy, the feisty on-off girlfriend of Kermit, the man voicing the frog puppet is up for a no-holds-barred fight.

On Monday, he squared off against executives at Disney over its decision to fire him after almost three decades of bringing that beloved Muppet to life.

Steve Whitmire broke his silence in a phone interview, saying the dismissal amounted to "a betrayal" after a career devoted to carrying on the legacy of Jim Henson, the Muppets' founder and original voice of Kermit.

Whitmire, 57, said: "The only thing I've done my whole adult life and it's just been taken away from me. I just couldn't understand why we couldn't resolve this."

Disney, which acquired the Muppets in 2004 from The Jim Henson Co, painted a wholly different picture, portraying Whitmire as hostile to co-workers and overly difficult in contract negotiations. Members of the Henson family said they supported the dismissal.

Whitmire portrayed Kermit for 27 years in numerous films and television shows and took the puppet all over the world as the Muppets' pop culture significance expanded.

Now his career is in ruins while the Muppets brand will try to recover with Matt Vogel, a veteran Henson puppeteer, taking over the role.

On Monday, Whitmire said he received a phone call from two Muppets Studio executives in October last year, telling him he was being let go.

"They were uncomfortable with the way I had handled giving notes (regarding feedback) to one of the top creative executives on the series," Whitmire said, referring to The Muppets, the most recent television revival of the franchise, which aired on ABC for one season, ending in March last year.

"Nobody was yelling, screaming or using inappropriate language," he said. "It was strictly that I was sending detailed notes.

"I don't feel that I was, in any way, disrespectful by doing that."

The second reason, he said, had to do with a small video shoot involving Kermit, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and an outside company that took place more than a year before the phone call. There was a contract dispute between the Screen Actors Guild, of which Whitmire is a member, and Disney over how much the performers behind the puppets should be paid.

Eventually, the union advised Whitmire not to do the project.

He agreed.

After the phone call with the two executives, Whitmire's lawyer approached Disney to propose adding a provision to future contracts saying he would never give creative feedback again or talk to the union while a deal is being negotiated.

Disney declined the offer, Whitmire said, and he soon found himself separated from his life's work.

Disney executives declined to discuss Whitmire's characterisation of the phone call, charging that his issues went far beyond minor.

"The role of Kermit the Frog is an iconic one that is beloved by fans and we take our responsibility to protect the integrity of that character very seriously," said Ms Debbie McClellan, head of The Muppets Studio, a division of Disney.

"We raised concerns about Steve's repeated unacceptable business conduct over many years and he consistently failed to address the feedback. The decision to part ways was a difficult one which was made in consultation with the Henson family and has their full support."

Henson's family, which still runs The Jim Henson Co, chose Whitmire to voice Kermit in 1990 after Henson died of pneumonia at 53.

"He played brinkmanship very aggressively in contract negotiations," said Henson's daughter Lisa, who is president of The Jim Henson Co.

She added that Whitmire was adamantly opposed to having an understudy for his role, which presented problems when it came to what she called "B-level performances, such as a ribbon-cutting".

She said he was not only unwilling to appear on some of these occasions, but also refused to develop an understudy and "blackballed young performers" by refusing to appear on the show with them.

Henson's son Brian, the company's chairman, said that while Whitmire's Kermit was "sometimes excellent and always pretty good", things changed when he was off set.

"He'd send e-mails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director," he added.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2017, with the headline 'Kermit voice actor, Disney clash over dismissal'. Print Edition | Subscribe