Muppet creator's family says fired actor played Kermit as 'bitter, depressed victim'

Steve Whitmire, who voiced Kermit the Frog for almost three decades, in Atlanta, on July 17, 2017.
Steve Whitmire, who voiced Kermit the Frog for almost three decades, in Atlanta, on July 17, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(WASHINGTON POST) - With his enormous mouth, cheerful eyes and frantic way of talking, Kermit always seemed like a cheerful frog.

But Kermit's personality appeared to change in recent years. At least that is how Ms Cheryl Henson, daughter of Kermit's creator Jim Henson, saw it.

So last October, Kermit's long-time puppeteer, Steve Whitmire, was fired from Muppets Studio. After months of silence, last week he posted a blog item critical of the decision, calling it a "drastic action" that left him devastated.

In response, Ms Henson reportedly took to Facebook to criticise Whitmire's version of the beloved frog. Whitmire, who took over the role when Jim Henson died in 1990, "performed Kermit as a bitter, angry, depressed victim", she said.

"Steve's performance of Kermit has strayed far away from my father's good-hearted, compassionate leader of the Muppets," she wrote. "Worst of all," she added, in the past few years "he has not been funny or fun."

Perhaps Kermit did seem a little dour lately, albeit all played for laughs.


On a 2011 appearance on Ellen, for example, Whitmire's Kermit complained that he "is often mistaken for a green fire hydrant" and bemoaned his relationship with Miss Piggy. With his misery seeking company, he appealed the studio audience: "Maybe some of your audience has actually dated a pig." Finally, when Ellen kissed the little green Muppet on the lips, he excitedly asked if he had turned into a prince. Upon realising he remained a frog, he said with a sigh: "Oh, well."

But it all simply seemed like part of the Kermit bit. The audience ate it up, laughing throughout the segment.

The 2015 ABC reboot of The Muppets, meant to be a more "adult" portrayal of the fuzzy gang, was a different story. The show received a middling 62 out of 100 score on Metacritic, a website that aggregates television reviews. Many reviews pointed to an angry or depressed tone to the characters, specifically in Kermit and Miss Piggy, who break up in the pilot.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Molly Eichel wrote that the show's darker tone drained "the Muppets of the warmth and love that made them so lovely in the first place". Slate's Willa Paskin wrote: "The Muppet who comes off worst is Kermit, who spends his days sneakily managing Piggy's moods, working up the nerve to disobey her, a mild-mannered middle manager. His voice, previously so adorable, began to sound to me mealy and weak, like the vocal equivalent of pleated khakis."

Uproxx's Alan Sepinwall wrote "making Kermit into a petulant frog who can't believe he still has to deal with his ex every day alters too much of what made him one of Henson's most special creations... If this is the 'real' Kermit, then I'd rather go back to watching him act".

The show was cancelled after one season.

While it is unclear what creative role Whitmire played in the show - he was not credited as a writer - it is clear is that critics did not like this new Kermit.

Even with the failure of a fairly high-profile network television programme, the termination of Whitmire had gone relatively unnoticed by the general public until last week when he published the blog post about his firing. It came a few days after his replacement, Matt Vogel, was announced as the new voice of Kermit.

"I want all of you who love the Muppets to know that I would never consider abandoning Kermit or any of the others because to do so would be to forsake the assignment entrusted to me by Jim Henson, my friend and mentor, but even more, my hero," Whitmire wrote, describing the Muppets as "a calling, an urgent, undeniable, impossible to resist way of life".

He said he suggested "multiple remedies to the company's two stated issues, which had never been mentioned to me prior to that phone call".

But days later, Disney executives gave The New York Times a more detailed account behind the decision.

Debbie McClellan, head of the Muppets Studio, a division of Disney, told the Times that Whitmire displayed "repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years".

Some of Henson's family members told the Times they agreed with the decision to replace Whitmire. "He played brinkmanship very aggressively in contract negotiations," Ms Lisa Henson, president of the Jim Henson Company, and Jim Henson's daughter, told the Times, adding that Whitmire staunchly opposed casting an understudy for Kermit.

The dispute over the recasting of the famous amphibian drew the attention of many journalists and commentators, including shock-jock Howard Stern.

On Tuesday, Stern gave what he called "sensible advice".

"Anybody who wants to be a puppeteer for a living," he said, "the odds of you actually creating a money-generating career are next to nothing."

"Now he's trying to debate the merits of the character," he added. "Do not lose that job under any circumstances."