In one of the more bizarre controversies to hit the entertainment world recently, longtime Kermit the Frog puppeteer Steve Whitmire has been making headlines following his firing by the Muppet Studios and its parent company, Disney.
Although Whitmire was initially let go by Disney executives in October 2016, the details of the Muppet change-up only became public on July 11, when it was officially announced that Kermit would be getting a new voice and handler.
That same day, Whitmire, 58, who started working with the Muppets in 1978 at age 19, and has played Kermit ever since the death of Muppets creator Jim Henson in 1990, wrote a blog post explaining that he had been sacked nine months earlier without warning. However, he had kept quiet up until that point “in hopes that the Disney company might reverse their course.”
The reasoning Whitmire gave for his firing in the blog post was, at best, vague: “Through a new business representative,” he wrote, “I have offered multiple remedies to their two stated issues which had never been mentioned to me prior to that phone call.” These “two stated issues” were not specified by the puppeteer.
But in the days that followed, it became clear that there was a serious rift that had been building between Whitmire and, not only the Muppets Studio, but members of the Henson family.
A statement released by the Muppets Studio, which was published by Deadline, claimed that Whitmire exhibited “repeated unacceptable business conduct”:
“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. We raised concerns about Steve’s repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of 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.”
One day later, Brian Henson, chairman of the Jim Henson Company and son of the late Muppeteer, echoed Muppets Studio’s sentiments regarding Whitmire’s territorial behavior when he told the Hollywood Reporter that Whitmire made “outrageous demands and often played brinkmanship” when it came to control over the Kermit character.
“Steve would use, ‘I am now Kermit and if you want the Muppets, you better make me happy because the Muppets are Kermit.’ And that is really not OK,” Henson told THR.
“Steve performed Kermit as a bitter, angry, depressed victim. ... Recasting Kermit is long overdue,” she wrote.
While speaking to Today’s Willie Geist, Whitmire shrugged off his tendency to offer notes on the character of Kermit as making someone “difficult.” He went on to say that his giving notes “was totally an idea of trying to do what was best for the Muppets in terms of receiving material and ideas and concepts that were well out of bounds of the character.”
It is beyond evident at this point that Disney, the Muppets Studio and the Henson family do not want Whitmire to return to his old job. But what’s so sad about what has transpired here is how Whitmire is resisting the chance to bow out gracefully. Despite getting the axe in October, he has repeatedly been quoted as wanting to go back to performing Kermit.
“Given the opportunity,” Whitmire told the New York Times, “I’d step right back in.” He reiterated that sentiment Thursday morning on Today: “I still would like to hope [that I would get my job back],” he said to Savannah Guthrie. Though this time he tagged it with, “Though I don’t think that’s going to happen now.”
What’s also puzzling about Whitmire’s unwillingness to relinquish the Kermit role is he revealed on Today that Disney offered him what he called “consolation prizes” such as a Disney Legends award, at the price of signing a non-disclosure agreement. “What they really wanted was to frame this as, ‘I’ve moved on, and that I had retired,’ and it was just disingenuous.”
This all raises the question as to why Whitmire would want to return to a workplace that not only wanted to silence him, but made it pointedly clear that he was no longer welcome there anymore. And the answers may lie in his original blog post, in which the puppeteer’s words suggest that perhaps he’d allowed Kermit to become such a part of him that it restricted him from ever preparing for a life without the Muppets:
“For me the Muppets are not just a job, or a career, or even a passion. They are a calling, an urgent, undeniable, impossible to resist way of life. This is my life’s work since I was 19 years old. I feel that I am at the top of my game, and 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.”
(Cheryl Henson’s original Facebook post disputes Whitmire’s claim that her father asked him to play Kermit. She says it was her brother, Brian.)
Whitmire is, without a doubt, a performer who deserves to be admired for his boundless adoration and passion for a character he played for 27 years. However, sometimes life throws you curveballs in your career, and the best way to prove the haters wrong is to move forward graciously.
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