When Muppet master Jim Henson died unexpectedly in 1990, I braced myself for the concept that Kermit the Frog, a major part of my childhood and adolescence, wasn’t going to be a part of my life anymore.
I didn’t know there was a backup plan involving a young puppeteer from Atlanta named Steve Whitmire.
Now, Steve wasn’t new to the Muppets. He joined the franchise at the age of 19, in 1978, serving mainly in a background role. Eventually, he worked his way into the main cast with such characters as The Muppet Show’s tough-talking Rizzo the Rat and Fraggle Rock’s loveable worrier, Wembley.
Twelve years later, with the world’s favourite frog suddenly rendered voiceless, Steve found himself coming to grips with assuming the identity of a character as beloved as Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny.
I’ve seen interviews in which Steve admitted that the first Kermit puppet sent to him by Jim’s daughter Heather Henson remained hidden in a closet for several months. Then there were the nightmares in which Jim showed up, denounced the job Steve was doing with Kermit, and took the frog away.
Finally, the “new” Kermit made his debut, in the final two minutes of the late-1990 CBS special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. The heir apparent passed his first test, and two years later, he achieved another milestone by replicating Kermit’s singing voice in the franchise’s first post-Henson feature film, The Muppet Christmas Carol.
I remember sitting in a darkened theatre with two college friends, watching that movie and trying to get used to new people taking over the characters of my childhood. (It didn’t help that the opening credits began by dedicating the film to not only Jim Henson but Muppet performer Richard Hunt, who was claimed by AIDS earlier in 1992.)
It took me nearly 23 years before I could watch The Muppet Christmas Carol again, and of course, Steve Whitmire’s Kermit is every bit as delightful as Jim Henson’s Kermit. My issue with the movie had nothing to do with Steve’s performance and everything to do with my stubborn refusal to accept that the Muppets were moving on without Jim. (Or Richard.)
Fortunately, during those 23 years, including some of the most difficult years of my adulthood, I got to keep Kermit with me, thanks to Steve. He not only revived some of the Henson-era highlights (I’ve lost count of how many times he’s sung “Rainbow Connection” over the past decade alone) but gave Kermit his own unique voice affectations, including a friendly, high-pitched chuckle, and a depth of character I wasn’t expecting from a performer I had once shrugged off as a mere understudy.
And suddenly, last week, it was all over.
Responding to inquiries from two Muppet fan sites, Disney officials confirmed that Steve Whitmire was no longer in the role of Kermit, and added that one of the more recent additions to the Muppet performers’ stable, Matt Vogel, would make his amphibian debut in a viral video to be uploaded to the Muppets’ YouTube channel within the coming days. Vogel will also play Kermit when the Muppets stage a three-night showcase at The Hollywood Bowl in early September.
Less than 48 hours later, Steve launched the “Muppet Pundit” blog, in which he announced that he was indeed dismissed by The Muppets Studio last October, five months after Disney-owned ABC cancelled its recent Muppets sitcom. Steve didn’t get into the specific reasons for the recasting, but said he has offered “multiple remedies” to his bosses to address the “two stated issues” brought up during the phone call that confirmed his dismissal, to no avail.
I won’t offer theories on how or why this all happened, or overstate the importance of recasting a long-running character (it’s happened several times to Mickey and Bugs, after all). But this sentence from Steve, at the end of his first blog post, breaks my heart:
“I am sorry if I have disappointed any of you at any point throughout our journey, and to let everyone know that I am devastated to have failed in my duty to my hero.”
You didn’t, Steve.
The fact that more than one person is talking about Kermit the Frog and the Muppets this week is because of the 27 years’ worth of dedication you brought to the character – and all your characters. That, alone, speaks to your own character.
Thank you, Steve Whitmire, for taking up Jim Henson’s legacy and proving that one man – and one frog – can still make a difference in this cynical world.