Kermit the Frog Performer and Disney Spar Over an Ugly ‘Muppet’ Firing

 nytimes.com  7/17/2017 10:56:38 PM  3  Sopan Deb and Sophie Haigney
Steve Whitmire, who had been the voice of Kermit the Frog since Jim Henson’s death in 1990, breaks his silence about having been dismissed. Raymond McCrea Jones for The New York Times

The longtime voice of Kermit the Frog squared off against executives at Disney on Monday over the company’s decision to fire him after almost three decades of bringing that beloved Muppet to life.

The performer, Steve Whitmire, broke his silence in a telephone interview on Monday, saying that Disney’s dismissal had amounted to “a betrayal” after a career devoted to carrying on the legacy of Jim Henson, the founder of the Muppets and the original voice of Kermit. Mr. Whitmire insisted that Disney gave him no warning before telling him last fall that he would be replaced for what he described as minor reasons, like his manner of communicating with executives.

“This is my life’s work,” said Mr. Whitmire, 58, who lives in the Atlanta area. “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 Company, painted a wholly different picture, portraying Mr. Whitmire as hostile to co-workers and overly difficult in contract negotiations. Members of the Henson family said they supported the dismissal as well.

The war of words between Mr. Whitmire and Disney was startling, given the outward harmony of the Muppets brand and the fact that when prominent performers are fired, the two sides usually come to terms and agree not to disparage each other. In this case, both Mr. Whitmire and Disney executives say they are fighting to protect the reputation and legacy of a beloved brand.

Mr. 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: a commencement ceremony, late-night comedy shows and even an episode of “WWE Raw.” Now the actor’s career is in ruins, while the Muppet brand will try to recover with Matt Vogel, a veteran Henson puppeteer, taking over the role.

In a 45-minute interview on Monday, a rarity without a piece of felt on his hand, Mr. Whitmire said that last October he received a phone call from two top Muppets Studio executives, both of whom he declined to name, telling him that he was being let go.

The executives gave two reasons for the decision, Mr. Whitmire recalled.

“They were uncomfortable with the way I had handled giving notes to one of the top creative executives on the series,” Mr. Whitmire said, referring to “The Muppets,” the most recent television revival of the franchise, which aired on ABC for one season, ending in March 2016.

“Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals,” 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, which Mr. Whitmire declined to name, that took place more than a year before the phone call. There was a contract dispute between the Screen Actors Guild, of which Mr. Whitmire is a member, and Disney over how much the performers behind the puppets should be paid. Eventually, the union advised Mr. Whitmire not to do the project. Mr. Whitmire agreed.

After the phone call with the Muppets Studio executives, Mr. Whitmire said he had a lawyer approach Disney executives afterward to propose adding a provision to future contracts saying he would never give creative feedback again or talk to the union again while a deal was being negotiated. Disney declined the offer, Mr. Whitmire said, and he soon found himself separated from his life’s work.

“I’ve been laying awake at night for nine months trying to empathize with a position of ending somebody’s career over issues that seem to me to be so easily solved,” Mr. Whitmire said.

The puppeteer Steve Whitmire performed as Kermit the Frog for 27 years before being let go in an acrimonious dispute with Disney. Tonya Wise/Invision, via Associated Press

Disney executives declined to discuss Mr. Whitmire’s characterization of the phone call but did offer their fullest explanation of why Mr. Whitmire was being replaced, 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 Debbie McClellan, head of the Muppets Studio, a division of Disney. “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.”

Henson’s family, which still runs the Jim Henson Company, chose Mr. Whitmire to replace Henson as Kermit in 1990 after Henson unexpectedly died of pneumonia at the age of 53. Some of those same family members say they supported the decision to replace Mr. Whitmire, though they are no longer involved with the Muppets.

“He played brinkmanship very aggressively in contract negotiations,” Lisa Henson, president of the Jim Henson Company, and Jim Henson’s daughter, said in a telephone interview.

Ms. Henson said Mr. 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 unwilling to appear on some of these occasions but also refused to develop an understudy and that he “blackballed young performers” by refusing to appear on the show with them.

Brian Henson, the company’s chairman and Jim Henson’s son, said that while Mr. Whitmire’s Kermit was “sometimes excellent, and always pretty good,” things changed when he was off set.

“He’d send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director,” he said.

Executives at Disney also helped arrange an interview for a Times reporter with a producer on a Muppets-related project who expressed the same criticisms as the Henson family. The producer declined to speak for attribution, however.

For Mr. Whitmire, who didn’t respond to the criticisms leveled by the Hensons or Disney, this is the end of a professional journey that has occupied his entire adult life. His bond with the Muppets began when, at age 10, he wrote a letter to Mr. Henson asking questions about puppetry around the same time “Sesame Street” had its premiere.

In 1978, two years after graduating from Berkmar High School in Lilburn, Ga., he joined Henson’s team on “The Muppet Show.” He was 19 and auditioned for Jane Henson, Henson’s wife, at an airport in Atlanta right before she was catching a flight. He was the youngest puppeteer on the show.

Now Mr. Whitmire must contemplate a future without Kermit, Ernie, Rizzo the Rat, Statler and the many other beloved Muppets that he brought to life for decades.

“Given the opportunity,” Mr. Whitmire said, “I’d step right back in.”

« Go back