The Muppets Studio is offering their version of why longtime Kermit the Frog puppeteer Steve Whitmire was fired after the performer opened up about parting ways with the company in an emotional blog post last week.
Debbie McClellan, head of the Muppets Studio division of Disney, explained to The New York Times why Whitmire was let go last October after 27 years of portraying Kermit. “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,” she said. “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.”
Whitmire succeeded Jim Henson, the founder of the Muppets and the original voice of Kermit, after he died in 1990. Henson’s daughter, Lisa Henson, told the newspaper that Whitmire refused to train an understudy for “B-level performances” and “blackballed young performers” by refusing to appear with them. Jim’s son, Brian Henson, claimed that Whitmire would “send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director.”
Whitmire, on the other hand, has a different story. He told The New York Times that two executives called him in October and gave him two reasons why he was being ousted. “They were uncomfortable with the way I had handled giving notes to one of the top creative executives on the series,” he said. “Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals. 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 had to do with a small video shoot involving several Muppets characters and an outside company, Whitmire claims. There was a contract dispute between the Screen Actors Guild and Disney over how much the puppeteers should be paid. SAG advised Whitmire not to participate in the project, and he agreed.
The performer will now be replaced by veteran Muppets puppeteer Matt Vogel. “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,” Whitmire concluded.
Whitmire also told The Hollywood Reporter that he has been outspoken about what’s best for the Muppets for years. “We have been doing these characters for a long, long time and we know them better than anybody. I thought I was aiding to keep it on track, and I think a big reason why the show was canceled [after one season last fall] was because that didn’t happen,” he said. “I am not saying my notes would have saved it, but I think had they listened more to all of the performers, it would have made a really big difference.”
He added that it’s been a difficult few months. “The hardest part is that I genuinely like both of the executives who chose this action, and that makes this all the more disappointing,” Whitmire said. “My sadness is over knowing how important it is for the success of the Muppets to have the characters remain consistent and seeing the value of that ignored.”
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