Muppets actor and puppeteer Steve Whitmire, who portrayed Kermit the Frog for 27 years, discussed his sudden firing by Disney in an interview with The New York Times. Whitmire called Disney’s decision “a betrayal” and claimed the media giant’s reasons were minor and fixable.
“This is my life’s work,” Whitmire said. “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.”
Whitmire said Disney executives gave him two reasons for his firing. The first involved the notes Whitmire was giving top creative executives on ABC’s 2015 reboot of The Muppets, which ended after one season. Whitmire said the executives were “uncomfortable” with his notes. The second reason, Whitmire said, revolved around contract negotiations for a video shoot for an unnamed outside company with Kermit and several other Muppets. The Screen Actors Guild, of which Whitmire is a member, disagreed with Disney over how much the performers should be paid and ultimately advised Whitmire not to do the project. He agreed.
While Whitmire said these were issues that could be “easily solved,” Disney executives said they were persistent. Debbie McClellan, who heads Muppets Studio at Disney, said, “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.”
Disney defended further decision to fire Whitmire, saying he was difficult in the workplace and during contract negotiations. Family members of Muppets creator Jim Henson also backed up Disney’s decision to dismiss Whitmire. Disney purchased the Muppets from the Jim Henson Company in 2004, though the Henson family still runs the Company.
Along with Kermit the Frog, Whitmire portrayed favorites like the Muppets’ Rizzo the Rat, Statler (of Statler and Waldorf) and Ernie on Sesame Street. He joined the Jim Henson Company in 1978 at age 19 and in 1990 was tapped to replace Henson as Kermit after the creator suddenly died of pneumonia. Whitmire said he was informed of his dismissal last October, but the news did not officially break until July 10th. Longtime Henson puppeteer Matt Vogel will replace Whitmire as Kermit.
Lisa Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter and current president of the Jim Henson Company, said Whitmire was very aggressive during contract negotiations, opposed developing an understudy for his role and “blackballed young performers” by refusing to appear on the show with them. Jim Henson Company Chairman, and Henson’s son, Brian Henson, added that Whitmire would “send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director.”
Despite these disputes, Whitmire said he tried to mend things with Disney and the Henson Company. After learning of his dismissal, Whitmire said he had a lawyer approach Disney about adding provisions to his contract that would ensure he would neither give creative feedback nor talk to the Screen Actors Guild during contract negotiations. Disney reportedly declined.
Still, Whitmire said he was open to reprising his many Muppet roles: “Given the opportunity, I’d step right back in.”