Kermit the Frog – much like Mickey Mouse – is an everlasting icon. The type of wonderfully simplistic creation that transcends eras. Jim Henson has received so much obviously deserved praise for creating something as long lasting as Kermit on every level. The design, the voice, the personality. Yet, there’s someone who often gets tossed to the side for keeping that character alive. Said someone is Steve Whitmire, a puppeteer who worked with the Henson Company for decades and continued the legacy of many personalities puppeteered by Henson himself after his untimely death in 1990.
It’s weird thinking about that. Despite how crucial Jim Henson was to creating The Muppets, many of the productions that have been made in the lifetimes of more recent generations of fans – including myself – have been brought to life by Henson’s successor. Now, after nearly 40 years with The Muppets, it was recently revealed that Whitmire would be leaving The Muppets. One can speculate as to why this change happened, but what really matters here is celebrating Whitmire’s talents as a performer. Something that goes unsung given how often the Muppet characters are treated as identities on their own. We see so many interviews where The Muppets are treated as their characters rather than give credit to their performers. Which shows just how dedicated Whitmire and his contemporaries were and still are to these roles.
When Whitmire first took over for Kermit, like with any change, his voice was mercilessly judged for not being Henson’s. Admittedly, it is quite different. Whitmire has a more nasal approach, missing some of the natural gruffness that oozed out of Henson’s beard. The missing base was especially noticeable early on when Whitmire performed as Kermit. It didn’t help that his first performance in the role was The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, a massive tribute special to the beloved Muppets creator. Where everyone from Steven Spielberg to Harry Belafonte pay tribute to the fallen creator. Even his own felt creatures acknowledge his death and dealt with it through mutual song. So, it was just set up for Whitmire to fail by comparison even at this very early point.
Still, Whitmire proved his performing potential in The Muppet Christmas Carol, his first major production as Kermit. Despite a lack of that clear Henson voice, the earnest charm manages to shine through even in these early stages. The musical number “One More Sleep Til Christmas” doesn’t sound like someone doing a half hearted Kermit impression as much as a person with boundless love expressing it through a slightly more nasal voice than we’re used to. Part of the genius of The Muppet Christmas Carol really is in how it utilizes The Muppet characters for casting in Charles Dickens’ story. By having these lovable characters as important human characters while new pitch perfect puppets are used for the ghosts, we allow the audience to empathize far more. Kermit as Bob Cratchit is the prime example. Kermit as the public knew him was always a hard working fellow constrained by the situation he was in. Perfect casting for one of the archetypes of the underappreciated worker. Even if it is weird to see his and Mrs. “Piggy” Cratchit’s pig & frog children.
From here, the uses of Kermit do vary, mostly due to an inability to fully grasp what The Muppets could be after Henson’s death. Between them adapting Robert Louis Stevenson and Gonzo revealing himself as an alien, the Henson company clearly were taking things in odd directions. Still, Whitmire’s turns as Kermit never felt underwhelming. The sword fighting scenes in Muppet Treasure Island are some of the best examples of Kermit’s physical comedy abilities. He even has a few funny moments of straight man style comedy in Muppets From Space. He even kept up the hosting duties that Henson had as Kermit for the original Muppet Show during Muppets Tonight for a brief point in the mid-90s.
As time continued, he grew even more accustomed to Kermit as a character. After years of obscurity, when The Muppets film from 2011 gave the characters a return to form, Whitmire gave the role of Kermit even more life than had ever been truly brewed into the character. His Kermit in that film is one that has seen much better days and acknowledges that the puppet characters we know and love have been undervalued by time, allowing Whitmire give Kermit a sense of regret and loss that weren’t available previously. Thus, when we get Whitmire’s rendition of “Rainbow Connection” to serve as part of the telethon climax, it means more for Kermit as a performer wanting to touch as many people as Jim did before. It helps that Whitmire served as an assistant operator for Henson during Kermit’s initial rendition of that song for 1979’s The Muppet Movie, giving life to the arms that plucked Kermit’s banjo strings.
Of course, Kermit wasn’t the only character Whitmire ever played. Probably his most famous original role was Rizzo the Rat, a streetwise New Yorker rodent who often served as a wonderful comedic foil to Gonzo The Great. The chemistry between Whitmire and Gonzo performer Dave Goelz was quite palpable. In Muppet Christmas Carol, the two show a comedic duo styling that helped breathe life into the post-Jim years. Rizzo brought a genuine grounding to Gonzo’s usual insane antics. He had the perfect type of urban charm that may have been needed when he was introduced during Muppets Take Manhattan. Whitmire took what initially seemed like a parody of Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and turned him into a hilarious full fledged comedic character of his own.
Steve Whitmire has also brought to life many other lasting Muppet characters. Whitmire continued the roles of other Muppets characters like Statler, Beaker and Link Hogthrob. He created the role of Bean Bunny, who was introduced to audiences in 1986 and continues to delight them in Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. He also gave smaller yet notable characters life in Henson Company projects like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and the TV series Dinosaurs. Whitmire also took over important roles on Sesame Street, mainly that of Ernie. He even had a technical plunge that put his mark on the creatures on a mechanical level, as he created the mechanism that allowed Rizzo the Rat the ability to move his mouth.
It shows just how many technological and artistic achievements Steve Whitmire ultimately provided to The Muppets characters. While he wasn’t the most celebrated person within the company, Steve Whitmire deserves so much credit. And not just for being the man who took up the mantle of Kermit for nearly 30 years after someone who created the character passed on. No, Whitmire helped give so much new life to the character in the intervening years following Henson’s death. He allowed The Muppets to endure for children in the dawn of the new millennium, who sought comfort in the age of burgeoning technology. The Muppets can often seem like a relic of the past, trying to get through modern times with new gimmicks. Given there’s been moments like the recent 2015 sitcom or lesser webshows to prove weakened attempts to adapt to the times.
Yet, Steve Whitmire always seemed to be willing to keep the characters alive. Even through obscurity and reality TV show appearances, Whitmire was instrumental in helping keep these characters from fading into the dust and deserves proper thanks for his actions. Though he wasn’t Jim Henson, Steve Whitmire was a puppeteer who knew that these characters transcended the hands that operated them. Without people like Whitmire or recent puppeteers like Eric Jacobson, Bill Barretta and Matt Vogel (who will be taking up the role of Kermit following Whitmire), The Muppets wouldn’t be around to inspire children to laugh, love and sing for nearly 30 years.
Jim Henson got this ball to start rolling. And that’s incredibly vital. Yet, it takes a determined and devoted person to keep things alive. That’s something Steve Whitmire helped provide to these evergreen characters at a time when they were most needed. He wasn’t necessarily Jim Henson, but he was a dedicated performer who helped keep the role alive. Now that he’s gone, it’s important to note the legacy he helped keep alive still stands to this day. Without Mr. Whitmire’s work, it’s safe to say I myself wouldn’t appreciate the lasting legacy of these characters as much as I do. They may be felt and lacking in human flesh, but The Muppets are eternal pop culture creations. Ones that may outlast Steve Whitmire, but shouldn’t keep his accomplishments in mind when looking back on their history. No matter why he decided to leave, Whitmire’s accomplishments deserve to be noted in history for all time. And they will, along the great Rainbow Connection of life.