NEW YORK — Puppeteer Steve Whitmire, who was fired from his 27-year gig as the voice of Kermit the Frog, and Disney representatives are breaking their silence about the split, which is proving to be anything but amicable.
Whitmire, 58, has voiced the beloved green Muppet for much of his life, working with Jim Henson since he was a teenager and replacing Henson as Kermit after his death in 1990. He tells the New York Times he was informed he would be fired quite unexpectedly last October.
Typically, when prominent performers are let go, both sides work toward a smooth public separation. Whitmire, who gave a 45-minute interview to the paper on Monday, and representatives from Disney and the Henson family are choosing a different route.
According to Whitmire, he was given two reasons for the firing in a phone call last fall. He said Disney cited notes Whitmire fired off to a top creative executive on the series, “The Muppets,” which aired on ABC for one season, ending in March 2016.
“Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals,” Whitmire told the Times. “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, according to Whitmire, was that he took the advice of his union, the Screen Actors Guild, and chose not to participate in a project during a contract dispute between the guild and Disney over how much performers would be paid.
After the call, and before the firing was officially announced earlier this month, Whitmire said he worked to keep his job. Among his actions, he tells the Times, was having his attorney tell Disney executives the performer would no longer give creative feedback or talk to the union during deal negotiations.
Representatives from Disney and the Henson family are painting a more complicated build-up to the split.
“We raised concerns about Steve’s repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years, and he consistently failed to address the feedback,” Debbie McClellan, head of the Muppets Studio, a division of Disney, told the Times. “The decision to part ways was a difficult one which was made in consultation with the Henson family and has their full support.”
Multiple members of the Henson family, who chose Whitmire to replace Jim Henson as Kermit’s voice, have backed Disney’s decision to fire the longtime performer.
Lisa Henson, the daughter of the Muppets founder and the president of the Jim Henson Company, said Whitmire was opposed to having an understudy, even when he was unwilling to perform, and company chairman and Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, said his performances suffered at times.
“He’d send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director,” Brian Henson said.
Whatever the reason, Whitmire tells the Times, “given the opportunity. … I’d step right back in.”
A replacement has already been chosen, according to reports. The Hollywood Reporter and ABC News report that longtime Muppets performer Matt Vogel will take over as Kermit.