Brian Henson, the chairman of the Jim Henson Company and son of the late legendary Muppets creator, didn't want to get into a war of words with longtime Kermit the Frog actor Steve Whitmire, who was fired after 27 years. "I really don't want to be talking about this, and I think it is very sad that this has become an issue," Henson said.
But after Whitmire's firing became public and the actor told The Hollywood Reporter that he was replaced for reasons that include being "'disrespectful' in being outspoken on character issues," Henson granted an in-depth interview of his own in order to explain what happened from his perspective, even going as far as to say that he should have let Whitmire go before selling the company to Disney in 2004.
"I have to say, in hindsight, I feel pretty guilty that I burdened Disney by not having recast Kermit at that point because I knew that it was going to be a real problem," Henson told THR. "And I have always offered that if they wanted to recast Kermit, I was all for it, and I would absolutely help. I am very glad we have done this now. I think the character is better served to remove this destructive energy around it."
In an interview on Monday, Whitmire said he was fired over character notes he gave during the short-lived ABC Muppets reboot and for a union issue. "I have been outspoken about what's best for the Muppets since the Muppets came to Disney, but the fact is I have respect for everyone who was involved in the creation of that series for their own particular contributions," Whitmire said. Disney and The Muppets Studio responded that they did not come to their decision lightly and that the actor's conduct had been unacceptable for a long period of time.
The conflict between the studio and the puppeteer may have been simmering for years, but it hadn't always been that way. It was Brian Henson, along with his late mother, Jane, who picked Whitmire to take over as Kermit following his father's untimely death in 1990.
"Nobody worked harder than me on making sure Kermit survived my father's death and retained his cathartic personality and presence. So I understand the fans being concerned," Henson said. However, Henson said he had to have numerous talks with Whitmire over the years about his unprofessional conduct, which included "appalling" communications with colleagues.
Despite being a fantastic technical puppeteer and impersonator, Henson said Whitmire made "outrageous demands and often played brinkmanship," which he was warned as far back as the mid-1990s needed to stop. Henson declined to go into specifics about Whitmire's exact demands, but did say, "Steve would use 'I am now Kermit and if you want the Muppets, you better make me happy because the Muppets are Kermit.' And that is really not OK."
Whitmire previously told THR he always handled himself in a respectful manner, even when disagreeing with others on the direction of Kermit. "I didn't yell, or call anyone names, or refuse to do my job. I just gave lots of definitive notes via emails to this small group about character integrity and always tried to offer alternative solutions," he said Monday.
Henson, who helped train possible replacements for Whitmire, said he has full confidence in newly named Kermit puppeteer Matt Vogel.
"Kermit has, as a character, flattened out over time and has become too square and not as vital as it should have been," Henson explained. "Again, what my dad brought to it — without even thinking because he was accessing his own character that was coming out of his own personality — was a wry intelligence, a little bit of a naughtiness, but Kermit always loved everyone around and also loved a good prank."
The character, as Whitmire had interpreted it, was getting away from what the elder Henson imagined, his son said.
"There was an awful lot of stuff to Kermit where people thought, 'Oh, Kermit is a wholesome, all-American lovely guy,' which was not really what my dad developed," Henson said. "What my dad developed was that Kermit the Frog is a little bit of a prankster, he likes to put an act onstage that will shock you and is kind of weird. But Kermit the Frog, when push comes to shove, is loyal and believes in the family of friends. Kermit believes you should love and respect the being most different from you because of how different they are."
He added: "So there was a lot of complexities to Kermit that have been kind of falling away, and I do believe Matt Vogel can access that energy really well. And Matt is a very good performer. And I believe that in protecting Kermit going forward, Matt will do a really wonderful job. I think the fans should not be so scared of change. Steve did Kermit for a very long time — I would say for far too long. And the character was no longer being serviced by Steve performing Kermit."
Over the past few days, social media has been lit up with fans giving their opinion on what Jim Henson would have wanted in this situation. His son said his father would have thought it was time for a change.
"My dad's No. 1 thing was don't repeat yourself. Innovate. Do something new," Henson said. "He is the guy who canceled The Muppet Show when it was the No. 1 show in the world after five seasons because he was worried he was going to start repeating himself. The last thing my dad would want is that Kermit just keeps doing the same thing over and over and over and is in the same circumstances and having the same attitude. The character needs to be stretched and maintain his heart."