The call that ended his 27-year career as Kermit the Frog came like a punch in the gut, said puppeteer Steve Whitmire.
“To say I was surprised is an understatement,” Whitmire told NBC News on Thursday of the dismissal. “I was devastated and shocked and totally unable to rationalize it.”
The Walt Disney Company and Muppets Studio executives told Whitmire he was fired for “repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of years” and accused him of being disrespectful.
Emailing feedback, refusing to form a stunt double and being overall “hard to work with” were listed among the reasons Disney decided to let Whitmire go, he said. .
But the 58-year-old denies ever acting out of order, saying he was trying to live up to the spirit and vision Muppets creator Jim Henson instilled in him decades ago. decades.
“My goal has always been to try to serve what’s best for the Muppets. It always has been. It’s kind of the filter that I pass everything through. So that’s where I was headed. and I gave notes, but no one was yelling and yelling,” Whitmire said.
Whitmire said that any time he sent comments it was an attempt to collaborate with the creative team and protect the integrity of the characters.
After his dismissal, Whitmire went back over old emails he had sent, trying to understand how they could have been interpreted as unacceptable. He said he wished executives had told him they weren’t happy with his behavior before he was fired.
“I don’t know why they didn’t give me an ultimatum and said, ‘Look, this is a problem, we think this is a problem, and if you keep doing this, we’ll get rid of you’.'” he said.
Related: Kermit Actor Turned His Character Into A ‘Bitter Victim’ Says Jim Henson’s Daughter
Despite being fired in October, Whitmire came to the public’s attention last week after posting on his blog that he was struggling to come to terms with the idea that he would no longer be playing the green felt frog.
Jim Henson’s daughter Cheryl Henson posted on Facebook saying Whitmire’s story was “ridiculously selfish [sic]and that Whitmire had turned her father’s iconic character into a “bitter, angry, depressed victim.”
However, Whitmire claims he was the one who suggested the writers and executives portrayed Kermit as a depressed character and said he tried to get the beloved character back on track.
“I was pushing against it with all my might – trying to be collaborative and nice about it, but saying, ‘Guys, you really have to be careful about this. This will damage the character. We’re going to damage it beyond repair,” Whitmire said.
Related: Kermit the Frog Puppeteer Fired for ‘Unacceptable’ Conduct, Says Muppets Studio
Still, Cheryl Henson said the company’s challenges with Whitmire were longstanding.
“Steve is very difficult to work with and has been difficult for many years, especially for producers,” Cheryl Henson told TODAY on Thursday. “It’s not Kermit. He’s an interpreter, who was hired to do Kermit. There is a difference.
Another complaint leveled against Whitmire was that he refused to train stunt doubles, which he says is true, adding that the spirit of each character is intrinsically tied to the person playing them.
“I spoke out against having stunt doubles, the reason being that these characters are individuals and they always have been,” he said. “Jim never had stunt doubles in his organization.”
In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for The Muppets Studio said the decision to let Whitmire go was not an easy one.
“The role of Kermit the Frog is iconic and beloved by fans and we take our responsibility to protect the integrity of this character very seriously,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We have raised concerns about Steve’s repeated unacceptable business conduct over many years and he has consistently failed to respond to comments. The decision to part ways was a difficult decision which was made in consultation with the Henson family and has their full support.”
Whitmire, who has been part of the Muppets since 1978, is the only person to voice and portray Kermit since Henson’s death in May 1990. During his time as Kermit, he met the Queen and the Presidents , but said to melt hearts. of fans was his greatest joy as a puppeteer.
“The reaction from people of all ages…it’s just overwhelming,” Whitmire said. “I had to get past the point where I would tear sometimes, you know, to just get through. But even the big burly crew members [would] start crying when they have their picture taken with Kermit, because it means so much.”
For Whitmire, who said the Henson family was not involved in her firing, her knowledge and longevity with the character is non-transferable. He said if Disney asked him to come back and take on the character, he would do so without animosity, saying the company should have a chance to do well with the Muppets and their fans.
“Jim Henson’s creative mind does not reside in a puppet,” Whitmire said. “It’s in my heart and in my mind and the things that I know. So unfortunately for the fans and for Disney, I kind of take it with me.”