For a quarter-century, Steve Whitmire was Kermit the Frog.
“There was always some need for Kermit to be somewhere,” Whitmire told The World-Herald.
The actor and puppeteer succeeded Muppets creator Jim Henson as Kermit after Henson passed away in 1990. In addition, he performed as Ernie, Rizzo, Beaker, Statler and Wembley Fraggle.
After nearly 40 years with the Muppets and more than 25 as Kermit, Whitmire's time with the Muppets ended in 2016, and it has afforded him more time for appearances and other projects, he said.
This week, Whitmire is coming to Omaha.
In addition to Kate Flannery (Meredith from “The Office”), Sam Jones (“Flash Gordon”), prolific voice actor Steve Blum and other guests, Whitmire will appear at the O Comic Con to talk to fans, take photos and sign autographs all weekend. He’ll even participate in a panel on Sunday at noon.
We caught up with Whitmire to talk about Kermit, what the iconic frog means to people and what new characters the puppeteer has planned.
Q: Do you like doing these conventions? Do fans tell you about how much these characters mean to them?
A: It’s kind of a new experience for me, but it’s fun. It’s an enjoyable thing. We work all these years, and we’re stuck in a studio. You never get to meet the fans. It’s kind of a great thing.
At this point, it spans so many generations. I get people older than me and a lot younger than me who are still connected with it. Some of the stories are really touching. People who grew up with troubled childhoods and they latched onto the Muppets as a way to get through a lot of this stuff. It’s a responsibility I never knew we had.
Q: You were with the Muppets for a really long time before you took on Kermit.
A: It was about 40 years total. I started working with Jim (Henson) in 1978. I met him in 1977. I started on “The Muppet Show,” and I was 19. I worked with him the last 12 or so years of his life. It was a great time to come into the company because he was doing so many things. The Muppets were the biggest thing in the world at that moment. He gave me a lot of opportunities and gave me a great chance to learn. I was fortunate to become part of his core team of people, so I worked on pretty much everything he did up until his death.
Q: How did you get into that? You were so young when you started. Was puppeteering something you really wanted to do?
A: It really was about the puppeteering with me. Up until the time I started working with Jim, the notion of the acting part of it never really entered the picture. I was a massive fan of the Muppets when I was a kid. I would read “TV Guide,” and every time there was a Muppet special or an appearance on one of the variety shows, I was glued to it. When “Sesame Street” happened in about 1968, I was 10. I was just glued to that. I loved those characters.
I got to see the Muppets every day. You could tell that the people doing it were enjoying themselves and having fun.
I was also really interested in — I didn’t have the words to describe it at that point — how these characters really connected with the audience through the camera. I started learning how to build them and things like that. That lasted through my high school years. It was kind of a coincidence that I ran into Jim at all. I was doing my own thing at 19 in Atlanta. I found out about him looking for people at that point.
Q: What have you been doing since you left the Muppets?
A: Back during all my years with the Muppets, especially once Kermit became a part of what I was doing, I never had any real time to do anything else. Kermit was all the time doing something. It wasn’t necessarily big giant projects, but there was always some need for Kermit to be somewhere.
One of the things I always personally felt strongly about and kind of the way we’ve always done things, whoever the performer who does that character is that character. We don’t swap them around, and there’s not a whole team that does that character. That’s what the standard was. There were a lot of ideas I had over the years for things that I thought would be fun to try with characters. Y’know, puppet stuff. But I knew it wasn’t going to work into the Muppet direction. I’ve got a handful of stuff I’m working on.
It’s a little too soon for me to talk about it too much, but I’m looking at doing a new character coming up — hopefully in the next couple of months — that would be a live stream with this character where he interacts with the public.
It’s a great way to be able to connect with people. I love when we’re able to have characters talk directly to people. It’s the things that puppets can do that you can’t do with computer-generated characters so well.
Q: The ability to be able to stream or distribute your material without a studio must be nice.
A: You can find your audience and find your fans. At the core of so much of it, my hope is that it goes back to coming up with these believable, engaging characters that people would like to interact with.
Jim’s approach was that he started very small and worked up to something else. I know times are different and it’s a different world, but I feel like the grassroots. Maybe after you work at it awhile, you get a sponsor.
Q: You said you enjoyed the personal interactions, and I always enjoyed any time you were on “The Tonight Show” where Kermit is talking to the host. That added to the magic of the Muppets.
A: With Kermit, we did a number of those things. I wanted to make sure when a character like Kermit went on one of those shows, he looked as much like any other guest on that show as possible. Formerly, you’d often see the Muppets pop over the back of the sofa. That was fine, but I’ll never forget the first time I did “The Tonight Show,” way back in the early ’90s, we went on the show with the producers.
They said, “How would you ideally set yourself up?” I kind of laughed and jokingly said, “Well, first we need to cut a hole in your chair, and I’ll climb underneath that.” They said, “We’ll do that.” They took this $5,000 Italian imported chair and started slicing it up.
It was one of my favorite appearances just because it was the first time we cut up someone else’s furniture!
Q: Normally, the sets are built for you to climb or walk underneath.
A: Correct. Usually on most shows like that, they’re not set up for us to be up off the floor, so we need to figure out a way to do this being flat on the floor. We’ve been in some very strange and uncomfortable positions under furniture. Or in cars or whatever it might be.
Q: You have so many stories. Have you considered writing a book or doing a movie?
A: As a matter of fact, that’s in the works. I’ve been approached about doing that. We’re in the very early stages about talking about it. A lot of people have talked to me about that, so it’s something I want to do. There are a lot of stories, and it’s interesting to decipher them down into something.
The puppet-masters: the 20 best puppets of all time
With “Muppet Babies” returning to the air, Frank Oz starring in “Muppet Guys Talking,” a new puppet murder mystery coming from the Jim Henson Company and ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham in town, we’re feeling a bit fuzzy.
But with all of these felt and foam characters invading our headspace, it got us wondering: Which puppets are among the most powerful? Who are the puppet-masters pulling the strings of modern society? Why do we keep asking rhetorical questions? Will these questions ever end?
In an effort to address this age-old query (one that was once posed by Socrates himself), we have asked and answered the question of the most powerful puppets. Here is the power ranking of the best puppets of all time. — Words by Kevin Coffey and Micah Mertes, illustrations by Matt Haney