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Steve Whitmire

Steve Whitmire.

Steve L. Whitmire (b. September 24th, 1959) is a talented Muppeteer who has been working for the Jim Henson Company since 1978, for 33 years. Some of Steve's own characters are, Bean Bunny, Foo-Foo, Lips & Rizzo the Rat. Whitmire was also picked to take over the roles of Kermit the Frog & Ernie, following Jim Henson's very sudden, tragic death. He took over the roles of Statler, following Richard Hunt's death, & Statler, following Jerry Nelson's retirement. His wife, Melissa Whitmire, has also puppeteered on occasion.

Steve's Grouch-related credits are the Football Stenchman, Bad Humor Man & Sharon Groan in The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland.

Early Years

Born near Atlanta, Georgia, Steve Whitmire became interested in puppetry in his childhood, around the time that Sesame Street began airing in 1969. Whitmire recalled, "I wrote a letter to Jim Henson at the time, & he wrote back. It's an amazing thing for a 10-year-old to get a letter back from a TV star." Building on that early enthusiasm, Whitmire created his own puppets & performed throughout high school, even winning the school talent show on 1 occasion. After graduating high school, he briefly puppeteered at local theme park The World of Sid & Marty Krofft, performing his own character Otis the Beach Bum, & later cohosted The Kid's Show w/ his best friend Gary Koepke for WATL in Atlanta, which was nominated for a state Emmy Award.

Whitmire 1st made contact with the Muppets through Caroll Spinney, whom he met at the Southeastern Regional Puppetry Festival in 1977. That fall, Spinney informed Whitmire that auditions were being held for puppeteers for Sesame Street; upon calling the Henson offices, Whitmire learned that Jane Henson was coming to Atlanta the following week to inspect the Kermit balloon for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade & that she could meet with him while there. After seeing Whitmire perform, she recommended him to her husband, Muppets creator, Jim Henson, who eventually formally auditioned him & asked him to join the performers on The Muppet Show. His 1st day of performing was March 24th, 1978.

From Right-Handing to Regular

Whitmire slowly became a major performer. On The Muppet Show, he often performed 1-shot characters, right hands, & filled in when 2 of another performer's characters were in the same scene (for example, if Fozzie Bear & Miss Piggy were in a scene together, Whitmire would generally perform the puppetry for Fozzie while Frank Oz performed the voice for both of them). He was soon given some of his own recurring characters, such as Foo-Foo, Rizzo the Rat, & Lips, all of whom were minor characters on The Muppet Show, with very little dialogue.

Whitmire became 1 of the core Muppet performers since performing on The Muppet Show, & received his own major characters on Fraggle Rock, where he performed Sprocket & Wembley Fraggle, & the semi-recurring role of Marlon Fraggle. He also added more characters to his repertoire over the years, performing many roles on The Jim Henson Hour, & Rizzo the Rat would gradually become a core member of the main cast.

The 1980s

Following the end of The Muppet Show, Whitmire continued to work within the Henson fold. He performed SkekTek in The Dark Crystal, & was the only puppeteer who both operated & voiced his character. (Jerry Nelson also did vocal work on the movie, but didn't puppeteer.) Whitmire commented on this: "Jim Henson & Frank Oz had people submit tapes of what they thought a Skeksis would sound like, & it just so happened that the voice I did was exactly what they had in mind. So I just happened to get lucky & get a voice that worked with no particular effort... It just happened to be the one that was the right one."

Whitmire also puppeteered for the 1986 Henson film Labyrinth, & starred as Mew in the TV special The Christmas Toy.

In The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, he performed the special's protagonist, Bean Bunny. Bean Bunny would soon go on to become a main character, starting w/ The Jim Henson Hour, for which Whitmire also performed a variety of other characters, including Flash & Waldo C. Graphic. He also appeared on-screen as himself in The Secrets of the Muppets.

TV Work in the 1990s

After the death of Jim Henson, Whitmire took over for Kermit the Frog & he became Ernie to Frank Oz's Bert in 1993 also. In addition to that, he became Beaker to Dave Goelz's Dr. Bunsen Honeydew after Richard Hunt passed away. Whitmire performed many characters on Dinosaurs, most notably B.P. Richfield & the face of Robbie Sinclair (with voices later looped) & was also heard as various 1-shot hand puppet characters, such as Mr. Mason Dixon. Following the series' end in 1994, he was paired w/ Dave Goelz as the title duo on The Animal Show, playing Jake the Polar Bear & various other characters.

In addition to reprising Kermit, Rizzo, & Beaker on Muppets Tonight, Whitmire also performed the regular roles of Andy Pig & Mr. Poodlepants.

Continuing Kermit & Others

Steve Whitmire Kermit the Frog

Steve Whitmire with his Muppet character: the legendary Kermit the Frog.

Steve Whitmire Ernie

Steve Whitmire with his character on Sesame Street, Ernie.

Steve Whitmire became the performer of Kermit the Frog after Jim Henson's tragic death, starting in The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. Although The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson was his 1st on-screen performance as Kermit, he considers The Muppet Christmas Carol to be his 1st real production as Kermit.

Later, Whitmire learned that there was consideration of him performing Kermit even before Henson died: "I have been told that Jim had said something about it to Frank. Not that I would perform Kermit when he died but that he would need somebody else to do Kermit some of the time because he was so busy. He never said that to me, but I heard that through somebody that it had been talked about. Just that the 2 of them were so busy, that they may need to have to find stand-ins for their characters, so I guess it had been mentioned, but the actual time I was asked was by Brian. We were in Disney World for something. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but I think it was the big tribute they did for Jim, & we went down for that. While we were there, 1 night I went over & met with Jane Henson, Brian, & Frank, & Brian mentioned me doing it. I was just overwhelmed by the request. It was a huge honor, & it also just scared the daylights out of me, the thought of trying it."

When it was decided that Steve Whitmire would take over as the frog, Heather Henson arranged for a Kermit puppet to be sent to Atlanta for Whitmire to practice performing. Whitmire thought that the puppet smelled like Jim Henson, & although he put the puppet on once, he couldn't get himself to go near it & try out a voice for months. Eventually, Brian called & asked him to do something with Kermit, record it on tape, & send it to him, so Whitmire performed Kermit singing "Bein' Green".

Regarding his 1st performance as Kermit, Whitmire has said: "When we did the special, I always had this fantasy that the 1st time I performed Kermit it would be a nice, dark little moment in the studio & it would be 5 or 6 of the main guys... It would be real gentle & easy to do. What it turned out to be was that the closing scene of that special had about 50 puppets in it. So it was basically every puppeteer I've ever worked with in New York City, which was probably 25-30 people."

1 of the hardest things that Steve Whitmire had to do in The Muppet Christmas Carol was pre-record Kermit's voice for all of the songs 1st, as he recalled in an interview with Muppet Central: "I went to London for the start of Christmas Carol, & they already started working on the music a couple days before I got there. We pre-recorded all of the songs before we did the movie, so the first thing I was going to have to do was go in to record Kermit's voice, which I was super-nervous about, because I didn't have the puppet to rely on. There was something about seeing the puppet as one was hearing my voice, at that stage, that made it more believable, & it got people into it. If I just walked in & did Kermit's voice, they didn't buy it necessarily. They were still hearing Jim. If I had the puppet on, it was more believable."

After the death of Richard Hunt, Whitmire took over as Beaker to Dave Goelz's Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, adding yet another character to his list: "I think it was Dave's [Goelz's] idea that I do Beaker. They asked Dave, "Who do you think should do Beaker?" & he suggested me because we like to work together, & we work well together. Beaker was difficult because I had no clue where it came from in Richard. I didn't know at all how Richard did this. It was really just a matter of being silly with Dave. The truth is, I still don't know where it came from. I just don't know what part of Richard it came from...What facet of his personality. I don't relate to the character the way that Richard did, so really, with Beaker, I'm doing an awful lot of just copying Richard. I wouldn't say that I've got a good handle on that character, but it's fun. It's a fun character."

Whitmire joined Sesame Street in 1993, when it was decided to permanently recast Ernie, although Jim Henson had originally auditioned him for the series years earlier. So, in that year, Steve became Ernie to Frank Oz's Bert, taking Jim's place in the dynamic duo he & Frank formed. His 1st performance as Ernie was a fishing sketch with Bert, & he transitioned into the role on a more regular basis. Although John Tartaglia substituted during season 2 of Play With Me Sesame, Whitmire continues to perform Ernie to this day. According to Whitmire, "[Performing Ernie] came about cause they were looking for someone to do the voice for toys. I asked if I could audition for it. I did vocal recordings for Ernie toys for 2-3 years...A lot of them. When it came time to recast the character, I ended up doing it."

In contrast to his regular Sesame Street work as Ernie, Whitmire has rarely performed new material with Kermit the Frog for the show, mainly cause Sesame Workshop lost the rights to him when Disney had bought the Muppets in February 2004. Among the notable exceptions are sketch where Kermit teaches Grover the difference between light & dark, Kermit reporting on Slimey landing on the moon (Episode 3740), Kermit reporting on Slimey returning home (Episode 3785), in the song Everybody Be Yo'Self & reporting on the hurricane that hit Sesame Street (Episode 3976). Whitmire has, however, performed Kermit in the Sesame Street specials Elmopalooza, Elmo Saves Christmas, CinderElmo, & the direct-to-video The Best of Kermit on Sesame Street.

In the early 2000s, he started performing Statler, beginning with the Weezer music video "Keep Fishin'." Whitmire puppeteered him in It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie while Jerry Nelson looped the voice later; 1 of Whitmire's lines, "Historical landmark", remained un-looped. Following Nelson's retirement from the role, Steve Whitmire took over as Statler (with the notable exception of Statler & Waldorf: From the Balcony, where Drew Massey assumed the role from the 8th episode onward). In an interiew, Whitmire talked about playing Statler: "For Statler, I was trying to decide if I should make it more like Jerry's original, or do I make it like Richard’s, which everyone knows from The Muppet Show, or do I make it like Jerry's since Richard's [death]. He’s just been passed around a lot. It's always been a problem for me that the characters got passed around. I get very conservative about this idea of 1 person doing the characters, & we shouldn't recast them so the character can grow & not be different every time we see them. So, I've tried to aim for more like what Richard did on The Muppet Show. & I know I don't really sound like Richard, & I have so much fun doing the character. And they only do like 3 lines at a time, but when we ad lib with them between scenes, it's so much fun. We have so much fun."

In 2008, new Muppet video content was added to Disney Extreme Digital, where in addition to continuing to perform Kermit & Rizzo, Steve Whitmire also took over as The Newsman, another of Jim Henson's characters.

In September 2009, Whitmire took an unexpected leave from performing Kermit, for appearances on America's Got Talent & the MTV Video Music Awards. Kermit was briefly performed by Artie Esposito in these instances. Whitmire returned to the role at a press conference for Give a Day. Get a Disney Day.

Since 2006, Steve has had a limited schedule on Sesame Street due to his busy schedule with The Walt Disney Company. However, he performed Ernie on several Ready to Learn PSA's, Count on Sports, Abby in Wonderland, the song What I Am & a song called I Wonder. He also performed Kermit for his cameo in Elmo's World: Frogs.

Whitmire has stated that he doesn't think he could have taken over Jim Henson's characters if he had not worked with Henson for so many years.

Steve Whitmire & Dave Goelz

Goelz & Whitmire

Steve & Dave Goelz.

As acknowledged personally by Whitmire in many interviews, he & Dave Goelz work very well together, just like Jim Henson did w/ Frank Oz, & like Jerry Nelson did w/ Richard Hunt. The aforementioned Bunsen & Beaker pairing wasn't the only time the 2 would work together as a team. On Fraggle Rock, Whitmire's Wembley often found himself paired off w/ Goelz as Boober, & they played Mew & Rugby Tiger respectively in The Christmas Toy.

Gonzo & Rizzo have become an almost inseparable team over the years, beginning w/ The Muppet Christmas Carol. In the same film, Goelz & Whitmire were paired as Betina & Belinda Cratchit, doing variations of Frank Oz's Miss Piggy.

On Muppets Tonight, the 2 remained paired as Miss Piggy's nephews, Andy & Randy Pig. Whitmire took over the role of Beaker when Richard Hunt passed away, playing off Goelz's Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Whitmire also recently took over the role of Statler from Jerry Nelson, who, in 2004, retired from voicing his characters for health reasons, playing off of Waldorf, whom Dave Goelz has performed since 1992 after Jim Henson's tragic death, &, also during the 1990s, the 2 performed the duo Jake & Stinky the Skunk on The Animal Show.

Muppeteer Credits

Trivia

See also

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