When was The Muppet Movie filmed?
WHITMIRE: I did eight weeks on The Muppet Show. So that would have been March, April, and May, and then we had about three weeks off. Then we started The Muppet Movie about the second week of July.
Was that mainly a lot of background characters?
WHITMIRE: Yeah, its interesting because there were less background puppeteers then Less than weve been able to find now. There were less people, so it allowed me to do a lot of stuff. I did a lot of Fozzie, which, of course, Frank dubbed, because he was doing Piggy. Whenever he was doing Piggy, I pretty much was doing Fozzie the rest of the time.
One of my favorite things to do, ever, in my career has been to do Rowlfs hands on the piano, which is something that other people had done, but once I started doing it, I kind of have done it since The Muppet Show days. I love it. Its the best job in the world for somebody who sort of plays the piano, but would really like to play the piano well. The fact that you can approximate what its supposed to be and make it look really good.
What moments, from your time on The Muppet Show, stick out in your mind?
WHITMIRE: The first show I ever did was the Alice Cooper episode, which was a big deal for me because I was a rock musician in high school. I played in this garage band, and I loved Alice Cooper, so that was fun. The first time I ever did a speaking part, I was doing a guard that was outside Liberaces dressing room door. Jim gave me this part to do, to try me in a speaking role, and I was terrible. I didnt know what I was doing, because of the character. I knew how to make the puppet move, and I could probably come up with the voice, but the thing was that this character had to be really mean to Kermit, and it was completely against my nature. Kermit walks up to the door and the guards like, "Where you goin? Youre not going in here." I had no clue how to be mean. The thing about The Muppet Show was that, the way the technicians union was set up in England, at 8:00 in the evening, they pulled the plug. It didnt matter whether we were in the middle of a shot. It didnt matter what. At 8:00, the technicians went home. Period. I mean, it was really that strict.
We started this bit at about 7:30, which should have been a thing that was finished, by an experienced puppeteer, in about 15 minutes. At 5 minutes of 8, Im still screwing it up, take after take after take. I dont have a clue what Im doing. Im doing a terrible job. The characters not there I dont know how to be mean to Kermit. Its just not working. Richard Holloway, the floor manager A great guy, is down there saying, "I cant believe weve got 5 minutes. Theyre going to pull the plug. Its going to blow the whole schedule for the week if we dont get this shot in, and Jims up there giving puppet lessons."
Instead of handing it off to someone else
WHITMIRE: Right, it would have been so much easier to get somebody else to do it, but he would not let me get off the horse. I had to keep riding it. But it was so gentle. With all of the commotion that was going on We were up on that balcony on The Muppet Show backstage set Everyone else was down there and it was just the two of us up there, and he was so patient and so slow. It was like a wall closed off, and it was just this one-on-one instruction with no pressure at all, and yet the clock is ticking towards the plug. I remember that so well because thats the way he was. He wanted me to do a good job, and he was willing to take whatever time it took for me to do it, rather than just say, "Well, some other time. Lets get crankin here." Because Frank would have done it in one take. Its a real tribute to who Jim was, because thats the kind of person he was. The time and the money? Sure, its important, but its not as important as seeing to it that this person does what they need to do well.
Are there any times during the run of The Muppet Show that you dont look back on too fondly?
WHITMIRE: I dont know. It takes 12 tries to get anything right. We almost never get it right the first time. So there were things like that every day. Big disasters? I cant think of too many big disasters. This isnt really a disaster, but I remember at one point that the unions went on strike. Everybody went to lunch one day and they never came back. Youre in production and all of a sudden nobody comes back to work. They just decided over lunch to go on strike. That happened several times, but that particular time it happened, it was such a strong thing that we had to close down production and we all went home, which is a big deal because everybody has to fly back to the States and then get back again. Just the expense and time of that. We were all sitting at home waiting to see when we would go back to work again. Im thinking it lasted at least a month.
Are there any good moments, or guest stars, that stick out in your mind?
WHITMIRE: Oh, there were so many. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were fantastic. They were really before my time as performers I never knew them as a kid, but they were two of the sweetest people. I loved working with them so much. The Star Wars guys were great. Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Kenny Baker (R2D2), and Anthony Daniels (C-3PO). They were terrific people. John Denver was great. We did 5 or 6 different things with John within a couple of years and we were seeing him all the time. Hed come to Atlanta and wed get tickets and go back and see him backstage at concerts. He was a great person. Lots of terrific people.
Any guest stars stick out as difficult?
Even though its a loaded question
WHITMIRE: I know its a loaded question. It seems like, whenever we were working with people, no matter whether they immediately felt comfortable with puppets or not, there was just something about the easy-going atmosphere of the set and Jims demeanor that comforted people into being able to do it. It just worked. Jim was very accepting of other people. If thats what they did, then thats what we got. It wasnt high pressure. And they would tailor the show around the guest star. Theyd show up and say, "Im not sure I like that part," and wed say, "Okay, well change it." Or theyd say, "Id really like to do this," and wed say, "Okay, well write a scene with this character." It was really tailored around the wants and the needs of the guest.
How did your character breakthrough with Lips and Rizzo come about?
WHITMIRE: Well, I also did Miss Piggys little dog, Foo-Foo. I think that was largely because Dave was going to do it but he didnt really want to do it. Foo-Foo was kind of a prop for Miss Piggy in a lot of ways. It was something for Piggy to play off of.
Lips, whos just kind of totally gone away these days, came out of the fact that we did a lot of musical numbers in that show, and I always loved doing characters that played instruments, and I was good at that. I was able to learn the music tracks and mimic them well, and I think that Jim just said, "Lets add a character to the Dr. Teeth band for Steve," and they chose trumpet as an instrument.
With all of the horn sections in recent songs, youd think hed make more appearances
WHITMIRE: You know, hes hardly even a part of the band. Hes not even thought of when we think of the band. I felt great when he was playing the trumpet and I felt terrible whenever he spoke, because I wanted to do this Louis Armstrong kind of voice and at that point and time, there was some question as to whether or not we would offend African American people by this white guy doing a black voice as a trumpet player. We werent sure. We might offend people who liked Louis Armstrong. I never quite got anywhere with Lips. Id probably be real comfortable with him now, but at that point I wasnt sure. I still wasnt ready to do a character.
Rizzo happened because I found a box full of old rat puppets that Don Sahlin built that were in storage on The Muppet Show. They were made for The Muppet Musicians of Bremen special a few years earlier. Their bodies were made out of plastic bottles and they were on sticks. You just bounced them. Some of them had mouths, but most of them just bounced. Jim always encouraged us while they were shooting the backstage areas to just grab a puppet and be in the background. We really almost got no instruction beyond that, so we just got to do whatever we wanted as long as it worked. It was okay to upstage. It was basically okay to do whatever we wanted, so I used one of these rats. I guess they hadnt used those in years. Jim saw it and said, "Thats great." So I started using him all the time, but he never spoke. He was just this little character who was always there just sticking his nose in the way. I remember Jim turning to me after a take one time, putting his hand on my shoulder, and saying to me, "Im gonna make that rat a star." So the next thing they did was approve for somebody to rebuild the rat. I actually did some of the building on him. I sculpted the shape that became his nose out of clay, and they cast it from that. I built his hands. I designed the little mechanism inside of him that makes his mouth move.
The second one was a little bigger, right?
WHITMIRE: A little bit, yeah. From then on in, they started trying to write for him, and I started trying to figure out who he was. Frank actually came up with the name of Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy Ratso Rizzo. We had two choices His name was either going to be Rizzo or Vermin. I sort of liked Vermin, because I didnt know the reference for Rizzo, but obviously Rizzo was the better choice.
When The Muppet Show ended, you went right into production on The Great Muppet Caper
WHITMIRE: Yeah, pretty much. We may have had a little free time there, but we pretty much went straight into it. I think the way it worked was that they knew they were going to do Great Muppet Caper and Dark Crystal, so we worked on them both right away.
By that time, were you more comfortable with England than you had been?
WHITMIRE: Yeah, I was all right by then. It was only the early, early time that I didnt care for it much. But you know, England seemed very much behind us in terms of everyday conveniences. I was just spoiled by American convenience. These days, its pretty much equaled out. Its not that different than the U.S. now.
I know a lot of people describe the professional pairings a lot, like Frank and Jim, and Jerry and Richard. How did your camaraderie with Dave come about?
WHITMIRE: Somehow we just paired off together performing with each other. Really, that happened mostly with Fraggle Rock. When Fraggle happened, thats when it really kicked in, when we were doing Boober and Wembley. With those two characters, we just had such a great time doing the two of them.
What kind of work did you do on The Dark Crystal?
WHITMIRE: I did one of the Skeksis, the scientist, who was the one with the fake eye. The one who drained the life essence out of the Gelflings, which was great fun. He was really fun As a character, not as a puppet. The puppets were horrible to be inside. They were really uncomfortable.
How did you wind up being the only puppeteer who did a voice?
WHITMIRE: Jerry Nelson did a voice but he didnt actually puppeteer. He did the high priest of the Skeksis. It was interesting. Jim and Frank kind of co-directed that film. They had people submit tapes of what they thought a Skeksis would sound like, and it just so happened that the voice I did was exactly what they had in mind. So I just happened to get lucky and get a voice that worked with no particular effort It just happened to be the one that was the right one.
So that was 80 and 81 for The Great Muppet Caper and Fraggle Rock. When did you start hearing about Fraggle Rock?
WHITMIRE: During The Dark Crystal, we were toward the end of that, and I know I was at a point where I was kind of thinking, "Whats going to happen next? Am I going to have a job?" At about that time, Fraggle Rock came along. Jim started talking about it and showing us some pictures that Michael Frith had drawn of characters. After the film, and I dont remember the time frame exactly, but at some point we all went to New York and, for Fraggle, we all auditioned for each character. He had a small group of puppeteers come in, including some that didnt end up working on the show, and we played around for several days.
How much of the casting process, in your mind, was predetermined?
WHITMIRE: Well, I knew I wanted to do Wembley, because I just felt really comfortable with the character. I really pushed to do that character, but we did ad-lib sort of improvisations where I would play Gobo, and Boober, and all the different ones, but I knew which one I wanted to do. I dont think Dave had any idea. I think it was between Dave and Jerry for Gobo. Im not sure how that ended up happening the way it did. I think it happened the best way that it could have happened.
Fraggle Rock, creatively, seems to be Jim saying, "Im giving you the keys and trusting you all with this project."
WHITMIRE: Well, to a certain extent. Certainly he oversaw the beginning stages of it. He wasnt completely disconnected from it, but he wasnt there a lot of the time. He was off pursuing other things. He would come in and do Cantus or Convincing John, but he wasnt there a lot of the time. It was a real opportunity for Dave and I to grow as performers, as well as everybody else, but I know for me that it was a time of really stretching out and seeing what I could do with the puppets. I think it was probably the high point of my career, so far, in terms of the character. It was really the perfect character for me to do at that time in my life.
Well, with Fraggle Rock being on the air as long as it was, it allowed you the time to develop the character, whereas Rizzo was brought in during the last two seasons of The Muppet Show
WHITMIRE: Rizzo has really just come into his own more recently.
Hes become a central, core character
WHITMIRE: Thats happened all of a sudden, since the new movies and Muppets Tonight.
What were the high points of Fraggle Rock for you? When did you feel you hit your groove?
WHITMIRE: I think probably late in the first season. It started to gel at that point.
With The Muppets Take Manhattan falling within Fraggle Rock, what was it like to go from performing a central character on television, then going back to film and finding that Rizzo was becoming more of a central character?
WHITMIRE: It felt good. I was really conscious of trying to distinguish between Wembleys voice and Rizzos voice, because theyre very similar. Rizzos is lower, but its very close. A lot of times rehearsing a scene I would find myself doing something that was very much Wembley, like a laugh or something. It worked for Rizzo because the voice is so similar, and Frank, who was directing Muppets Take Manhattan, would say, "Thats great! Youve gotta keep that! Thats really funny!" and Id say, "But I cant do that. Thats Wembley." I was always going back and forth between the two. There would be a real difference now. Its funny, when I hear the old Fraggle Rock stuff and hear my voice, it just sounds so foreign now. I dont even know what I was doing.
How did your musical writing credit in Fraggle Rock come about?
WHITMIRE: One of my favorite things about that show was all the music. We always had original music At least a couple of songs a week. Dennis Lee did the lyrics and Phil Balsam did the music. I loved working with Phil. He was a great guy to be around. Phil was there as we recorded the music. At that point in time, I had bought some "home" recording equipment and I was fiddling around with music myself, and Phil and I decided to get together at one point and just play and record stuff. It ended up that he asked me to help him do a song for the show, which was no big deal It was a little instrumental song real simple. It was something to do. The thing I remember the most about it is that we did it and it ended up in the show and then I think Diana Birkenfield, the producer on the show, found out that I had written it. It really shouldnt have happened that way. Suddenly there was a song in the show that was done by somebody who wasnt being paid to do that and not in the right unions. They would have continued to let me do it, but after that I didnt do anything else.
Do you think Fraggle Rock ended when it should have, or do you think it should have gone on longer?
WHITMIRE: I think it probably ended when it should have. I know by the time it ended that I was ready to stop doing those characters. I had really had enough. We could probably have done another season comfortably, and it probably would have been good, but creatively I was done with it.
Did The Tale of the Bunny Picnic come after Fraggle Rock, or during?
WHITMIRE: It must have been during, but toward the end.
And that was the introduction of your third most popular character
Who has morphed into something that he wasnt during Bunny Picnic
WHITMIRE: Right, Bunny picnic was great fun. It was one of the most enjoyable things Ive ever worked on, just because it was really fun to work with Jim on that. He was directing it, and we had a great time. He did this silly dog character.
Its definitely interesting to see Bean then and compare it to Bean now Getting thrown out windows, doors slamming in his face
WHITMIRE: Yeah, now hes just the victim. Hes good at it.