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What elements of The Jim Henson Hour, in your mind, didn’t seem to gel?

WHITMIRE: Well, we never really knew where they were exactly. It was a strange thing. I don’t think the audience ever had a sense of where the show was based. It was this odd control room place, but geographically, where was the studio? It just never seemed to quite come together. We did some funny sketches in it, but we were trying to do a lot of real edgy humor.

A real schizophrenic show…

WHITMIRE: Yeah… It just didn’t know what it was. It kept changing faces over and over again. Some of the individual pieces, I think, were really good, but to me, Muppets Tonight always seemed very similar to The Jim Henson Hour.

It’s interesting that The Jim Henson Hour got cut off by the network before it could find its identity, whereas Muppets Tonight made it into its second season and was beginning to hit its stride when it was canceled…

WHITMIRE: Yeah. I think what happened with Muppets Tonight had a lot to do with the fact that they never just found a spot for it and left it there. Which they do with so many shows… They kill them by moving them around so much. I guess that’s their way of finding out whether the audience follows the show, but it’s nice if it rests long enough for people to find it.

Did you see in any disappointment in Jim that The Jim Henson Hour had been canceled?

WHITMIRE: I never noticed it, but I think he was probably discouraged. It was a big show and it didn’t happen.

Do you think that disappointment could have prompted him to seek out the Disney deal?

Steve Whitmire

In order to perform Kermit, Steve had to get in the heart and soul of Jim Henson.

WHITMIRE: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I know that his main reason for doing the Disney deal, what he said to me, was, "I’ve decided to sell the company and the characters to Disney." I was shocked… I was in Atlanta working on my house, and I said, "Really?" and he said, "Yeah" and there was kind of a pause, and I said, "Does that seem like a good deal?" Something like that, and he said, "I think it’s going to be good. What I’d like to do is reduce the size of our company and get back to being just a small production company and just do our work." I think he was tired of the big corporate aspect of everything… Having the company grow into this big corporate thing. He just wanted to cut back and get back to just creating stuff. I think the idea was Disney would look after the publishing and licensing and the legal side of the business, and he would be able to just do work and direct and perform and that sort of thing. So that was his goal.

I guess the next major project after The Jim Henson Hour would be Muppet Vision 3D.

WHITMIRE: Yeah. That would be the first major project we did with Disney. We did a Disney World special, but I think that came after. It was after, because the last thing we worked on before Jim passed away was the Disney World special. But the last film he directed was Muppet Vision 3D.

I’ve heard quite a few good things about it…

WHITMIRE: It’s pretty neat. It was a really fun thing to work on. The cameras kept breaking, but other than that it was fine.

That must have raised the tension level…

WHITMIRE: Oh yeah, we shot that on the Disney lot in Burbank. I think it was the first thing we did with Disney on the Disney lot.

So Jim’s last project was the Disney World special…

WHITMIRE: The last one I worked with him on, the last time I saw him, was that. One of the most interesting things about that time was that my wife, Melissa, had gone out and bought GQ and I don’t know why, because she doesn’t really read GQ, but for some reason she had a copy of GQ. And in GQ was a quiz about "How long will you live based on your lifestyle, health habits, etc., etc." Like a Cosmo thing. It was several pages long and very detailed, like a legitimate test. So one day when we were waiting for them to set up for a shot, Jim, Jerry, Melissa, a couple of other people and I were just sitting around right outside the Disney/MGM Studios on a bench, and we did this quiz. We all gave our answers, and it ended up that Jim and my answers were pretty similar, and it said we both would live to be about 80. That was based on our lifestyle and our habits and the food we ate… All that kind of stuff. And Jim said, "Yeah, that sounds about right. 80 sounds good… Nice round old age." I said, "Yeah, that sounds good to me too." That was the last kind of thing we did before we left.

Muppet Vision 3D

Muppet Vision 3D pushed the envelope in terms of it's special effects.

I also had a dinner with him during that time. He and my wife and I went out to dinner in Orlando, and he was telling me that he was frustrated over the fact that I didn’t have any real major characters within the core group of the Muppets. I mean I had Rizzo and Bean Bunny, but those were really the only two characters I had. He said, "I think we should work toward getting you another major character, maybe something that’s like a sidekick to Kermit. Fozzie is there, but Frank’s not available sometimes, and it would be nice to have another character that could fill that roll sometimes." And I thought, "Great!" He said, "Yeah, I’m going to go about doing that as soon as I get back to New York." So we said goodbye at the end of that project, and the next thing I know, he passed away. Shortly after that, here comes Kermit. In that respect, it was a little shocking. I remember saying to several people, "You know, he said he was going to give me a major character, but I never thought he would go to this extent."

Just the irony of that conversation happening at that time…

WHITMIRE: Yeah, that's right.

You were in Atlanta when you heard he was sick, right?

WHITMIRE: Yeah, I had been home from that project for a few weeks, and I think we had been out shopping and we got home about 8:00 one night. There was this message on my answering machine from Frank saying, "I’m really sorry to have to leave this on your answering machine, but Jim’s in the hospital and he’s very sick and he’s not expected to make it through the night." I think I was a bit like Dave. I remember Dave telling you that it didn’t even register… It didn’t even make sense. It was hard to even hear it. I just remember stopping the answering machine and saying, "I’ve got to get there," and so Melissa called and made reservations. The last flight out of Atlanta to New York that night was at 9:00, and it was now like 8:15, and we live 30 minutes from the airport if you *really* make good time. We’re on the far side of Atlanta from the airport. We jumped in our car and I did 140 to the airport. I was just flying. I would have been locked up forever if I had been stopped driving the way I was driving. With the exception of the speed, I was not driving unsafely, but I was flying. We have a little Porsche sports car, and I was just flying flat out. We got there in time to make the flight.

We arrived in New York, and the whole time Frank’s words are just echoing in my head. The plane got to New York around midnight, and the taxi took us straight to the hospital. They weren’t going to let us go up, but I lied and said I was a member of the family, which is only a partial lie considering our group. I said I was a cousin or a nephew or something. Everybody was there. Frank, David Lazer, Michael Frith, Kathy Mullen, Jerry Nelson, Lisa, Cheryl, Heather, and Jane, and I think that was it. It was such a strange scene, because there was a little waiting area where most of us sat, and then Heather and Lisa and Cheryl were in another area through some hospital doors kind of quiet and not saying much. Jerry and Michael and I were talking a little bit, but mostly we were pretty quiet… Pretty solemn… Waiting to hear what happened. We were in the middle of a conversation, some kind of lighthearted conversation and all of a sudden there was this big code red and several doctors ran in. I don’t know it for a fact, but I’m sure that’s when he died. There was this long moment, and everyone was apprehensive, because I think we all knew that something was going on in his room. The doctor took Frank aside, then he came over and he kind of broke up a little, but he said, "Well, at…" whatever time it was, which I don’t remember, "Jim passed away." And that’s all he said. Everybody was just kind of devastated, and I was just kind of blank. A few tears were around, but everyone was just stunned. We just couldn’t believe this had happened.

Here’s the funniest thing that may have ever happened in my life. We’re sitting there during that kind of a situation… Imagine this moment… It’s just the lowest point in all of our lives. We’ve just been told that Jim has died. It’s like somebody’s punched us in the chest. All of a sudden, from down the hall, we hear this sound… Like this high-pitched gibberish going, "HOIPOINTEEPOITOWWW JYABATAHBAW!" It was like the most inappropriate thing that could have happened. All of a sudden, these two big metal doors bang open, really loud, and these two nurses are just cracking up, wheeling this little Asian woman on a gurney, right through the middle of our group, and she smiled and goes, "YAWCATAWHOCHAYOOWW!" and she just laughs. My wife and I just looked at each other and smiled. Later, we talked about how Jim went through the room. It’s exactly what he would have done. It’s the most irreverent thing that could have happened at the worst possible moment that it could have happened. If it had been a movie, it would have been the biggest laugh, and that’s exactly what Jim would have done. Most people were just staring at her, but I couldn’t help it… I just started laughing.

What was the immediate fallout of Jim’s death? The Disney deal’s still going…

WHITMIRE: The deal’s still going, and we have to go through a memorial service…

How did the memorial planning come about?

WHITMIRE: Actually, I don’t remember. It was such a crazy time. I don’t remember who decided who was going to do what at the memorial service. I don’t even remember who pulled it together. Somebody stepped in and pulled it together. Suddenly, all of these people were flying in from all over the world, and the press is standing outside of the door of the JHP offices waiting to grab one of us… We’re sneaking in and out of the building, trying to look like we don’t know what’s going on. Suddenly it’s all over the news and we’re sitting there watching all this stuff. One minute we’d be staring and the next minute we all were crying. It was an incredible group of people to mourn with… To be in a situation like this with. An easy group to just feel whatever you needed to feel at the moment. If you wanted to break down and cry, that was fine, or if it was your turn to be the strong one for a minute… It was all okay.

The memorial service was within a week, wasn’t it?

WHITMIRE: Yeah, they pulled it all together in a hurry, because we had all flown in from out of town.

With how quick you left Atlanta, you probably didn’t bring any clothes with you…

WHITMIRE: No, I don’t think I did. We probably went out and bought clothes to wear for the week. We just came up without anything, because flying up there it was like, "Well, you know, he’s not gonna die. This is ridiculous. We’ll go up for a couple of days, he’ll be well, and we’ll come home." It just wasn’t going to happen.

The memorial was such a great thing. It was huge. There were so many people. They allowed the public to come in. It was incredible.

During the memorial service, when the Muppeteers sang "Just One Person," you were up there with Wembley, weren’t you?

WHITMIRE: I think so. That was so hard… Trying to sing that song under the circumstances… All of us were crying.

The one thing they showed very little of in the news clips was the Dixieland band…

WHITMIRE: It’s the one thing Jim requested. The rest of it was our idea. Apparently, he said specifically that he wanted just a small, little service and a Dixieland band playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." And nobody in black. I wore this ridiculous suit that was Kermit green. I looked like the Riddler. It was a real suit, with the exception that I made a Kermit collar to go up under the collar of the shirt in place of a tie. It was a white suit, and one of the guys from the shop dyed it Kermit green. He did the shoes and socks, also.

When was the decision made to pass Kermit to you?

WHITMIRE: I don’t know. There were people that came up to me the day of the memorial service and asked if I would be doing Kermit… Other puppeteers. I was shocked and almost kind of offended by people saying that, because it had never crossed my mind in the least. It didn’t matter. That wasn’t what it was about. It was about Jim.

The public also had that misconception that Brian had taken over…

WHITMIRE: Yeah, I think they figured his son would do it because Brian had done some performing, and people still come up to me and think I’m Brian. Especially when Brian had long, blond hair.

It’s almost as though, when Jim died, he split into lots of different people. No one of us does all of his characters. I can do the voices and the puppetry for the ones that have a certain tone of voice… like Ernie and Kermit. I can do a pretty good Swedish Chef, that kind of tone. I can’t really do a Rowlf voice. In terms of the other aspects, not just his performing but from the company, there’s Brian and Jim’s other children that are involved. Jocelyn Stevenson said at the service that we were all "Jim’s seeds," and we’re all going to float around in the air for awhile, and then we would take root.

Do you think the decision for Kermit was something that he determined ahead of time?

WHITMIRE: I don’t know. That would be a good question to ask somebody like Brian or Frank, because I don’t know the real story. I have been told that Jim had mentioned something about it to Frank. Not that I would perform Kermit when he died, but that he might need to get 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 two of them were so busy, that they may have to find stand-ins to do their characters sometimes, 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 for the big tribute they did to Jim, and we went down for that. While we were there, one night I went over and met with Jane Henson, Brian, and Frank, and Brian mentioned me doing it. I was just overwhelmed by the request. It was a huge honor, and it also just scared the daylights out of me, the thought of trying it.

kermgma2.gif (15193 bytes)

Steve Whitmire has done some great interviews as Kermit the Frog, including this May 1998 appearance on Good Morning America.

Shortly after that, Heather Henson arranged for a Kermit to be sent to me in Atlanta, so that I could fiddle around with it for a little bit. I remember taking the puppet out of the box and the puppet "smelled" like Jim. I don’t even know what that was about. It smelled like Jim… It really did. I took this puppet and I put it on, and I had Kermit on before while fooling around in the shop, but I had never performed him. So I put him on, and I was standing in front of a mirror and I held him up, and I sort of had him turn around to me, and I really got this sense of this voice in my head of Kermit saying, "C’mon, I need to talk. Do a voice." I could not do it. I just took the puppet off, set it on a shelf in another room, and I didn’t touch it for almost a month. I couldn’t go near it. I couldn’t do the voice. Finally, I got a call from Brian who said, "We kind of need you to do something. Could you do something and put it on tape and send it to us?" I did "Bein’ Green." They sent me down the orchestral track, and I sung it and did a version of that and sent that to them just to evaluate. I was feeling real uncomfortable about it, particularly about the voice. I just felt really uncomfortable about the voice. I kind of knew the character. I’d been around Jim when he’d done a lot of Kermit for around 13-14 years at that point, but there were two things that really nailed it for me.

One was that I went to New York, and we arranged this day where I was going to go up and work with Frank. Frank was going to come in and do Piggy and Fozzie and I was going to do Kermit, and we were just going to ad-lib in front of the camera and see what we could do. I went up that day a little early, and I went into this little closed off room with a camera and a monitor and I put on Kermit and I was just saying, "Hi ho…" and I thought, "That’s awful. It doesn’t sound anything like Kermit. What am I gonna do? Frank’s going to come in and I’m going to just be terrible!"

I was so nervous about it. Once I got over the fear about what everybody else was going to think about it, I was fine. It was easy to get over that because everybody was very accepting about it. But that day when Frank came in, I worked at lunch time, and he came in at lunch and we worked for several hours and put some things on tape when he started doing his characters, Kermit just came alive. It was as though there was a chemistry between the characters that survived either of the two men. You just need Fozzie for there to be a Kermit, and you just need Piggy for there to be a Kermit. Piggy is a certain way when she’s around Kermit, and Kermit is a certain way when he’s around Piggy. So that just gelled. We did some really goofy stuff ad-libbing, and Frank said, "It looks perfect. Just continue to keep working on the voice." Which I did. I felt great after that day. I felt so much more confident with Frank basically giving me his blessing saying, "You’re doing all right. It’s not bad."

kermitpiggy.gif (46869 bytes)

The chemistry and depth of Muppet characters like Kermit and Piggy is what separates them from many other character icons.

The other thing that really nailed the performance for me… Probably the most important single thing. They sent me all these tapes of Kermit over the years, from the beginning up to the present day. I had seen all that stuff, and I already knew it. It really didn’t help a great deal. What helped the most in getting the voice and the character was a piece of videotape that I had shot of Jim when he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame back about 1987 or ’88. We all went out to California, and since he was being inducted, the Muppets were doing a tribute to Jim, which Jim said was very weird because he was doing Kermit who was doing a tribute to him. We’re all behind this puppet wall, and when we rehearsed in the afternoon I had my video camera there. I was doing a puppet with one hand and running the video camera with my other hand. Most of it was on Jim while he was doing Kermit. He was standing next to me. It wasn’t on Kermit, it was on Jim… It was all this stuff of Jim’s face while he was performing Kermit. What I had there was a long sequence of all the facial expressions that Jim made while he did Kermit with all these different attitudes. The company really didn’t have a great deal of that behind-the-scenes stuff of Jim performing in that way, so that tape is what gave it to me the most. It was the real key to getting anywhere near the voice and character, because Jim had a certain face that he made when he did Kermit. When I do that face I can sort of "become" Jim as he became Kermit… Channel that energy.

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