It was almost a full year before The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson special, where you actually had to premiere yourself as Kermit
WHITMIRE: Right, the first time I performed him.
How difficult was it to put together that special?
WHITMIRE: My part of it was very tough, knowing that I had to perform Kermit at the end of it. The rest of it was easy, but it did bring the emotions back up again. In between that time, I think, we went to England and did a second memorial service, which was murder. We all went over there with the idea that, "Well, weve done this once. Weve got it all out of our systems. It wont be hard, well just go sing the songs." It was for the whole British side of the company who couldnt make it to New York. So they had a big service at St. Pauls Cathedral, and we basically did the same show again. It was tough. Dave and I were saying, "Its like were a traveling show now," and as soon as we got onstage, we all fell apart again. It was like it all hit us again The emotion of it just grounded us. It was worse than the first time.
When we did the special, I always had this fantasy that the first time I would perform Kermit it would be a nice, dark little moment in the studio and it would just be 5 or 6 of the main guys It would be real gentle and 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 Ive ever worked with in New York City, which was probably 25-30 people. All the Henson family came in to work puppets Jane and the kids. So Ive got everybody
Like a jury of your peers
WHITMIRE: Exactly, and theyre all on the bleachers. They did their shot, and then they turn around for the close-up on Kermit coming through the door and he says his line, and Ive got a whole audience. A lot of people from the office came over as well. Everyone wanted to see what Kermit would be like, and it was *so* hard. It was incredibly hard. I rehearsed it a few times Just the moves I didnt do the line. He comes through the door, and there are about 6 or 9 monitors behind Kermits head all with pictures of Jim. So Im looking down at my monitor seeing Kermit and Jim, and over here Ive got 30,000 puppeteers staring at me, and I did it. Everyone was supportive about it, but it was actually pretty terrible. I dont think it sounded even remotely like Kermit. I was so nervous. Its the closest Ive come to bungee jumping.
We did a few things here and there, but Christmas Carol is what I consider to be the first "real" performance of Kermit. I went to London for the start of Christmas Carol, and they had already started working on the music a couple days before I got there. We pre-recorded all the songs before we did the movie, so the first thing I was going to have to do was go in to record Kermits voice, which I was super-nervous about, because I didnt 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, and it got other people into it to. If I just walked in and did Kermits voice, they didnt buy it necessarily. They were still hearing Jim. If I had the puppet on, it was more believable. I thought, "Oh, Ive got to go in and just do the voice and Im going to get all this criticism "
And you had Paul Williams there
WHITMIRE: Paul Williams was there, and this is jumping ahead a bit, but Paul would stand in the recording booth and close his eyes while I was singing, to decided whether it sounded like Kermit or not. Hes not a harsh guy, at all. Hes one of the most easy-going, nicest people weve worked with, but he was really sensing it, and if I didnt do it just right, we did it again.
I got to London early in the morning after an overnight flight, and they gave me a day to relax before I had to go in the next day and record, so I was just trying to catch up on sleep. I went to the hotel and checked in, got up to the room, and closed all the blinds to get it as dark as I could to try and go to sleep. I was just so nervous, knowing I had to go and record the next day. I laid down, and I was drifting off to sleep, I was thinking, "Gosh, Im so nervous." This is the kind of thing that, if this were a new character that Jim had assigned to me to do ¾ and I was feeling this nervous about it ¾ I would go to him and say, "Jim, Im really nervous about this. I kind of need some direction on it... Some help." So I was thinking those kinds of thoughts and I drifted off to sleep.
I had this dream that I was in the lobby of a hotel, and outside the windows, everything was white. There was nothing outside these glass windows, and it was kind of a dark, dim lit hotel lobby. I walk into this lobby and look over, and there are lots of people around, you know, hustle and bustle. And Jims at the desk. I go over to the desk and I say, "Oh, God, it is great to see you " and he said, "Yeah, thanks " and he was kind of distracted. I said, "Listen, I have to tell you, Im really nervous about doing Kermit tomorrow. Ive got to do this voice for the first time, really, and Im real nervous."
He stopped, and there was a thoughtful gesture Jim would do where he would take both of his index fingers and put them under his chin, and he did that and thought and he said, "It will pass." Which is exactly what Jim would have said. You would have to really know Jim to know this, but thats exactly what he would have said. Then he turned and he said, "Ive really got to run " and he took off out the door. I woke up and I felt great. I remembered this dream and I went in the next day, I did the work, and it was smooth, it worked fine, and I felt great. Just that little bit of encouragement. I really think he showed up for me.
How else could you explain a dream like that?
WHITMIRE: Yeah, thats exactly right.
Christmas Carol was almost a reaffirmation film that the characters would go on
WHITMIRE: It was a real challenge for me, because not only was it Kermit, it was Kermit playing another character, so he couldnt just be Kermit. It couldnt just be a copy of Jim. The most important aspect of doing Kermit was that we wanted him to continue on, and while he needed to be the same character, he needed to not just be a parroted copy of what Jim did. Otherwise hed just become a corporate icon. That was a real challenge. I really loved doing that film. Everything about it was fun. Michael Caine was great. It was like a big psychological release. Wed do a Kermit scene, which I was a little nervous about, and then wed do some really goofy thing with Gonzo and Rizzo, which was great fun. I loved it.
Christmas Carol was also the first film where you saw the focus shift to Gonzo and Rizzo as main characters, which was reinforced by Treasure Island.
I found it interesting that the first two films with you performing Kermit, you were performing Kermit as other characters, while Muppets From Space is the first film where you get to play Kermit as Kermit.
WHITMIRE: Thats right.
Also, I have to say, your Kermit voice in Muppets From Space is nearly dead-on
WHITMIRE: Well its getting there now. Over the last couple of years, my voice has deepened a little. Also, I dont know whether its the dust on the set or its been particularly dry, but Ive been a little hoarse. I think, to sound more like Jim, that I need to be a little hoarse.
You still sound nearly dead-on
WHITMIRE: You know, I wonder about that. I think it is awfully close, but I also wonder if its just now that its been enough time that the ear of the audience has adapted to it. Im not sure Kermit would survive another change like that. It was tough. I got a lot of constructive criticism from the audience, and a lot of not-so-constructive criticism People writing in and stuff. I remember when I was a kid I used to watch The Flintstones, and they changed Fred Flintstones voice. I was devastated. I quit watching the show As a kid I didnt like it. It wasnt the same voice anymore and I knew it.
When did you hear about Richards illness?
WHITMIRE: I sensed that something was going on with Richard toward the end of Fraggle Rock, although I dont even know if it was at that point, but there was talk about AIDS, amongst people. It was around, and Richard would mention something about it, and it was just part of the conversation, and I would wonder, "Why are we talking about this?" Something just clicked for me that Richard might be sick. I think I probably heard it officially during the filming of the Disney World special. I think thats when he told us all.
So Jim knew that Richard was ill.
WHITMIRE: I think he did. One of Jims other requests was that Richard would do the service. Had it been a small service, he wanted Richard to preside over it. Not because he was sick I dont know why I connected the two
I can imagine Richard as the ultimate emcee.
WHITMIRE: He always was. Every Muppet party, every Muppet function He did weddings He married a couple of people in the company Reverend Richard. He was terrific. Hed walk into a room, scan it, and hed know everything that was going on at a party. He was always the ultimate host, even though it wasnt his party.
What was his "Going Away" party like?
WHITMIRE: When I look back on it, it was about Richard having the last word, really, I think. "This is what I want you to remember. Not what youre going to say when Im gone."
And he wanted to be a part of it
WHITMIRE: Yeah, when he passed away, his family did a huge production. Theyre all singers and entertainers in some way, even if not professionally. I think Richard would have appreciated that, and at the same time, I think he wanted to do his own thing too. But everybody was there, and we all sat around in this little Fellowship Hall off to the side of the cathedral where Jims service was held. He got up and talked about his life He kind of acted out his life. It was like he was doing a one-man show of his life, and he had all of his characters there and would put them on and have them do little things that related in some way. It was really his way of saying goodbye to everybody. He lived a while after that, quite a few months, but that was the big goodbye.
Around that same time, you worked on Dinosaurs, right?
WHITMIRE: I puppeteered the face and performed the dialogue for Robbie, the son, and then the voice was dubbed by someone else. All of the voices were done by other people. I also did B.P. Richfield, the boss. I loved doing that character so much. I wouldve loved for them to have used my voice. I think the voice they used, Sherman Helmsley, was terrific, but I would have loved to have done it. I enjoyed it so much. He was almost impossible to do He was extremely heavy Extremely huge. I was inside of it. It was actually a hand puppet. Somebody did both hands and I did the head. He was supported from above, but I was still supporting a good bit of the weight, and it was just murder. It killed me, but I loved it. I would scream so loud doing that voice pushing that voice that I would get cramps in my back.
Dinosaurs had a nice run to it.
WHITMIRE: I think so. It was a real tough show to do, really hard work and ridiculous hours. Wed work until 2 and 3 and 4 in the morning sometimes, and then we had turnaround, so then wed start work in the afternoon the next day and work later and later as the week progressed. What I enjoyed most about it were the people The cast and the crew. It was a great group of very dedicated people.
Around that time, The Animal Show started as well.
WHITMIRE: It was around that time. We shot all of the original episodes in England, in Wembley. The shooting went fairly well, and we got into a routine with it. We shot with reasonable hours. Peter Harris, who did half of The Muppet Shows, was directing. A lot of the people we worked with during The Muppet Show days came back to work on that. It was amazing to see all these people again, like Johnny Rook, who lit The Muppet Show. The first season felt a lot like we were just talking heads. We were just these two puppets behind a counter trying to get the information out. Then we did a couple more seasons, and it started to feel more comfortable. We did a little more character stuff with Jake and Stinky. Jake was a real tough puppet to do. He was huge and heavy, and I had to support all of the weight. He was a beautiful puppet, but his face was built in such a way that his eyes looked slightly up, so in order to make him look at the camera, I had to angle the head down a bit. He was always looking down at Daves character, who was a skunk, so Im working with my right hand bent down as far as it will go toward the ground, all the time, with all of that weight. It was like constantly having that pressure on your wrist, and having him talk. Still, it was great fun, and I loved the characters.
You had already taken up Kermit, but how difficult was it for you to take up Beaker?
WHITMIRE: I think it was Daves idea that I do Beaker. They asked Dave, "Who do you think should do Beaker?" and he suggested me because we like to work together, and we work well together. Beaker was difficult because I had no clue where it came from in Richard. I didnt know at all how Richard did this. It was really just a matter of being silly with Dave. The truth is, I still dont know where it came from. I just dont know what part of Richard it came from What facet of his personality. I dont relate to the character the way Richard did, so really, with Beaker, Im doing an awful lot of just copying Richard. I wouldnt say that I really have a good handle on that character, but its fun. Its a fun character.
Whats the transition for you been like doing Sesame Street now?
WHITMIRE: Its been a lot of fun, because I always wanted to do Sesame Street. Back in the early days, the first thing I thought I was going to work on was Sesame Street, and then I never did. I had visited the show a couple of times, but I had never worked on it at all for all those years. Jim sort of kept Dave and I slightly separate from Sesame Street just so we didnt have characters there that tied us into the show so much so that we didnt have time to do other things. He recognized that that was becoming an issue. He didnt want to take all the puppeteers away from the show, but yet he needed these people, so we were not ever a part of the show. It was cleaner that way.
That was the show that got me interested in puppetry to begin with, so I really wanted to work there. I loved the show all my life. It was great to finally do it, and doing Kermit there was great fun. We did a few things with Kermit, but more so with Ernie. That came about because 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.
When Jim passed away, Frank was quoted as saying that he would never play Bert alongside anyone elses Ernie. Was that an issue at all when you took over, or was Frank comfortable with it by then?
Frank seemed okay with it all. Im sure he had some reservations. Ernie was harder for me, because Id never been around Jim while he was doing Ernie. I didnt know where Ernie came from, in terms of the character.
Similar to Beaker
WHITMIRE: That was very similar to Beaker. I didnt really know how Ernie evolved as a character. That made it pretty difficult, and it still makes it more difficult. As far as working with Frank, I think we did a similar thing as before and just got together and played a little bit, but not to the extent that we had done with Kermit, Fozzie and Piggy.
Although we talked about it briefly, how did Muppets Tonight come about?
WHITMIRE: There had been talk for some time about bringing the Muppets back in a show like that. Sort of based on The Muppet Show, but not to do The Muppet Show again.
It had just hit its stride when it was canceled
WHITMIRE: The idea of putting on a show was based on The Muppet Show, but now they were doing it on television. It just didnt seem to work for Muppets Tonight, but all of a sudden we were doing the show with Johnny Fiama at home, where it was outside of the studio, and it seemed to work really well.
You performed the control panel weasel, didnt you?
WHITMIRE: I didnt always do him, but he was kind of my character. His name was Eugene. I loved that puppet probably more than anything else I did on that show.
What do you think the strong points of Muppets From Space are?
WHITMIRE: I love the fact that its an original story. Its been very nostalgic for us. Weve all been talking a lot about The Muppet Movie days. It was 20 years ago.
You even have the same Electric Mayhem bus
WHITMIRE: The same bus, a lot of the same characters, and a lot of the same feeling too, somehow. I dont know exactly why Maybe its because theyre all in the same house together. I love Treasure Island and I love Christmas Carol, but I think it was really time for us to do something original again. Even though the script has gone through many writers, it started with Jerry Juhl, which is great. I love Jerrys stuff. You know, hes the guy. Hes the "Muppet writer," and he always will be. I love seeing the characters living in this house. I think its really neat seeing their everyday existence. Its that real family feeling of the Muppets again, which I felt very strongly in The Muppet Movie as they joined together and they traveled Becoming a family. This feels like that again.