For 27 years, Steve Whitmire’s livelihood was being Kermit the Frog. Now, at age 58, the puppeteer is out of a job.
Whitmire has performed as a Muppet, a puppet created by Jim Henson, since he was 19. Last October, he was fired without warning by Disney, which owns the Muppet franchise, Whitmire wrote in a blog post last week. Since then he’s expressed deep distress over his dismissal, while Disney has stuck to claims that Whitmire showed “unacceptable business conduct.”
The post-facto dispute will feel familiar to anybody who’s ever walked into the office and found a longtime coworker suddenly dismissed. Both sides disagree over what actually happened in Whitmire’s firing: The actor reportedly believes he was let go for sending detailed notes to executives on creative choices, while Disney says their longtime Kermit was difficult and unprofessional.
According to the performer, he was “betrayed” by Disney for two things: An incident in which he disagreed with a Kermit plot line for a television revival of the series, and another in which he pulled out of a video promo after a union disagreement.
“I’ve been laying awake at night for nine months trying to empathize with a position of ending somebody’s career over issues that seem to me to be so easily solved,” Whitmire told the New York Times in an interview.
“The role of Kermit the Frog is an iconic one that is beloved by fans and we take our responsibility to protect the integrity of that character very seriously,” a spokesperson for The Muppets Studio writes in a statement. “We raised concerns about Steve’s repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years and he consistently failed to address the feedback.”
Executives from the Jim Henson Company (who are also Henson’s children) painted Whitmire as consistently difficult to the Times, saying he was antagonistic and an aggressive contract negotiator. “He’d send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director,” Brian Henson, chair of the company, told the paper. (We’ve reached out to Whitmire and will update the post with any comment.)
This post has been updated with comment from The Muppets Studio.