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The call that ended his 27-year career as Kermit the Frog came like a sucker punch to the gut, puppeteer Steve Whitmire said.
“It’s an understatement to say I was surprised,” Whitmire told NBC News on Thursday of the firing. “I was devastated and shocked and totally without the ability to rationalize it.”
Executives at the Walt Disney Company and The Muppets Studio told Whitmire he was being fired for “repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of years,” and accused him of being disrespectful.
Emailing feedback, refusing to train an understudy and being overall “difficult to work with,” were listed among the reasons Disney decided to let Whitmire go, he said.
But the 58-year-old denies that he ever acted out of order, saying he was trying to live up to the spirit and vision Muppet creator Jim Henson instilled in him decades ago.
“My goal was always to try to serve what was best for the Muppets. It always has been. That’s sort of the filter I put everything through. So that’s where I was headed, and I gave notes, but nobody was yelling and screaming,” Whitmire said.
Whitmire said every time he sent feedback, it was an attempt to collaborate with the creative team and protect the integrity of the characters.
After his firing, Whitmire went back over old emails he sent, trying to understand how they could have been interpreted as unacceptable. He said he wishes executives would have told him they were unhappy with his behavior prior to his termination.
"I don’t know why they didn’t give me an ultimatum, and say, ‘Look, this is a problem, we feel that this is a problem, and if you keep doing this we’re going to get rid of you,’" he said.
Although he was fired in October, Whitmire stirred up the public’s attention last week after posting to his blog that he was struggling to come to terms with the idea he would no longer play the green felt frog.
Cheryl Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter, posted on Facebook saying that Whitmire's story was “ridiculously self serving [sic]” and that Whitmire had turned her father’s iconic character into a “bitter, angry, depressed victim.”
However, Whitmire claims that he was the one suggesting that the writers and executives were portraying Kermit as a depressed character, and said he had attempted to get the beloved character back on track.
"I was pushing against it with all my might — trying to be collaborative and nice about it, but saying, 'Guys, you really need to pay attention to this. This is going to damage the character. We’re going to damage the character beyond repair,'" Whitmire said.
Still, Cheryl Henson said the company’s challenges with Whitmire were longstanding.
“Steve is very difficult to work with and it’s been many years of being difficult, particularly for the producers,” Cheryl Henson told TODAY on Thursday. “He’s not Kermit. He’s a performer, who was hired to do Kermit. There’s a difference.”
Another complaint leveled against Whitmire was that he refused to train understudies, which he said is true, adding that the spirit of each character is intrinsically tied to the person who performs them.
"I did speak out against having understudies, the reason being that these characters are individuals and they always were,” he said. “Jim never had understudies within his organization."
In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for The Muppets Studio said the decision to let Whitmire go was not an easy one.
"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," the spokesperson said in an email. "We raised concerns about Steve's repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years and he consistently failed to address the feedback. The decision to part ways was a difficult one which was made in consultation with the Henson family and has their full support.”
Whitmire, who has been with the Muppets since 1978, is the only person to voice and perform Kermit since Henson’s death in May 1990. In the time he has spent as Kermit, he has met with the Queen and presidents, but said melting the hearts of fans was his greatest joy as a puppeteer.
"The reaction of people of every age ... it’s just overwhelming," Whitmire said. "I had to get past the point where I would tear up sometimes, you know, in order to just get through it. But even big burly grown crew people [would] start crying when they get their picture taken with Kermit, because it means so much."
To Whitmire, who said the Henson family was not involved with his firing, his knowledge and longevity with the character is nontransferable. He said if Disney asked for him to come back and take on the character, he would do so without animosity, saying the company should have a chance to do right by the Muppets and their fans.
"Jim Henson’s creative spirit doesn’t reside in a puppet," Whitmire said. "It’s in my heart and my mind and the things that I know. So, unfortunately for the fans and for Disney, I’m kind of taking him with me."