With his new film, ''Muppets Most Wanted,'' hitting theaters, the world's most lovable amphibian reflects on ''Sesame Street,'' creator Jim Henson, road trips with Fozzie, and what he really thinks of Miss Piggy
The rags-to-riches story of Kermit the Frog has the distinction of beginning, quite literally, with rags. Almost 60 years ago, Kermit came into the world not as a frog or even, for that matter, as a tadpole. In his earliest incarnation, he was just a simple abstract creature fashioned, by a brilliant young puppeteer named Jim Henson, out of a piece of an old felt coat, with Ping-Pong balls for eyes. But when Henson slid his arm into that puppet and lent it his slightly nasal, singsongy voice — “hi-ho!” — a star was born.
Kermit’s appearance would eventually become, as Henson later put it, “frogified.” But his essential personality was in place from the start: sweet and openhearted, patient — if sometimes a little frazzled — in the face of big egos (Miss Piggy), bad jokes (Fozzie Bear), and irritability (Oscar the Grouch). Kermit’s range encompasses everything from comic mania to melancholy, but his most enduring quality is humility, nowhere better expressed than in his poignant anthem of self-acceptance, “Bein’ Green.” Over the years, his charm has been displayed in countless moments: helping a giggly girl sing the alphabet song on Sesame Street (“A-B-C-D-E-F-Cookie Monster!”); kicking off each episode of The Muppet Show with an arm-flailing “yaaaay!”; and, of course, plucking a banjo and crooning the ballad “The Rainbow Connection” in The Muppet Movie.
Here, Kermit (via his writer pals) opens up about his nearly six decades in the industry and why he’ll never retire.
Sam and Friends
In his first televised appearances on this five-minute sketch-comedy puppet show broadcast locally in Washington, D.C. (clips of which can be found on YouTube), Kermit looked more like a lizard than an amphibian and was just a supporting player.
Kermit “I wasn’t the star of the show and wasn’t even billed as a frog. But it was great preparation for my career. Most important, that’s when I met Jim Henson. I’m not exactly sure what Jim did, but whatever it was really moved me. He had a remarkable spirit that made you believe anything was possible. No matter what happens, he’ll always be the biggest part of what I do and who I am.”
A bold experiment in fusing entertainment with education, Sesame Street became an overnight sensation, catapulting Kermit into the hearts of kids everywhere. Whether playing a TV reporter or the straight man to more outrageous characters, he connected with the show’s young audience on a deep level.
Kermit “Back then, we had no idea the ‘Street’ — as we on the street called the Street — would have such an incredible impact. It was wonderful working with both my fellow Muppets and the humans, but the best part was talking letters and numbers with all the little kids who appeared on the show — and who are now old enough to have kids of their own!”
The Muppet Show
Moving to prime time, the Muppets headlined their own half-hour variety series, with Kermit taking center stage as the host, forever struggling to maintain order while navigating a tumultuous relationship with the show’s breakout new diva, Miss Piggy.
Kermit “Thanks to The Muppet Show, I became an international star. Well, the truth is that Miss Piggy became an international superstar and the rest of us — Gonzo, Fozzie, Animal, and the gang — basked in her glory…and carried her luggage. She was, and is, a force of nature. As for our relationship, it’s pretty simple: She loves me. I love her. And she loves her.”
The Muppet Movie
In their first film, the Muppets recounted their origin story, starting with Kermit’s decision to set off on a road trip to Los Angeles alongside a hapless stand-up comic named Fozzie. A hit at the box office and with critics, the movie earned a Best Original Song Oscar nomination for Kermit’s wistful opening number, “The Rainbow Connection.”
Kermit “The Muppet Movie wasn’t just a chance to show how we came together; it was a chance to spend months driving across the country with Fozzie Bear. You learn a lot about someone during a road trip. For instance, I learned that Fozzie only knew four jokes. But he and I have been best friends ever since. And I still sing that song whenever I’m back at the swamp.”
Life After Henson
In 1990, Henson died of a bacterial infection at age 53, a devastating loss. Still, Kermit (now performed by puppeteer Steve Whitmire) pressed on with roles such as Bob Cratchit in The Muppet Christmas Carol and Captain Smollett in Muppet Treasure Island.
Kermit “After portraying myself in several movies, I wanted to show my range as an actor. Finally, Hollywood realized that I was more than just your typical short, green leading man. Believe me, there are very few parts out there for short, green leading men. Just ask Yoda.”
The Muppets had largely drifted out of the pop culture spotlight when Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller wrote a script for a musical comedy that would reunite them on the big screen. Kermit and the gang were ready to recapture their former glory, with an assist from a super-enthusiastic new character, Walter.
Kermit “Jason and his pal Walter [left] played two of the biggest Muppet fans ever. And they didn’t even have to act! Now Walter is one of the Muppets, and we’re thrilled to have him. Miss Piggy loves it when Walter follows her around and tells her how great she is.”
Muppets Most Wanted
After the success of The Muppets, which earned $165 million worldwide, Disney quickly ordered up a sequel, in which the Muppets get mixed up with a devious criminal mastermind named Constantine, who happens to be a dead ringer for Kermit. As he approaches the six-decade mark in his career, Kermit — who says his dream is “singing and dancing and making people happy” — clearly has no plans to stop anytime soon.
Kermit “It was a strange experience sharing the screen with my doppelgänger — that’s amphibian for ‘look-alike’ — but we had a great time. Lucky for me, Constantine couldn’t pick my pockets. But only because I don’t wear pants…. It’s true that I’ve been entertaining people — and other species — for almost 60 years. (Of course, in frog years, that still puts me in my mid-20s.) I love it. Would I ever retire? As long as we’re making people happy, I’ll keep sharing my dream. Thanks for dreaming along with me.”