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The puppeteer who was fired after a 27-year stint as Kermit the Frog said on TODAY Thursday that he was "shocked" about losing the job and denied allegations from the Henson family that he was difficult to work with and took the character in a "bitter" direction.
Steve Whitmire was told in October 2016 that he was being replaced as Kermit by fellow Muppets performer Matt Vogel. But he did not speak out publicly until a blog post earlier this month expressing his devastation over losing the job.
"I was stunned,'' Whitmire told Savannah Guthrie and Willie Geist on Thursday. "It seemed like it was about five minutes of silence ... and I just immediately tried to get answers.
"I had had no advanced warning on that. Nothing had ever been framed to me as a career-breaking problem."
Following Whitmire's blog post, The Muppets Studio issued a statement saying Whitmire had been replaced due to his "unacceptable business conduct" and that he "consistently failed to address" the studio's feedback.
Cheryl Henson, the daughter of late Muppets creator Jim Henson, wrote in a Facebook post that Whitmire had turned Kermit into "a bitter, angry, depressed victim."
"Steve is very difficult to work with, and it's been many years of being difficult, particularly for the producers,'' Henson told TODAY in an interview. "He's not Kermit — he's a performer who was hired to do Kermit. There's a difference."
Whitmire disagreed with Henson's description of his performance, saying his aim all along was to keep the beloved character consistent.
"In terms of the character stuff of Kermit having become stale or bitter, it isn't true in my mind,'' Whitmire responded on TODAY. "In my mind, my mentoring with Jim tells me that the minute the Muppets are reduced to being roles that are auditioned for and cast, it takes all of the individuality out of them.
"Their longevity is completely based on their consistency, and that is just super important, otherwise it's not Kermit or any of the Muppets at all and that's what I tried to push for and be outspoken about."
Whitmire also said he gave feedback to producers on the character, but insisted he was not difficult to work with.
"I offered notes,'' he said. "I don't think that makes someone difficult. It was totally an idea of trying to do what was best for the Muppets in terms of receiving material and ideas and concepts that were well out of the bounds of the character."
He also denied allegations that he pulled rank and implied that there was no way there could be Kermit without him.
"That's an arrogance, that's just not in my body, that's just not the case,'' he said. "I don't make those decisions, and I certainly never felt that way."
The primary reason he waited so long to speak out after being told he was fired is because he had hoped for a resolution that would allow him to return.
"I still would like to hope that, I don't think it's going to happen now,'' he said.
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