It's the end of an era for The Muppets, as puppeteer and voice actor Steve Whitmire has stepped down as the performer behind pop culture icon Kermit the Frog.
The Muppets have been a mainstay in American pop culture since they were created by mastermind Jim Henson around the 1950s. Kermit is by far the most widespread recognizable and popular of the Muppets, the straight-man frog acting as the host of the chaotic The Muppet Show along with several appearances in Muppet movies and Sesame Street segments. Henson played the character until his death in 1990, when he was replaced by Whitmire, who has been playing Kermit ever since.
It appears it's time for Kermit to move onto a third performer, as according to Muppet fan site TouchPigs, Whitmire has stepped down from the role after 28 years - with longtime puppeteer Matt Vogel taking over the role. Whitmire's various characters that he plays, which include Kermit, Rizzo the Rat, and Beaker, have been oddly absent from recent online Muppet videos, leading fans to speculate about his departure. The site reports that the Muppet Studios at Disney have confirmed the passing of the torch onto Vogel, who himself has been with the team since 1996.
Whitmire has been with the Muppets since 1978, and there seems to be little context for his departure at this time. Vogel will take over the role in a "Muppets Thoughts of the Week" video that will be released on YouTube next week. Vogel is best known as the understudy to Big Bird actor Carol Spinney on Sesame Street, but has played a wide variety of characters throughout his career. He has a slight bit of history playing a version of Kermit, having portrayed his European evil doppelgänger Constantine in 2014's feature film sequel Muppets Most Wanted. That character looks and moves like Kermit, but acts maniacally evil and manipulative. It remains to see if a large difference between Whitmire and Vogel will be noticeable in future videos, or if Vogel will be able to capture the warmth and essence of the classic character.
After a bit of a dormant lull in their history, The Muppets have been revived and reenergized for a new generation over the past decade or so. Actor Jason Segel co-wrote and starred in the 2011 musical The Muppets, which focused on bringing The Muppets back to fame. The film was a critical and financial success, even winning an Oscar for Best Original Song. Projects since then have been met with less enthusiasm, like the widely-liked but forgotten Muppets Most Wanted and the quickly forgotten and canceled one season ABC sitcom The Muppets. The characters will always be an influential part of pop culture and will never truly disappear, but it's sad to see the practically performed and always charming Muppets struggle to stay relevant in a CG-animation heavy world.