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Hardest-working frog tells all

Kermit the Frog is 50, and celebrating in a big way

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Kermit
Kermit the Frog got his start on a Washington TV program in 1955.

FACT BOX

Celebrating Kermit the Frog

  • Kermit evolved into a frog over the years, gaining his collar in the mid-1960s and his flippers in 1968.

  • Kermit's name was inspired by Kermit Scott, a childhood friend of Jim Henson's.

  • Kermit made his first TV appearance on the Washington show "Sam and Friends" in 1955. A year later, he was a guest on Steve Allen's "Tonight" show.

  • Henson, Kermit and the Muppets appeared in Life magazine in 1969; 21 years later, after Henson's death, they made the cover.

  • Kermit has been a guest on "Nightline" and a guest host of CNN's "Larry King Live." He's also written an opinion column for The New York Times.

  • Kermit has starred in six feature films, as well as an episode of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and the Weezer video "Keep Fishin'."

    Source: "Kermit's 50th Anniversary" press kit
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    Jim Henson

    (CNN) -- Kermit the Frog is in a good mood. It's raining in Los Angeles -- perfect frog weather -- and the only way life could be better is if he were outside.

    But alas, he's inside -- inside a car and doing a series of phone interviews to talk about his 50th birthday.

    He'd like to soak up the raindrops, but Kermit is nothing but considerate. "I'm with these people," he explains, "and some are Californians. They don't like getting wet."

    Nevertheless, he's feeling chatty and willing to talk about his fellow Muppets -- even willing to get a little gossipy.

    Are Statler and Waldorf, "The Muppet Show" hecklers who harangued the cast from the safety of a box high above the stage, really that mean? "I think they're pretty much like that in real life," Kermit says. "In fact, they may still be in that box."

    Was he ever worried that Miss Piggy would take over the show? "There was no controlling that [spotlight-hogging] in Miss Piggy, but I was running the show," he hastens to point out. "The spotlight was never an issue. We kept her on a short leash."

    And what of the craziness of some of the cast members, such as Animal, Fozzy Bear and Gonzo?

    "Well, it was pretty wild and crazy," Kermit agrees. "It was like running a large farm. Which was interesting considering that most of the cast members were farm animals."

    'I felt flattered'

    Kermit, of course, used to be the alter ego of Muppets founder Jim Henson, who created the felt frog from the fabric of his mother's coat when he was a teenager. After Henson died suddenly in 1990, Kermit was taken over by Steve Whitmire, who acknowledges he had big feet -- and hands -- to fill.

    "Henson had never spoken to me about Kermit, but he had spoken to Frank Oz about the idea of me doing the character if he became too busy," Whitmire, who sounds uncannily like Kermit, recalls. "I felt flattered."

    Henson had been a mentor to Whitmire, who also started working as puppeteer as a teenager -- he performed a daily 2 1/2-hour show on an Atlanta TV station while still in high school -- and joined the Muppet crew at 18. (His main character on "The Muppet Show" was Rizzo the Rat.)

    Since Henson's death, Whitmire has tried to keep Kermit the same unflappable frog he's always been ("We have a strong foundation," he says) while gradually adding aspects of his own experience.

    "I use the term 'evolved.' He's evolved as a character," Whitmire says. "I've been able to build on [the foundation] while keeping aspects of Jim ... I keep that in mind all the time."

    True to himself

    Kermit's going to be a busy frog in his golden year. The first season of "The Muppet Show" is just out on DVD, and The Walt Disney Company -- which owns the Muppets -- is sending the amphibian on a world tour.

    He'll be visiting the west Texas town of Kermit on October 14 and then off to destinations including New York City, Paris, the Great Wall of China and -- probably grudgingly -- a Frog Leg Festival in Fellsmere, Florida. (Movie fans will recall the trouble Kermit had with a frog leg entrepreneur in "The Muppet Movie.")

    Despite his fame, Kermit himself sounds like he hasn't gotten a big head. Turning 50 is nice, but so was 49, he muses, and he's happy to riding in the backseat of the car and "not the trunk," he says.

    So, has it gotten any easier being green?

    It has if you keep the proper perspective on life, says Kermit.

    "That song ['It's Not Easy Being Green'] is mostly about being happy with who you are," he says. "There have been lots of changes, but you just continue being true to yourself."

    What's his secret? Like the frog he is, he says he stays close to his roots.

    "It's easy to stay grounded when you're 18 inches high," he says.

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