The Muppets have experienced a changing of the guard over the years. As the Muppeteers who gave life to the iconic felt and foam creations have passed away or moved on in show biz, the personalities of every Muppet have been carefully handed down to performers who will care for them well. Here are the faces—both the original and the new guard—behind your favorite Muppets.
The Original Owners
Jim Henson: Kermit, Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, Waldorf, the Swedish Chef
Frank Oz: Animal, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Sam the Eagle
The Current Lineup
1. Leslie Carrara-Rudolph: Abby Cadabby
Even though she had no puppeteering experience, Carrara joined the cast of Muppets Tonight in the mid-90s based on the strength of her voice work. When they were looking for someone to perform a fairy character being developed at Sesame Street several years later, Kevin Clash (Elmo, see below) called and asked her to audition. She calls Abby "Gracie Allen meets Daffy Duck."
2. Eric Jacobson: Bert/Grover/Animal/Fozzie/Miss Piggy/Sam the Eagle
Jacobson has taken over most of Frank Oz's characters since 2001. In 2007, Oz explained why he transitioned all of his characters over to Jacobson:
I had done this for 30 years, and I had never wanted to be a puppeteer in the first place. I wanted to be a journalist, and really what I wanted to do was direct theatre and direct movies. As an actor and a performer, you feel limited because you're not the source for the creation, and I wanted to be the source... I've always enjoyed, more than anything else, bringing things to life, whether it be characters or actors in a scene or moments in movies. I've done so much with puppets, that I've wanted to work with actors.
3. Caroll Spinney: Big Bird/Oscar the Grouch
Caroll Spinney originated the role of Big Bird and he's still going strong. When he's in a scene with both Big Bird and Oscar, he has his assistant play the Grouch, but continues to provide both voices.
4. David Rudman: Cookie Monster/Janice/Scooter
Rudman started working with the Muppets when Richard Hunt helped him get a summer internship with the Muppet Workshop in 1981.
5. Matt Vogel: Count von Count/Robin the Frog/Floyd Pepper/Lew Zealand/Sweetums
Until his death in 2012, Jerry Nelson continued to provide the voice for Count von Count. Since then, Vogel has taken over both puppetry and voice duties. Vogel has also taken the helm of most of the other Nelson Muppets. In 2010, Vogel told the Muppet Mindset that he finds it most difficult to replicate the Robin voice. "The voice is so much like Jerry’s that it makes it nearly impossible to get there. Sometimes the more 'character voice' it is, the easier it is to do," he explained. Vogel also makes occasional appearances as Big Bird.
6. Kevin Clash: Elmo
I'm sure I don't need to tell any of you that Kevin Clash recently resigned from this position due the sex scandal lawsuits. While it's speculated that one of the Elmo understudies will pick up the role, no replacements have been officially announced yet.
7. Steve Whitmire: Ernie/Kermit/Wembley/Sprocket/Rizzo the Rat
An 11-year-old Whitmire wrote a letter to Jim Henson, asking questions about puppetry and performing. Less than 10 years later, Whitmire was a regular performer on The Muppet Show. He took over Kermit when Henson died in 1990.
"I was just overwhelmed by the request," Whitmire has said. "It was a huge honor, and it also just scared the daylights out of me, the thought of trying it."
Coincidentally, he shares a birthday with Henson: September 24.
8. Fran Brill: Prairie Dawn/Zoe
Brill, by the way, may be better known to some as Lily, the beloved sister of Dr. Leo Marvin in What About Bob? Brill also plays Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet from Takalani Sesame.
9. Marty Robinson: Snuffleupagus/Telly Monster/Slimey
Robinson married fellow Sesame Street employee Annie Evans in 2007; they had their wedding and the reception on set. The ceremony included Caroll Spinney heckling them in character as Oscar. Best. Wedding. Ever.
10. Dave Goelz: Dr. Bunsen Honeydew/Gonzo/Waldorf/Boober Fraggle
Along with Spinney, Goelz is one of the only original Muppet performers who is still at his post. He started with Henson Associates as a part-time Muppet builder and suddenly found himself performing just three years later. He has said that he first found Gonzo's "voice" when he made the blue alien tell a chicken that she had nice legs during the second season of The Muppet Show.
11. Bill Barretta: Dr. Teeth/Rowlf/Swedish Chef/Pepe the King Prawn
Barretta took over many of Jim Henson's non-Kermit voices after Brian Henson encouraged him to join the company. The two of them had worked together at Sesame Place. I apologize in advance, because you're going to have this stuck in your head all day now: Barretta also performs "Mahna Mahna."