Today is the 70th birthday of the man responsible for the voices of my favorite Muppets characters: Richard Hunt. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Richard Hunt
DATE OF BIRTH: August 17, 1951
PLACE OF BIRTH: The Bronx, New York City, NY
DATE OF DEATH: January 7, 1992
PLACE OF DEATH: Manhattan, New York City, NY
REMAINS: Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York City, NY
BEST KNOWN FOR: Richard Hunt was an American puppeteer, best known as a Muppet performer. Hunt’s Muppet roles included Scooter, Statler, Janice, Beaker, and Sweetums.
Hunt was born in New York City, the second of five children and the first of two sons. The family eventually moved to Closter, New Jersey some years later.
Because everyone in his family had worked in show business at some point, Hunt always felt he’d end up in entertainment, too. While in middle school and high school, he put on puppet shows for local children, and he was a fan of the then-fledgling Muppets from a young age. “I’d drop anything to watch them,” he said, “I thought they were weird.”
After high school graduation and a four-month stint of doing weather reports at a local radio station, Hunt had his first inkling that he might join the Muppets. Hunt’s mother, Jane, recalled Hunt’s first meeting with Jim Henson:
Richard had been watching Sesame Street, and he realized there might be an opportunity there. So he went to a phone booth, called Henson Associates, and asked them, cold, if they were hiring puppeteers. Amazingly, Jim was auditioning people that very day. So Richard went right over to 67th Street. He was ushered into a room, and there were Frank and Jim and Jerry and a box full of puppets. “They threw a puppet at me and said sit down,” Richard later reported to me. “It was incredible. We just all talked together! We knew right away we had the same sense of humor… And I think they liked me!”
His first project was The Great Santa Claus Switch in 1970, along with Fran Brill. A few weeks later, he was invited to be in a workshop production. The newcomer was so good, Henson asked him to work a Muppet appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Again he scored high marks, and in June 1972, Richard Hunt was hired full-time on Sesame Street.
Hunt mostly performed background characters in early specials. One of his first major performances was as Taminella Grinderfall in The Frog Prince, puppeteering the character while Jerry Juhl performed the voice. He also performed Mildred and Big Mouse in The Muppets Valentine Show, and many minor characters in The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. He also performed Wisss on Saturday Night Live, and Charlie Beaver in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.
During his first few seasons on Sesame Street, Hunt was basically a background puppeteer, assisting other performers with characters (manipulating the right hands of certain characters, and performing the back half of Mr. Snuffleupagus) or performing characters to pre-recorded tracks. Hunt gradually became one of the main Muppeteers, performing such characters as Sully, Gladys the Cow, Don Music, and Forgetful Jones. He also appeared in the flesh on Episode 1576 as Cedric the birdwatcher, alongside Madeline Kahn.
Although a main performer on the show, none of Richard Hunt’s Sesame Street characters became major characters in the same way as Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Elmo (who Hunt actually performed as a minor character, 1984-1985). Even after being a main puppeteer, Hunt would often perform in Sesame Street productions (such as Christmas Eve on Sesame Street and Don’t Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) where he didn’t perform character voices.
Richard Hunt served as a mentor to newer puppeteers. When a new puppeteer joined the Sesame set, Hunt was the first to haze and initiate them into the group. Despite this, he always took new puppeteers to lunch, as well as anyone on the set who wanted to join him. He was known to often read the newspaper as he was performing a character and doing that character’s lines.
Richard Hunt was one of the main performers on The Muppet Show, and one of five performers to be a regular performer on all five seasons. His main character was Scooter, but he also performed Beaker, Statler, Janice, and Sweetums. During the first season, he shared the role of Miss Piggy with Frank Oz, but by the end of the first season, Piggy became Oz’s main character, and Hunt no longer performed her.
Richard Hunt has also been noted for his fine singing voice. As Scooter, he sang such songs as “Six String Orchestra” and “There’s a New Sound.” He also performed Wayne, who was part of the singing duo Wayne and Wanda, and though the two stopped appearing after the second season, Wayne eventually came back to make solo appearances every now and then, singing such songs as “Catch a Falling Star” and “For Me and My Goyle.” Despite Hunt’s singing voice and the fact that Janice was a musician, Janice seldom sang lead vocals in songs. She did have two major lead-singing performances, singing “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Rockin’ Robin.”
In the 1981 book Of Muppets and Men, Christopher Finch described Hunt’s endless energy and humor. “He seems to get more unadulterated pleasure from performing than anyone else in the organization,” Finch wrote. “When he is not working on camera, he is apt to have Scooter or Beaker or Janice — anyone — on his arm for the purpose of entertaining visitors to the studio. If there are no visitors around, he will attempt to entertain his co-workers… Like Jerry Nelson, he is a versatile on-camera performer, but his importance to the show derives also from his off-camera personality. He makes the crew laugh, jokes with the guest star, clowns for the shop personnel. He is one of the chief reasons for the loose atmosphere that exists around Studio D despite the pressure and the slow pace that are endemic to television production.”
On Fraggle Rock, Richard Hunt had two major characters, Junior Gorg and Gunge. He also performed many minor and one-shot guest characters, and he originally performed The Storyteller Fraggle (before Terry Angus took over). Richard Hunt was most involved with the show during its first season, since unlike Sprocket or the main five Fraggles, his characters weren’t needed for every (or almost every) episode. After that season, as the background performers began to do more character voices on the show, Hunt performed less frequently on the series, spending his extra time on Sesame Street. According to Terry Angus, “After the first season, Richard didn’t come in as much, because his characters weren’t really called for that often and all of us Canadians were given a chance to do characters every now and then which gave Richard an easier time of it. Plus, he was going down to work on Sesame Street.”
Richard Hunt also assisted in the audition process for background puppeteers on Fraggle Rock. He made his directorial debut with the fifth season episode “The Honk of Honks.” He also made a cameo as himself (“The Boss” director) in Fraggles Look for Jobs, the show’s wrap tape.
Richard Hunt’s characters were often paired with those of Jerry Nelson. On Sesame Street, Hunt’s Sully was the construction worker sidekick to Nelson’s Biff. Nelson’s Floyd Pepper was often paired with Janice in musical numbers. Floyd also shared lead vocals with Scooter in the “Mr. Bassman” number. Hunt performed Sweetums alongside Nelson’s Robin the Frog in the song “Two Lost Souls”. Hunt also performed Junior Gorg, the son of Nelson’s Pa Gorg.
Additionally, the two performers shared the role of the Two-Headed Monster. They also play the children in the Twiddlebug family with Hunt performing the son, Timmy Twiddlebug, and Nelson performing the daughter, Tina Twiddlebug. Another notable team-up included Hunt’s role as Gunge, normally paired with Marjory the Trash Heap (a Nelson character), in addition to Dave Goelz’ Philo character. Both performers had characters named after them in the band Little Jerry and the Monotones, with Hunt performing Rockin’ Richard alongside Nelson’s Little Jerry.
“Richard came into the company when he was pretty young, and I kind-of took Richard under my wing, when he first came in, since Frank and Jim were sort-of a team and I was like a straight man or foil that worked off their characters. So when Richard came in, we got to a point where we would work really well together. When one of us would start to go somewhere, the other would know what was happening.”
During the late 1980s, Richard Hunt was still active in new productions and performing new characters. He performed Tug Monster on the short-lived Little Muppet Monsters series, and The Wild Impresario on the short-lived Ghost of Faffner Hall. In specials, he performed Lugsy in The Tale of the Bunny Picnic and Belmont in The Christmas Toy.
Hunt has also occasionally appeared on-screen in movies and television productions. He made an on-screen cameo as a taxi driver in The Great Muppet Caper, he played the role of Wilson in Trading Places (which also featured fellow Muppeteer Frank Oz), and he played the role of Larry in Oxford Blues. He also played the role of Del in Jim Henson’s failed pilot Puppetman. He also spent an hour entertaining the audience during the taping of The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show. In addition to directing the aforementioned Fraggle Rock episode, Richard Hunt also directed the 1988 direct-to-video production Sing-Along, Dance-Along, Do-Along and received directing credits in Elmo’s Sing-Along Guessing Game and The Best of Elmo.
Hunt died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. Among his last productions were The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, Muppet Vision 3D, and Muppet Sing Alongs: Billy Bunny’s Animal Songs (the last of which was released in 1993, one year after his death). Following his death, Scooter was retired and absent as a character in all productions until Muppets from Space. For years, few of Hunt’s other characters (with the notable exceptions of Beaker, Statler, and Sweetums) were recast with new performers. Many of his other characters (like Forgetful Jones and Placido Flamingo) were relegated to silent background roles, though several (such as Gladys the Cow) have been gradually recast since then. Most of Hunt’s main Muppet Show characters have been inherited by Steve Whitmire and David Rudman in recent productions, including 2011’s The Muppets.
Many panels were created in his honor for the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt, including one created by his friends in The Muppet Workshop.
Jon Stone, former director of Sesame Street, said this at the time of Hunt’s death:
It’s impossible to imagine a world without Richard. He came to us a wide-eyed eighteen year old and grew into a master puppeteer and inspired teacher. No one ever had a more manic love of the outrageous and absurd; no one could ever make me laugh the way Richard could. A generation has grown up absorbing Richard’s art, and I have to believe that every one of them is a smarter, funnier, stronger, sillier, more generous person because of him.
The Richard Hunt Spirit Award is annually presented at the Sesame Street wrap party to the cast member who best honors the generosity in spirit and dedicated work of Richard Hunt in their actions on set. The 2010 winner was Leslie Carrara-Rudolph.
The Muppet Show Characters: African Mask (Mountain), Mutt, Beaker (1977-1991), Behemoth (episode 119), Billy the Bear (episode 401 and episode 503), Bobby Benson, Blue Frackle (episode 103, episode 115, episode 202, episode 218, episode 307), Bubba, Catgut, Clive Cahuenga, Contender 980116, Cow (episode 121), Doctor Pig, Droop (episode 220), George, Geri and the Atrics (False Teeth), Ghost, Gingerbread Man, Gladys, The Gogolala Jubilee Jugband (Purple Whatnot), Gorgon Heap (episode 116), Hat, Janice (1977-1991), Lenny the Lizard (episode 208), Lubbock Lou (occasionally), Luncheon Counter Monster (episode 223), Lyle the Dog (episode 523), Male Ghost, The March Hare, Mean Mama (episodes 201, 211, and 515), Mildred Huxtetter (episode 109), Miss Kitty (episode 119), Miss Piggy (1976-1977, occasionally), Ohboy Bird, Paul Revere (legs only), Penguin (episode 320), Quongo (episode 509), Ronald Duck (episode 220), Salzburg Sauerkraut Singer, Scooter (1976-1991), The Showman, Statler (1976-1991), Sweetums (1975-1991), Tiny, Wayne, Winny, Youknow Bird (episode 218), Zelda Rose (episode 308)
Sesame Street Characters: Aristotle, Baby Bobby, The Beetles’ Lead Singer, Billy the Grownup, Brad, Bruno, Captain Vegetable (1983-1984), Cheerful, Counting Service Man, Dip, Don Music, Elmo (1984-1985), Farmer Fowler, Fenwick la Touche, Ferlinghetti Donizetti (1980-1984), Flying Fish, Forgetful Jones, Forgettinest Jones, Furline Huskie, Gilbert, Gladys the Cow, Grandpa Count, Grandpa Grouch, Green Alphabeat, Grenadier Guardsman, Harry, Harvey Monster (occasionally), John, Kermit the Forg (“We Are All Monsters”), King Gerry’s Doctor, Lavender Frazzletone, Lead singer from “Movin’ On”, Leaky, Leo the Party Monster, a lettuce from “Grow High Grow Low”, Large Lavender Live Hand Librarian, Larry Rhymie, Little Red Riding Hood (1970s), Madame Schwartzhead, Maurice Monster (occasionally), McDougal Monster, Mr. Moses, Mr. Snuffleupagus (back half, occasionally), Old MacDonald (1980s), a pear from “Bilingual Fruit Song”, Placido Flamingo, Potter Piper, “Readers of the Open Range” Pumpkin cowboy, Rockin’ Richard, Rodeo Rosie (occasionally), Sonny Friendly (1986-1992), Spaceship Surprise Mate, Stan, Stuie Monster, Sully, Timmy Twiddlebug, Tommy, Tough Eddie (1980s), Two-Headed Monster, Umeko’s Friends, Victor, Willy Nilly, Witch, the Martians, The Young Woman Who Lives in a Hat
Fraggle Rock: Gunge, Junior Gorg, Beige Fraggle, Firechief Fraggle, Flex Doozer, Gillis Fraggle, Herkimer Fraggle, Mean Genie, Mudwell the Mudbunny, The Odd Old Man, Storyteller Fraggle (episode 108 only), Turbo Doozer, Venerable Sage Lambo, Wizard
The Great Santa Claus Switch: Bing
The Ed Sullivan Show: Harrison
The Frog Prince: Taminella Grinderfall (puppetry only)
The Muppets Valentine Show: Giant Mouse
Saturday Night Live: Wisss
One to One: The Queen of Phumph
The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence: Crazy Harry, Hoggie Marsh, Lust, Ohboy Bird
Peter Alexander präsentiert Spezialitäten #10: Bert
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas: Charlie Beaver, George Rabbit, Fred Lizard
Little Muppet Monsters: Tug Monster, Beaker, “Muppet Sports Shorts” Narrator
Follow That Bird: Gladys the Cow, Grouch Diner Patrons, Various
Country Music with the Muppets: Mutt, Sheep
The Tale of the Bunny Picnic: Lugsy
The Christmas Toy: Belmont
Puppetman: Del (on-camera role), Gertha, Earl
Inner Tube: Crasher
A Muppet Family Christmas: The Snowman
The Ghost of Faffner Hall: The Wild Impresario
The Cosby Show: Disagreeable Sandwich
Muppet Sing Alongs: Billy Bunny’s Animal Songs: Edgar Bear, Raccoon 1