Saturday, January 7, 2012

Richard Hunt: The Lost Muppeteer

Today's random question of the day: Name a Muppeteer, any Muppeteer, past or present. Don't look past this sentence until you have an answer. If you said Jim Henson, you are likely with the majority, as Henson was the creator of such a famous empire. He was the life behind Kermit the Frog and several other Muppets. If you didn't say Jim Henson, for what ever reason, chances are your next choice would have been Frank Oz, who was Henson's most memorable colleague. Aside from teaming up with Henson to perform Miss Piggy, Bert (to Henson's Ernie), among many others, he was also known as being the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars films. Kevin Clash, who has been given recognition in the new documentary Being Elmo, as he is in fact Elmo, or Carroll Spinney, who performs Big Bird and Oscar, are other possibilities.

Then you have Muppeteers that don't receive as much recognition. One of which is the late Richard Hunt. Most of you who aren't Muppet fanatics (For the record, I'm not a Muppet fanatic, but will occasionally watch Muppet related things and do research) would ask: Who's he? The best way to respond is with a follow-up question. Do you remember Scooter, Beaker, or Sweetums? They are Muppets that were performed by Richard Hunt, and performed really well. Scooter, The Muppet Show gofer, was his signature character, but some of his other memorable Muppets include Janice, the female of the Electric Mayhem, and Statler, the clean-shaved grumpy old man on the balcony who sat alongside Waldorf (who was performed by Henson).

Richard Hunt probably had far more interesting characters on Sesame Street. This is not the politically correct edition that shoves the values of eating healthy down our throats or features preschool style characters or large doses of Elmo and other cloying Muppets. Instead, this was the 70s, 80s, and early 90s version that featured humor that kids, adults, and young adults could enjoy. The actual aim was for those in kindergarten or first grade back in the day. Hunt had several characters that could appeal to the adult viewer. This include Forgetful Jones, the cowboy who could forget anything from his name to doing a specific action in one of Kermit's films (for instance in Oklahoma, he went through other vowels besides "O"), to the language he spoke. You also had Placido Flamingo, the opera singing bird with a huge ego, Don Music, a composer who would hit his head on the piano when he got frustrated, and Sonny Friendly, the game show host that served as an alternate to Henson's Guy Smiley. He was teamed up with fellow Muppeteer Jerry Nelson (who performed Kermit's nephew Robin, Floyd from The Electric Mayhem, The Count, among several others) in such roles as being Sulley to Nelson's Biff, as well as the right half to the Two-Headed Monster.

When doing research on Richard Hunt, I found out that he was openly gay. This is actually new information on my part. I knew that he died twenty years ago today (January 7, 1992) from AIDS, but did not know that he had a romantic preference for men. It seems to make more sense as to why he died from AIDS, despite the fact that this is not always the reason for such a death. Nonetheless, he was said to be the personality on the set. Incoming Muppeteers would meet with him when getting acquainted with the set and he would often perform with his Muppets off the stage for guests, such as the weekly guest on The Muppet Show. He was only forty at the time of his death, thus I can strongly believe that he would still be performing to this day had he still been around. It was indeed a big loss, as Hunt not only provided a stronghold for The Muppet Show, but also a strong dose of the comic relief on Sesame Street that just about anyone could relate to.

Richard Hunt made a strong contribution to the world of Muppetry. While his characters were never as mainstream, like Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Big Bird, Elmo, or Cookie Monster, his characters provided enough entertainment for the viewer. Throughout his life, he is most famous for the life he provided through his Muppets. If your job is to be a Muppeteer, that is exactly what you should be doing. An award was named in his honor for specific Muppeteers who showed as much dedication to their role as he did.

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