Remembering Richard Hunt
By D. W. McKim
Although I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Hunt (or any of the other creative forces of the Henson team), for some strange reason, more than any of the other performers, there's something about Richard Hunt that makes me feel like I have known him well. Richard strikes me as a fun, big brother type figure who's always there to laugh or cry along with you.
Every now and then I'll read some behind the scenes anecdote about Richard: improvising music, entertaining visitors or reporters, instigating a water fight, reading a newspaper in his Sweetums feet, and I feel as if I was there. Of all the performers I wish I could have met, even more than Jim Henson, Richard is the one I would have liked to have shook hands with, or given a high five to, or held his hand during his time of illness.
Maybe the reason for this is because he had a way of revealing himself through his characters. When one watched his performances of Scooter, Statler, Sully, Junior Gorg, Gladys the Canteen Lady, or Gladys the Cow, one could enjoy his performance knowing he was enjoying it as much as you.
Often when he wasn't performing, his genuine laughter could be heard behind the laugh track reveling in the skills of his colleagues.
Accomplished as a puppeteer, actor, or singer as he may be, he always kept a sense of fun in the work. A character like Wayne or Placido Flamingo might be as pompous as they come, but one detects little ego underneath the puppet.
As much joy as I receive from watching his characters or thinking about his life, I also feel as much anger in terms of how his death has been dealt with. Whereas Henson's death was splashed all over the papers and referenced to continually today in tributes, Richard's passing away has been coated with a veil of secrecy and denial. Granted, one can expect more media attention devoted to Jim since his is the name the general public associates with the Muppets, but Hunt's death is rarely acknowledged and more disturbing, when it is, the Henson Company hardly mentions his death as being AIDS related.
Any obituaries or mentions of this fact are only in articles from outside sources. By keeping quiet, JHC sends the severely outdated message that AIDS is a disease that only certain "undesirables" in society fall victim to and middle America just can't know that a member of the team died "that" way. Such corporate conservativeness may have been understandable (if not entirely excusable) in say, 1987. Hunt died in 1992, when by this time, and to a greater extent every passing year, this attitude is demeaning, deplorable, and in all honesty, an insult to his life. Perhaps this behavior could have been acceptable in JHC engaged in more public support of AIDS awareness, but with the exception of a Baby Sinclair appearance on a celebrity-laden special, there's been no public acknowledgement.
Just as insulting and contrary to the "Henson Spirit" has been the handling of Hunt's characters.
By now, all of Henson's major characters have been seen on camera and have been heard, even if as little as a groan (Link) or "oh yeah" (Rowlf). Few of Hunt's characters have uttered any sounds since Richard's demise and worse his main character, Scooter, once one of the core group (just behind Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, and Gonzo in terms of importance), hasn't even surfaced on camera. No on screen cameos, and no walk-on appearances in a crowd scene!
Even worse, Scooter's uncle, JP Grosse, has been seen quite a bit on camera, in ways contrary to the established character! On Muppets Tonight, Rizzo has become a "replacement" Scooter right down to the jacket and calling his boss "Chief." In all fairness, a photo of Scooter does appear among others on the set of the KMUP studio, perhaps "in tribute," but to retire the character doesn't seem like the appropriate answer.
The whole Henson attitude tends to be celebratory of life. Retiring Scooter is "a" solution, but not the "best" one considering this philosophy. Rather, the greater testimony to Hunt's life and accomplishments would be to let the character live on, to acknowledge that Richard created such a special being that's capable of outliving its performer, one the audience wants to see survive.
Remember, the initial reaction to Henson's death was to retire Ernie with Frank Oz stating at the time that he'd never play Bert to anyone else's Ernie. This could have easily been done with over two decades of Ernie and Bert sketches to keep in Sesame Street's rotation, but the team came to accept over time that to bring back Ernie was the more powerful choice. I pray they learn from this example and apply it to Scooter. I remain optimistic. When the Muppet profiles were initially posted on Henson.com, Scooter was nowhere to be found even though all the significant supporting characters like the Swedish Chef and Dr. Strangepork were there. Finally in response to the fans' love of the character and outrage over such a glaring omission, both Scooter and Sweetums were eventually added.
Certainly, recasting a character is not an easy choice and one that should not be done lightly. The grieving period takes time, the thought of replacing a major character knowing of the inevitable scrutiny is intimidating, and the act of even putting the puppet on the hand is frightening. Much care must be granted in terms of finding the right person for the job and by no means should be a snap judgement. However, ample time for this process has really passed by now and each subsequent project without a replacement comes off more as stalling and denial.
The talent does exist and several performers would be up to the task. (David Rudman especially comes to mind, similar vocal attributes and a common sense of humor and style to boot). Those who have continued his characters have reinforced the notion that the ability is there to forward Hunt's original visions: Steve Whitmire's Beaker, Jerry Nelson's Statler, and John Henson's Sweetums have all demonstrated that to reincarnate a character is the best tribute to Hunt's work. There will always be comparisons and sighs that "it's not the same," but these are far surpassed by the delight of seeing the character up on the screen, palling around with Fozzie, annoying Kermit, or selling popcorn. The discomfort some fans may feel hearing someone like Janice with a slightly different voice is nothing compared to the unease of watching a scene with the Electric Mayhem where she has no lines, knowing the writers are consciously avoiding having her say anything.
I love Richard Hunt very much and rank him as probably my favorite Muppet performer. To see the Muppets moving forward, as both his death and his life's accomplishments become steadily invisible, continues to diminish his incredibly important spirit, ignore his contributions, and silence his laughter. Perhaps the best lesson I could offer to JHC would be one from Richard himself. His mudbunny from the "Gone, But Not Forgotten" episode of Fraggle Rock in which "we honor those we loved by keeping a part of him with us as we continue on." Here's hoping his cocoon is allowed to crack open in time for the next major Muppet project.
Rest in peace, Richard. Every time I bang my head on the piano keyboard or add more peanut butter to my garlic popcorn, I'll be thinking of you.