Jessica Max Stein

Remembering Muppet Performer Richard Hunt

Filed By Jessica Max Stein | January 07, 2012 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Muppets, obituary, Richard Hunt, Sesame Street

Today we observe the 20th anniversary of the death of talented Muppet performer Richard Hunt, one of the four main classic Muppet performers. richard.jpg

Richard Hunt joined the Muppets with his characteristic gregarious exuberance, cold-calling them from a Manhattan pay phone on a whim one beautiful June afternoon in 1970. He was 19, a year out of his North Jersey high school. "Hello, I'm a puppeteer, can you use me?" he asked cheerily. He was in luck: Jim Henson's company was auditioning for a new production that very afternoon. Hunt ran over and landed the gig.

From these impulsive beginnings Richard Hunt launched a masterful two-decade career with the world's most popular puppet troupe - the Muppets. As part of the central core of performers on both children's television blockbuster Sesame Street and adult megahit The Muppet Show - called "the most popular television entertainment on earth" by Time magazine - Hunt brought to life such puppet icons as squeaky lab assistant Beaker, elderly balcony heckler Statler and mellow valley girl Janice, as well as helping to develop Miss Piggy and Elmo.

A genius comic performer, Hunt was a "funny boy" in another respect as well - that being his lingo for gay - living in the liberatory post-Stonewall culture of New York in the 1970s, confronting the plague of AIDS in the 80s, and succumbing to AIDS-related causes in 1992, only 40 years old. The AIDS crisis, considered "the definitive historical event" in recent gay memory, is experiencing a resurgence of interest among younger members of the LGBT community, as we grapple with its collective legacy.

Hunt was the perfect figure to walk between these worlds. "He would step into the studio and the whole place would rise to his level of excitement," says Martin Robinson, Sesame Street's Snuffleupagus. Hunt was in some ways a chameleon, always performing, but in other ways brutally candid, refreshingly irreverent, a gleeful trickster. He generously mentored less experienced performers, sharing his skills and the spotlight, passing on his craft to the next generation.

Hunt's words eulogizing Jim Henson apply equally to himself: "He did not live for the moment. Instead, he lived in the moment." Hunt's was a life lived fully - yet a life far too short, a story long overdue.

But he would not want us to mourn. Let us celebrate Richard Hunt by enjoying some of his work.

Hunt's first Sesame Street character, the silent Sully (Sesame Street, ~1976)

Leo the Party Monster, "The Party Line" (Sesame Street, late 1980s)

Hunt as Miss Piggy, "Temptation" (The Muppet Show, 1976)

Beaker, "Feelings" (The Muppet Show, 1980)

Hunt's eulogy for Henson (1990)

Statler and Waldorf, "Very Good Year" (The Muppet Show, 1979)

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