Oh sure, you’re familiar with Jim Henson, the man behind Kermit and Rowlf and Ernie. And you might be familiar with Frank Oz, who performed Miss Piggy, Sam the Eagle, Fozzie Bear, and Bert.
But there’s another Muppet performer who you might not know — even though he created tons of iconic characters, like Beaker and Statler and Scooter and Sweetums. That performer is Richard Hunt, who at The Muppet Show’s height was watched by over 200 million people every week. In the 1970s, he was one of the most famous gay men in the world … whose face nobody recognized.
I just posted a video about Richard, and although I thought I knew everything about The Muppets already, it was inspiring to discover more about his life and his work. Richard came to The Muppets through an incredible stroke of luck, combined with his own confidence, when he was only 18 years old. A natural performer, he was already a fan when he caught them on TV right after graduating from high school and realized that they shot Sesame Street a few miles away from his home. He drove into New York, found a payphone, and called to ask for a job. He was hired — but neither he nor Jim Henson had any idea how much that one plucky teenager would help shape the Muppets we know and love today.
Back then, The Muppets weren’t quite fully formed. They’d appeared on a local TV station in Washington DC, then in a few commercials, and occasionally on late-night shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Jimmy Dean, and others. They were starting to take a more recognizable shape when Sesame Street debuted in the late '60s — Kermit was, at last, a frog, rather than a vaguely defined creature.
Richard’s contribution was to take Jim’s kind, wholesome comedy and inject a more zany absurdity. It wasn’t an immediate shift in sensibilities, of course; Richard began by performing small, background roles, like Snuffy’s butt, or the bats around The Count. But over time he moved into more scene-stealing characters, like Bert’s gasping nephew Brad and Gladys the Cow — very much a drag character.
At the same time, Richard was enjoying gay New York of the 1970s, which was an incredible time and place. The documentary Gay Sex in the '70s captures just a taste of the post-Stonewall life, where free love had created an environment far less inhibited than previous decades. Richard’s former partner, Charles Gibson, recalled that they’d hook up, smoke a little pot, and then go to bed together “where we belonged.” It was a sexy, audacious time to be a queer person in the country’s cultural center.
But despite those advances, there was certainly no way that Sesame Street would allow Richard to put queer content on the air. That would have to be reserved for a more adult project that Jim Henson had begun — what would eventually become The Muppet Show. Jim’s goal was to return The Muppets to their roots with more college-level humor, subversive and sly, in a way that Sesame Street simply couldn’t support. And he wanted Richard to be an integral part.
You can see the subtle slipping of queer jokes into The Muppet Show here and there: Statler jokes about dating the actor Lionel Barrymore; Bunsen and Beaker enjoy an unexpected cuddle. And then there were the guests, many of whom were queer (though none were publicly out, given the time): Joel Gray, Liberace, Elton John, Jim Nabors, Vincent Price, Rudolf Nureyev.
Meanwhile, as the show was becoming one of the most popular entertainment franchises in the world, Richard was falling in love. He’d met a quiet painter from Alabama named Nelson, and the two were immediately taken with each other. Richard called Nelson “the most important person in my life,” and they formed a close bond — just as the HIV epidemic started to tear the queer community apart.
It was the early '80s, and with the epidemic just beginning to devastate his circle of friends, Richard threw himself into his work with various Muppet spinoffs and specials. One of the most meaningful, I think, was Fraggle Rock — Jim Henson’s attempt to foster world peace by teaching kids how to live in harmony with each other, and to respect each other’s differences.
There’s an incredible episode in the fifth season of Fraggle Rock called “Gone but not Forgotten.” In that one, the character Wembley meets a new friend named Mudwell, played by Richard. The two characters get along great — but then Mudwell abruptly pushes Wembley away. When confronted, he sadly explains that he doesn’t want Wembley to be sad when he has to leave. Wembley doesn’t understand, and they share a tender moment, both characters letting each other know that they like each other. And then Mudwell dies.
It’s a shocking, gutting scene, and it’s impossible not to think of HIV when you know what Richard was going through in real life. His partner Nelson had recently fallen ill and passed away, and in later interviews Richard said that the episode was personal for him.
The episode ends on a comforting note, with Wembley learning how to mourn: He feels sadness for his lost friend, but also discovers that a part of Mudwell can live on by remembering and sharing the art that he created while he was alive. I remember when this episode aired, and I remember thinking about it three years later when Jim Henson passed away — and two years after that, when Richard died of AIDS-related complications.
In reading about Richard’s life and watching his performances, I felt myself careening between emotions — sometimes very sad, sometimes very angry that he was just 40 years old when he was killed by America’s long, cruel inaction on HIV. But I also found myself returning to joy and wonderment and optimism as I watched him perform. How can one’s mood stay somber when watching Beaker explode, or Sweetums rampage through an opera, or Statler chortling with his best theater-friend Waldorf?
And in addition to his individual characters, Richard’s contribution to The Muppets as a whole is incalculable. That core group of performers, including a scrappy just-out-of-high-school kid, created something incredible together that brought happiness to millions. Watching the giant smile on his face, it’s clear that Richard spent his whole adult life doing what he loved, creating art that he loved, and the great beauty of his life is that the world loved his work — and him — too.