Muppets fan site, Tough Pigs, reports that Muppeteer, puppeteer, and puppetry instructor, Michael Earl, passed away at age 56, on December 23rd, after a three year battle with colon cancer. Earl took over the Sesame Street role of Mr. Snuffleupagus, originated by Jerry Nelson.
In a 2011 interview with Tough Pigs, Earl said that when he was just 19 years old, Jim Henson gave him his big break, when he hired him for The Muppet Movie. He also discussed taking over the Snuffy role:
ME: When I was 17 I attended a National Puppetry Festival in San Luis Obispo, CA. There I met Kermit Love whose week-long class I was taking. When I registered for the class, Caroll Spinney was the teacher, but he dropped out and Love stepped in to teach. At the end of the week workshop, I approached Love and asked him how someone gets a job with the Muppets. He told me I didn’t want to work for the Muppets because it was very political. Being a teenager in 1977, I didn’t even know what “political” meant. Love looked at my puppets, liked them and invited me to come to New York to help build puppets for a project at Radio City Music Hall. At lunchtime, I was sitting with Mike Oznowicz who asked me what my plans were now that I was out of high school. I told him I was thinking about moving to LA to work for Tony Urbano or Bob Baker (I loved marionettes) or, perhaps New York since Kermit Love had just offered me a job there. It was not until Jim Henson’s funeral did I know that Mike had called Jim and Frank telling them about me, urging them to hire me, which they did, sight unseen for The Muppet Movie. I had just turned 19.
TP: What was it like taking over a character like Mr. Snuffleupagus from the legendary Jerry Nelson?
ME: Jerry was my favorite Muppeteer. He was very fatherly, in a good way. Very helpful to me as a young Muppet performer. Nevertheless, when it came time for me to do the voice of Snuffy on my own, with Jerry in the studio, I was extremely nervous. This was his character I wanted to do it justice.
Earl also inherited the roles of Slimey the Worm and Poco Loco from Nelson. He originated the Sesame Street characters of Forgetful Jones, Leslie Mostly, and Polly Darton, and played assorted other Sesame Street characters, and characters in the Muppets films.
From Earl’s biography at IMDb.com:
Earl began his professional career at age five acting in a Curad Bandaid TV commercial. Two years later he was tapped to be the original “Is It Soup Yet?” kid for Lipton. The spot ran for three years, the first in a series of wildly popular commercials that over the next decade became one of the most successful ad campaigns in history. Michael’s other childhood interests included music and magic, but his passion for puppetry is what propelled him toward his emerging goals.
At 18, Michael moved from his hometown of Livermore, California to New York City where he quickly landed a job working for world-renowned puppetry pioneer Bil Baird, creator of the marionettes for the movie “The Sound of Music.” At 19, Michael won the role of Mr. Snuffle-upagus on “Sesame Street” (replacing Jerry Nelson, the originator, 1978-81, Seasons 10, 11 & 12) also creating the roles of Forgetful Jones and many others. Oscar the Grouch’s pet worm Slimey, Poco Loco, Polly Darton and the Honkers are among his dozens of Muppet characters still seen and enjoyed by millions of children daily. His other Muppet credits include “The Muppet Movie,” “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” “John Denver & The Muppets,” “Little Muppet Monsters,” “The Jim Henson Hour,” “The 30th Anniversary Muppet Special,” “Sesame Street’s 20th Anniversary Special” and “Dinosaurs.” He also appeared (as a puppet Alien) opposite Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in “Men In Black II.”
In 2012, BoingBoing.net reported that after the uninsured Earl was diagnosed with cancer, Muppets fans raised funds for his treatment. Earl blogged about his cancer odyssey. The last entry, posted October 1, 2014, states he is cancer free.
In a December 3, 2015 Facebook post, Earl revealed he was severely underweight and in a skilled nursing facility. By that writing, he knew the end was near, but reported he was in good spirits.
Please share your memories of Mr. Earl and his work, in the comments.