Rowlf The dog
Debut: Purina Dog Chow Commercials
Performer: Jim Henson (1962-1990)
Bill Barreta (1996-present)
When asked what the first ever Muppet was people will often answer “Kermit”, being that he appeared in a pre-Sesame Street and pre-Muppet show programma named Sam and Friends. However, while Kermit was one of the earliest Muppets, one dog beat him to the punch by appearing in 1962 for Purina Dog Chow commercials.
While Henson and company often build Muppets specifically for commercials Rowlf soon appeared to be more than a one-shot character when he appeared on the Jimmy Dean show from 1963 to 1966. Playing the role of Dean's sidekick, the Muppet became immensely popular and according to Dean, recieved two thousand fan letters a week. In his final yeat at the Jimmy Dean Show he also appeared in a IBM company film where he revealed is full name: Rowlf Cameron Swayze.
When his stint on the Jimmy Dean show ended Henson used Rowlf in a pitch for a new show where Muppets help to educate children. We now know it as Sesame Street. While the pitch featured both Kermit and Rowlf, Rowlf appeared the most eager to join the cast. In a strange twist of fate however, Kermit, who appeared very reluctant to work on Sesame Street became one of the main stars while Rowlf only appeared in one filmed segment.
His biggest claim to fame was still to come however when he appeared in the Muppet show as both a musician and a actor. His musical skills were often displayed when he accompanied other Muppet acts by playing the piano as seen in the first episode where he tickles the ivories during Scooter and Fozzie's cover of Randy Newman's Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear. He's also well known as the sarcastic Dr Bob from the Vetenarian Hospital sketches alongside Miss Piggy and Janice.
Rowlf's humble beginnings as a dog food spokesdog.
While playing several parts in the Muppet movies Rowlf played a main part in them. His biggest part may be the one in The Muppet Movie where he shares a scene with Kermit and sings I Hope That Something Better Comes Along. Just like the show, Rowlf also accompanied several other musical numbers in the film like Gonzo's song, in which he plays the harmonica.
When the Jim Henson Hour was produced Rowlf was one of the few famous Muppets who appeared on the show, playing the part of Merlin the magician, in a way reminicent of his role as Dr. Bob.
The dog's career came to a halt when Jim Henson died in 1990. Out of respect for Henson, the Muppet wasn't performed for years. Accoriding to Jim's son Brian, Rowlf's personality was the Muppet closest to his father's personality except Jim couldn't play the piano as well.
Starting in 1996 Bill Baretta has slowly but suresly transitioned in the role and has been Rowlf's main performer since. Initially only saying a few words per movie, slowly Rowlf got to be more like his old self culminating in his big return in the latest Muppet movie where he not only spoke and played a part but also performed a cover of Smells like teen Spirit alongside Link Hogthrob (another Henson character making his comeback), Sam the Eagle and Beaker.
Baretta has also performed Rowlf live several times, starting with The Muppet Show live in 2001. One of his more memorable performances was his Rainbow Connection duet alongside kermit at the D23 expo in 2011, where Jim Henson was honoured and named a Disney Legend.
Rowlf honouring his first owner.