Jim Henson at the 1989 Emmy Awards.
|September 24, 1936
|May 16, 1990 (age 53)
New York City, New York
|American puppeteer, film director and television producer
Founder of The Jim Henson Company, Jim Henson Foundation, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
Jim Henson (September 24, 1936 – May 16, 1990) was the most widely known American puppeteer in modern American television history. He was the creator of The Muppets and the leading force behind their long run in the popular television series Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. He was also an Oscar-nominated film director, Emmy Award-winning television producer, and the founder of The Jim Henson Company, the Jim Henson Foundation, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
Henson's success as an artist and entrepreneur was the consummation of an extraordinary work ethic and extraordinary capacity to dream. His engaging cast of characters, innovative ideas, and sense of timing and humor gave him an edge in the entertainment world. Known as "the gentle genius," he was widely acknowledged by those close to him as a warmhearted, caring individual who steadfastly pursued his vision of faith, magic, and love.
Jim Henson was born James Maury Henson in Greenville, Mississippi, to Paul Ransom Henson, an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Elizabeth Marcella Henson. After spending his early childhood in Leland, Mississippi, he moved with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s. Henson was raised a Christian Scientist and reportedly had a happy, quiet childhood. He later remembered the arrival of the family's first television as "the biggest event of his adolescence," being heavily influenced by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the early television puppets of Burr Tillstrom (on Kukla, Fran, and Ollie) and Bill and Cora Baird.
In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show. After graduating, Henson enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park as a theater arts major. As a freshman, he was asked to create "Sam and Friends," a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. Henson went to work and asked fellow University of Maryland freshman, Jane Nebel, to assist him. The characters on Sam and Friends were already recognizable Muppets, and the show even included a primitive version of what would become Henson's most famous character, Kermit the Frog.
Henson experimented with techniques that would change the way puppetry was used in television. Henson believed that television puppets needed to have "life and sensitivity,." At a time when most puppets were made out of carved wood, Henson began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions. As well, in contrast to a marionette, whose arms are manipulated by strings, Henson used rods to move his muppets' arms, allowing for greater control of expression. These techniques also enabled the puppeteer to work more effectively from off-camera.
The show was a financial success, but after graduating from college, Henson began to have doubts about going into a career as a puppeteer. He "wandered off to Europe for several months," where he was inspired by European puppeteers who viewed their work purposefully as a valid form of art. Henson then returned to America, and he and Jane began dating. They were married in 1959, and had five children: Lisa (b. 1960), Cheryl (b. 1962), Brian (b. 1963), John (b. 1965), and Heather (b. 1970.)
Struggles and projects in the 60s
The popularity of his work on Sam and Friends in the late 50s led to a series of guest appearances on network talk and variety shows. Henson himself appeared as a guest on many shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show.
Despite the success of Sam and Friends, which ran for six years, Henson spent much of the next two decades working in commercials, talk shows, and children's projects before being able to realize his dream of the Muppets as "entertainment for everybody."
In 1963, Henson and his wife moved to New York City, where the newly formed Muppets, Inc. would reside for some time. When Jane quit muppeteering to raise their children, Henson hired writer Jerry Juhl in 1961, and puppeteer Frank Oz in 1963, to replace her. Henson later credited both with developing much of the humor and character of his Muppets. Henson and Oz developed a close friendship and a performing partnership that would last 27 years. Their teamwork in portraying the characters of Kermit, Bert and Ernie, and Fozzie Bear eventually inspired LIFE magazine to dub them "a comedy team as enduring as Laurel and Hardy or Burns and Allen."
Henson's talk show appearances in the 1960s culminated when he devised Rowlf the Dog, a piano-playing anthropomorphic dog. Rowlf became the first Muppet to make regular appearances on a network show, The Jimmy Dean Show. From 1964 to 1968, Henson began exploring film-making and produced a series of experimental films. His nine-minute Time Piece was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film in 1966. Henson also produced another experimental film, The NBC-TV movie The Cube, in 1969.
In 1968, Joan Ganz Cooney and the team at the Children's Television Workshop asked Henson to work on Sesame Street, a visionary children's program for public television. Part of the show was set aside for a series of funny, colorful puppet characters who lived and worked on the titular street. These included Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird. Henson performed the characters of Ernie, game-show host Guy Smiley, and Kermit, who appeared as a roving television news reporter.
At first, Henson's Muppets appeared separately from the realistic segments of the show. But after a poor test screening in Philadelphia, the show was revamped to integrate the two aspects of the program and placed a much greater emphasis on Henson's work. Though Henson would often downplay his role in Sesame Street's success, Cooney frequently praised his work and, in 1990, the Public Broadcasting Service called him "the spark that ignited our fledgling broadcast service." The success of Sesame Street also allowed Henson to stop producing commercials. Sesame Street has become one of the longest-running U.S. television shows in history and has received 109 Emmy Awards, more than any other TV show.
Finding a wider audience
On the foundation of Sesame Street's success, Henson, Oz, and his team moved forward to target adult audiences with a series of sketches on the first season of the groundbreaking comedy series, Saturday Night Live. Eleven sketches, set mostly in the Land of Gorch, aired between October 1975 and January 1976, with four additional appearances in March, April, May, and September.
Around the time of his characters' final appearances on SNL, Henson began developing two projects featuring the Muppets: a Broadway show and a weekly television series. The series was initially rejected by the American networks, who believed that Muppets would only appeal to children, but in 1976, Henson was finally able to convince British impresario Lew Grade to finance the show, which would be shot in the UK and syndicated across the globe. He abandoned work on the Broadway show and moved his creative team to England, where The Muppet Show began filming. The show featured Kermit as host, and a variety of other memorable characters including Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear.
A vaudeville-style variety show aimed at a family audience, but with a frequently satirical, mature sense of humor, The Muppet Show became a sensation in the United Kingdom and soon elsewhere in the world. By 1978, it was being watched by 235 million people in 106 countries every week and Time magazine was referring to it as "almost certainly the most popular television entertainment now being produced on earth." Much of the credit was given to Henson, who Time called a "genius." On The Muppet Show, Henson performed Kermit the Frog, The Swedish Chef, Rowlf the Dog, Mahna Mahna, The Muppet Newscaster, Link Hogthrob, Statler & Waldorf, and Dr. Teeth.
Henson's role in Muppet productions was often compared by his co-workers to Kermit's role on The Muppet Show: A shy, gentle boss with "a whim of steel" who "[ran] things as firmly as it is possible to run an explosion in a mattress factory." Carroll Spinney, the puppeteer of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, remembered that Henson "would never say he didn't like something. He would just go 'Hmm.' That was famous. And if he liked it, he would say, 'Lovely!'" Henson himself recognized Kermit as an alter-ego, though he thought that Kermit was bolder than he was. He once said of Kermit, "He can say things I hold back."
Transition to the big screen
Three years after the start of The Muppet Show, the Muppets appeared in their first theatrical feature film, 1979's The Muppet Movie. The film was both a critical and financial success. One song from the film, "The Rainbow Connection," sung by Henson as Kermit, hit #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for an Academy Award. In 1981, a Henson-directed sequel, The Great Muppet Caper, followed, and Henson decided to end the still-popular Muppet Show to concentrate on making more films. From time to time, the Muppet characters continued to appear in made-for-TV-movies and television specials.
In addition to his own puppetry projects, Henson also aided others in their work. In 1979, he was called to the set of The Empire Strikes Back to assist make-up artist Stuart Freeborn. While working with Freeborn on the puppet of the Jedi Master Yoda, Henson suggested to George Lucas, creator and executive producer on the film, to use Frank Oz as head puppeteer and also to provide the voice of Yoda. With Henson's help, the creative team brought the creature fully and convincingly to life. The pioneering work done by Oz and Henson in this film brought forward many significant aspects in the technology of modern puppetry.
In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. Around that time, he also began creating darker and more realistic fantasy films that did not feature the Muppets and displayed "a growing, brooding interest in mortality." With 1982's The Dark Crystal, which he co-directed with Frank Oz and also co-wrote, Henson said he was "trying to go toward a sense of realism; toward a reality of creatures that are actually alive and we're mixing up puppetry and all kinds of other techniques…[where] it's not so much a symbol of the thing, but you're trying to [present] the thing itself."
Crystal was a financial and critical success, and, a year later, the Frank Oz-directed The Muppets Take Manhattan also did well. However, 1986's Labyrinth, a Crystal-like fantasy that Henson directed solo, was a box-office disappointment. Henson and his wife also separated the same year, although they remained close for the rest of his life. Jane later said that Jim was so involved with his work that he had very little time to spend with her or their children. All five of his children began working with Muppets at an early age, partly because, Cheryl Henson remembered, "One of the best ways of being around him was to work with him."
Later work and death
Though he was still engaged in creating children's programming, such as the successful 80s shows Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies, Henson continued to explore darker, mature themes with the folk tale-oriented show, The Storyteller (1988). The Storyteller won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Program but was canceled after only nine episodes. The next year, Henson returned to television with The Jim Henson Hour, which mixed lighthearted Muppet fare with riskier material. The show was well-received critically and won Henson another Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program. Unfortunately The Jim Henson Hour was canceled after 13 episodes due to low ratings.
In late 1989, Henson entered into negotiations to sell his company to The Walt Disney Company for almost $150 million, hoping that with Disney handling business matters he would "be able to spend a lot more of my time on the creative side of things." By 1990, he had completed production on a television special, The Muppets at Walt Disney World, and a Disney World attraction, Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3D, and was developing film ideas and a television series titled Muppet High.
In the midst of these projects, Henson suddenly became ill with pneumonia caused by severe Streptococcus "A" bacteria and died at the age of 53 on May 16, 1990. Two separate memorial services were held for him, one in New York City at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the other in London at St. Paul's Cathedral. As per Henson's wishes, no one in attendance wore black, and a Dixieland jazz band finished the service by performing "When The Saints Go Marching In." Harry Belafonte also sang "Turn the World Around," a song he had debuted on The Muppet Show, as each member of the audience waved, with a puppeteer's rod, an individual, brightly-colored foam butterfly. Later, in what was probably one of the most touching moments of the service, Big Bird (performed by Caroll Spinney) walked out onto the stage and sang a quavering rendition of Kermit the Frog's signature song, "Bein' Green."
The Jim Henson Company and Jim Henson Foundation have continued on after his death, producing new series and specials. Jim Henson's Creature Shop also continues to build creatures for a large number of other films and series (most recently the science fiction production Farscape and the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and is considered one of the most advanced and well respected creators of film creatures. His son, Brian, and daughter, Lisa, are currently the co-chairs and co-CEOs of the company; his daughter Cheryl is the president of the foundation. Steve Whitmire, a veteran member of the Muppet puppeteering crew, has assumed the roles of Kermit the Frog and Ernie, the most famous characters formerly played by Jim Henson.
- Henson is tributed both as himself and as Kermit the Frog on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The only other person to receive a similar honor is Mel Blanc, the voice actor of Bugs Bunny.
- A museum was built in memory of him in Leland, Mississippi. Official certificates from the state legislature honoring Jim Henson and Muppets paraphernalia are on display.
- The film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was dedicated to him.
- On September 24, 2003, University of Maryland, College Park, honored Henson, an alumnus, with a life-sized statue of him conversing with Kermit the Frog, by noted sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter in front of the Adele Stamp Student Union building on the College Park campus.
- In the TV special, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, the Muppets themselves paid tribute to Henson. The special featured interviews with Steven Spielberg and others.
- Tom Smith's Henson tribute song, "A Boy and His Frog," won the Pegasus Award for Best Film Song in 1991.
- Stephen Lynch produced a song titled "Jim Henson's Dead," in which he pays homage to many of the characters from The Muppet Show and Sesame Street.
- Apple Computer's nineties advertising campaign, "Think Different," featured Henson.
- Eleanor Blau, Jim Henson, Puppeteer, Dies; The Muppets’ Creator. Retrieved July 24, 2007.
- Time.com, The Man Behind the Frog. Retrieved July 24, 2007.
- Stephen Harrigan, It’s Not Easy Being Blue. Retrieved July 24, 2007.
- Susan Podolsky Schindehette, Legacy of a Gentle Genius. Retrieved July 24, 2007.
- J. Seligmann and E. Leonard. "Jim Henson: 1936-1990,” ’’Newsweek’’ 28 May 1990. p. 50-53, 126.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Finch, Christopher. Jim Henson: The Works—The Art, the Magic, the Imagination. New York: Random House, 1993.ISBN 0-679-41203-4
- Finch, Christopher. Of Muppets and Men: The Making of "The Muppet Show". New York: Muppet Press/Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. ISBN 0-394-52085-8
- Madden, John, director. Jim Henson's the Storyteller—The Definitive Collection. Sony Pictures, May 1997.
- Henson, Jim. Jim Henson's Designs and Doodles: A Muppet Sketchbook. Harry N. Adams, 2005. ISBN 978-0810991842
- Seligmann, J. and E. Leonard. "Jim Henson: 1936-1990," Newsweek magazine, May 28, 1990.
All links retrieved August 1, 2022.
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