How come when he makes up imaginary friends it's cool, but when I do it...Jim Henson
(September 24, 1936 — May 16, 1990) was one of the great puppeteers in history, and used that art to reach heights of popular success and artistic acclaim undreamed of by anyone before.
In 1955, WRC-TV, a Washington DC television station, began airing a short five minute puppet show named Sam and Friends
. In addition to the manic title character and a skull-like omnivorous creature named Yorrick, it featured a lizard like creature made from an old green sweater and a pair of ping pong balls named Kermit. This was the humble beginning for Kermit, who would eventually be refined in his design into a frog with a collar.
Kermit, Sam and the other primitive creations of this show were the first Muppets
, and Sam and Friends
, as well as the concurrently produced commercials for Wilkins coffee, both of which proved smash local hits, which set a new standard for puppetry. Henson's techniques of setting the camera's point of view right at puppet level rather than using a traditional puppet show stage, and using a TV monitor so a puppeteer could see his own performance, were the first in a series of innovations he and the team of talented men and women who came to work for him made in the field. Even then, Henson initially considered puppets simply as a means of getting on TV with dreams of moving on to other TV careers like art direction. However, a vacation in Europe exposed him to a whole new world of puppetry as a deeply respected artform and Henson realized he found his calling after all.
When Sam and Friends
ended, Henson moved on to producing commercials for national advertising campaigns. Meanwhile, The Muppets became popular features on variety shows, once even taking over The Ed Sullivan Show
for a Christmas special, as well as Jim's character Rowlf the Dog being a regular on the Jimmy Dean Show
. Henson even experimented with non-puppet films such as the surreal short, Time Piece
which was nominated for a Live Action Short Oscar. However, it wasn't until Joan Ganz Cooney, and a show brought to you by the letters "P", "B" and "S"
came into the picture that the Muppets would become an institution.Sesame Street
launched dozens of characters
who are now a part of the worldwide consciousness, including Jim's own characters Ernie and Guy Smiley. The program would also solidify the core performers he'd work with for years to come. Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Caroll Spinney, Fran Brill, and later David Goelz, Steve Whitmire and Kevin Clash all performed characters too numerous to mention here that are just as memorable as Henson's own. In fact, Henson and Oz, whether performing Bert and Ernie, or Kermit and Fozzie Bear, or Kermit and Miss Piggy, or the Swedish Chef (Henson did the voice and Oz did the hands) rank as one of the most prolific comedy duos in television history, and barely ever appeared on screen as themselves. Unfortunately, the success of Sesame Street
caused a lot of people to see the Muppets as strictly "kid's stuff," a notion that Henson worked to dispel (with varying degrees of success) for the rest of his life.
In the mid-70s, after both a season performing new characters on Saturday Night Live
and a couple specials that would serve as pilots, The Muppet Show
launched on first run syndication. Like the early variety show appearances, the Muppets used Slapstick
so over the top it's a wonder Moral Guardians
of the time didn't have a heart attack from all the explosions, Muppets eating smaller Muppets, and general mayhem surrounding the Muppet Theatre. Henson, in addition to Kermit and Rowlf, performed characters ranging from trippy keyboardist Dr. Teeth to the masculine and very dense Link Hogthrob. He also performed Waldorf to Richard Hunt's Statler, giving the theatre its heckling, cackling and long suffering Greek Chorus
A couple years later, Henson took a major gamble, bringing his characters to the movie theatres with the aptly named The Muppet Movie
. Much like Walt Disney
with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
, Jim knew he had to top anything his team had put out to that date. Complex sequences ranging from Kermit riding a bicycle to the Electric Mayhem rocking an old church to its rafters, made the Muppets believable in a more or less undiluted real world setting. The movie was a critical and commercial success, paving the way for The Great Muppet Caper
and The Muppets Take Manhattan
Later Henson-helmed projects were met with more sporadic success. Fraggle Rock
was one of the earlier successes in its initial run on HBO
. While the show was produced by him, neither Henson nor Frank Oz took on regular recurring roles in it, instead opting for Jerry Nelson, Steve Whitmire and others to take the lead. Two big-screen efforts into non-Muppet fantasy arrived in The Eighties
— The Dark Crystal
was a minor success, but its spiritual successor Labyrinth
was mostly considered a disappointment in terms of its financial record. (Both films went on to be Vindicated by Cable
.) The Jim Henson Hour
, which would feature segments from another series, The Storyteller
, only lasted for about half a season.
In the meantime, Henson's Creature Shop had become a major font for further advancing puppetry. Building on full body characters like the Gorgs from Fraggle Rock
, the Creature Shop was responsible for the title characters of the 1990 movie version
of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
, and its first sequel Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze
. As well, the Shop also did forays into CG animation, namely Waldo, a gusty experimentation of a manually-controlled virtual 3D character who appeared in both The Jim Henson Hour
and Muppet*Vision 3D
which runs at Disney Theme Parks
to this day.
Jim Henson died of a severe and sudden strep throat infection on May 16th, 1990. At the time, he was negotiating with Disney
to turn over the rights to his characters so that he could focus on production and performing, and did not wish to visit the hospital (his wife would later state that the refusal was likely due to his desire not to be a bother to people). In a sense, this was the End of an Age
for the Muppets.
While Sesame Street
still runs strongly, as it was not affected by the sales and resales of The Jim Henson Company and its properties that persisted into the Turn of the Millennium
, the Muppet Show
cast had a spottier record via all the turmoil. Muppets Tonight
, which set to update the concept of The Muppet Show
for the 1990s by introducing new characters, a new host, a new setting, and new skits, only lasted a few seasons before falling into obscurity. New film productions were largely overlooked. Other productions by the Jim Henson Company and its performers, ranging from Dinosaurs
to Bear in the Big Blue House
and Dog City
, more successfully continued Henson's legacy with new characters for new generations of fans.
Disney has owned The Muppet Show
and its characters since 2004. The 2011 Muppet film
set out to keep the original cast of The Muppet Show
fresh without changing them as characters, and proved successful enough to warrant a sequel
in 2014. (A few photos of Jim Henson are visible in the film, including a large one of him and Kermit in Kermit's office.
) Otherwise, the "classic" Muppets have been making fewer and shorter appearances in other mediums, such as a YouTube
channel of original skits. The Henson Company in New York City produces mainly CG series, internet material, and the puppets for Sesame Street
, the representative characters now owned by Sesame Workshop.His funeral was pretty awesome
. The downside was that it was never televised.
Also well worth checking out is Brian Jay Jones' biography of him, the result of unprecedented access to his family and co-workers.
Tropes Related to Jim Henson Include:
- Animation Age Ghetto: Henson was cured of this when a vacation in Europe showed what the art can do with the serious practitioners there. For the rest of his life, Henson was determined to spread that respect around, but it proved a frustrating struggle.
- Attention Deficit Creator Disorder: Perhaps the poster child for how well this can work. From his early successes to the day he died, Henson was constantly trying to get new projects off the ground and expand his artistic possibilities. Many of his associates speculated that this was due to his brother's death in a car accident, with such a vivid demonstration of how suddenly a person's life can end making him want to do as much as he possibly could with whatever time he had.
- Author Avatar: Those who knew him say that Jim was a lot like Rowlf the Dog — except he wasn't as good a pianist.
- Author Existence Failure: One of the most heartbreaking examples in recent memory.
- Badass Beard: He grew it to hide the scars from a particularly bad case of acne, which his Christian Scientist mother refused to let him use medicine on.
- The Casanova: As much as many people don't want to believe it, Jim was known to have occasional flings with different women (even while still being married to his wife, Jane), including some within his own organization.
- Cash Cow Franchise: The Muppets.
- Cloudcuckoolander: A more subdued, clearer-headed example than most, but still qualifies.
- Creator Breakdown: He had one in the mid-1980s, involving the disastrous reception to The Dark Crystal and a separation from his wife. He became morbid and reclusive and was just starting to come out of that stage when he died.
- Darker and Edgier: While The Muppet Christmas Carol did have some dark moments, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal are by far the darkest films involving puppets he's done, the former for Surreal Horror and the latter for a rather alien and cruel world.
- Doing It for the Art: This was pretty much Jim's mindframe for most, if not all, of the projects he did in his life. However, this also contrasted him from other puppeteers and puppet troupes who saw more commercial success than he did, such as Sid & Marty Krofft, for example.
- A Father to His Men: Many who have worked for him have said that Jim never seemed like a boss or an employer, but more like a father. Jim himself absolutely hated confrontations of any kind, he could never fire anybody (with the one exception of producer Diana Birkenfield due to creative differences), and producer David Lazer often reprimanded Jim for never disciplining his colleagues when he should have... in fact, it often fell on Lazer to punish someone for stepping out line, such as an occasion where Richard Hunt ended up going on record for bad-mouthing a recent Muppet Show guest star - Lazer chewed Hunt out for his actions (driving Hunt to tears), where afterwards, all Jim could do was hug and console him.
- Fragile Flower: As noted above, Jim strongly disliked, and avoided any kind of confrontation as much as he could - in fact, whenever he would end up being dragged into some kind of heated arguement, or dispute, he might as well have been a turtle retreating inside his shell, as his way of handling the situation would be to just sit there and be quiet.
- Friend to All Children: Despite disliking being typecast as a children's entertainer, he was the man who made the single best and most successful children's show what it is. Check out those letters the Muppets read at the end of The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. That says it all. He had five children of his own, as well.
- Interestingly enough, by the time The Eighties rolled around, he seemed to shift gears and change his attitude, as such, he actually began working on more and more projects specifically for children, with Fraggle Rock being the first in a line of such projects.
- The Fun in Funeral: He personally requested that his funeral not be a dour occasion and demanded a dixieland jazz band play. Everyone had to wear colorful outfits, and everyone was assigned a basic puppet on a string to play with as they watched. It's true there were sad moments — but the whole thing crested when Kevin Clash, using his Elmo voice broke out into the bawdy "Lydia the Tattooed Lady".
- Game-Breaking Injury: In his last few months he began to suffer tremors in his hands, meaning he would have had to stop puppeteering soon if he'd lived.
- Gray Eyes: Types 1 and 3.
- Green Aesop: He loved these, and they can be found all throughout his career. In fact, the very last Sesame Street skit he performed before his death has such a message.
- He Also Did: Henson did a surrealistic teleplay called The Cube in the 1960s about a man trapped in a small cube who's visited by various strange people as he tries to find his way out.
- His equally surreal 1964 Time Piece received an Academy Award nomination for Best Live-Action Short Film.
- He did a few of these in The Sixties; he went through a phase of being an experimental filmmaker.
- A number of film inserts for Sesame Street, such as animations (affectionally known as the Henson Number Count films, or his stop-motion King of 8 and Queen of 6) and live-action (the memorable Dollhouse insert).
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: With Frank Oz.
- Hey, It's That Voice!: Most of Jim's characters spoke with variations of the same two or three voices. He had a rather idiosyncratic voice to begin with, so he really didn't need to do much to it.
- Hypocritical Humor: The "Wilkins and Wontkins" commercials, in which Wontkins is brutally punished for saying he doesn't like Wilkins coffee, or has just never tried it, get even funnier when you know Henson himself disliked coffee of any kind.
- Improv: Henson embodied his characters so fully that he could make up scenes with them entirely off-the-cuff, a particularly heartwarming example being this bit on Sesame Street when a little girl spontaneously attempted to take the ABC song Off the Rails by counting to Cookie Monster. Kermit's reaction, and the girl's, are totally unscripted and genuine.
- Incredibly Lame Pun: When he was reading the nominees in his first appearance as himself at the Academy Awards, he began to read in Kermit's voice, "And the nominees are...", cleared his throat, and said, "Sorry, had a frog in my throat", then immediately apologized and claimed, "That's the first time I ever did that joke! I swear!"
- Insistent Terminology: Jim actually hated the word "Muppeteer" feeling that it sounded and felt too gimmicky, which is why he and his colleagues were always billed as "Muppet Performers" and never "Muppeteers". When Apple Computers printed out a list of well-known clients who used their products, Jim found his name on the list, saw his occupation listed as "Muppeteer", scratched it out, and scribbled above it "Muppet Performer".
- It Will Never Catch On: He and the rest of the crew got a lot of this when The Muppet Show was being shopped around and when it first premiered. It happened again before The Muppet Movie was released.
- Henson himself took two decades of trying to get other kinds of work going before he finally accepted that the Muppets were what he would be known for.
- Looks Like Jesus
- Nice Guy
- Old Shame: The Saturday Night Live "Land of Gortch" sketches, sort of. Henson was still proud of the characters, enough to give King Ploobis a cameo in the final shot of The Muppet Movie, but the contract forbade him and his team from contributing to the writing process, and the SNL writers really didn't get what he was going for. He did at least get to write their bittersweet sendoff when The Muppet Show was picked up.
- Outlived Its Creator: Just about all he worked for, but it's not even something that was of a major concern of his. In fact, this is one of the reasons why towards the end of his life, it was Disney he chose to sell the Muppets to, on the grounds that the company had managed to keep Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and others alive years after Walt's passing. While some of his associates (Caroll Spinney, for one) felt the Muppets did need to live on even after Jim's death, others (Frank Oz) weren't so keen on the idea. Nevertheless, despite the rocky road, the Muppets have still managed to survive for future generations nearly 25 years after losing Jim.
- Precision F-Strike: He typically avoided profanity and would simply say "For heaven's sake!" when he got upset. Except for when a viewer of The Cube wrote a bizarre letter about the corpse of Marcus Aurelius belching at how bad it was. Henson wrote back just one line: "What the fuck are you talking about?"
- Reality Subtext: He had been really close to his older brother Paul, Jr., and Paul, Jr.'s sudden death due to a car accidental had such a personal effect on Jim, that almost all of his work has some underlying level of melancholy and poignancy to it. In fact, this is brought up and somewhat lampshaded in the Muppets' 30th anniversary special, where Kermit admits his favorite part about the Muppets are the times where the Muppets aren't necessarily funny (to which his nephew, Robin, says, "Yeah, I always figured that was the writers' fault").
- Refuge in Audacity: His first idea for The Muppet Show's title: "Sex and Violence." And yes, he did actually pitch it under that name, and even aired a special with it.
- Retirony: Inverted. Henson died just when he was ready to go back to being a full-time performer instead of running a production company (though he was not going back to performing his signature character; he had already tapped fellow Muppet Performer Steve Whitemire for that).
- Something Completely Different: The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and MirrorMask are Darker and Edgier than the Jim Henson Company's other productions.
- Southern-Fried Genius: Hailed from Leland, Mississippi.
- Too Dumb to Live: It's one thing to not bother people if one has a sore throat, but when Jim started coughing blood, then it should have been blindingly obvious that he should have seen a doctor right away. Instead, he stubbornly refused to do anything until he could barely breath and it was too late for the hospital staff to do anything to save him.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Considering that he died suddenly and at a relatively young age (53), this also got bandied about after his death. One anonymous child was quoted as saying "God must have needed Muppets in heaven."
- Trope Maker: Henson was responsible for several leaps in the art of puppetry which changed the art forever, such as the obvious combination of the hand puppet and the rod puppet, the use of raised platform sets (which gave much more freedom for the puppeteers to go wild), to the use of radio-controlled animatronics. All of these and more paved the way for new puppeteers.
- Universal-Adaptor Cast: Jim has said that he never really thought of the Muppet character as characters, but rather, a troupe of actors that just happen to be puppets. This is especially true when you consider the Muppets have essentially done their own remakes of A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island, It's a Wonderful Life, various different fairy tales, among other stories in which they play the characters themselves.
- What Could Have Been: It's impossible to look at anything made by the Henson company post-1990 without asking this question.
- On a related note, Jim was the first person George Lucas approached to play Yoda. Jim deferred the character to Frank Oz due to his busy schedule, but who knows how Yoda would have turned out under a different performer?
- Henson died while he was negotiating selling the Muppets to Disney. That ultimately did happen, but not for over a decade. One wonders if/how things would've been different for Kermit and the gang.
- One immediate difference would have been a Muppet theme park, or at least an entire Muppet "land" at Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM Studios). Only the Muppets 4D show building remains of this plan.
- Even with everything he did accomplish, he also had tons of other ideas that never got past his notes. A nightclub where films would be projected on women's bodies, for instance.
- Frank Oz has speculated that, given his fascination with CG animation in his last few years, he would have joined Pixar. Now that's something to sigh about never getting to see.
- Henson was so grateful for Jimmy Dean giving him national exposure on his show that he offered Dean 40% ownership of the Henson Company. Dean turned it down noting that he did nothing to deserve it and Henson should have all the fruits of his incredible creativity. It was a decision of conscience that Dean never regretted.
- World Building: Both of his theatrical releases that stepped away from the Muppets had their own in-depth settings. These unique worlds were a combination of the genius of Henson and artist Brian Froud.
- Also, Fraggle Rock's complex ecosystem and magical underground world.