James Maury "Jim" Henson (September 24, 1936 — May 16, 1990) was one of the greatest puppeteers in history, and used that art to reach heights of popular success and artistic acclaim undreamed of by anyone before or since.
In 1955, WRC-TV 4, a Washington, D.C. television station owned by NBC, 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 Yorick, 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 proved to be 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-1970s, after both a season performing new characters on Saturday Night Live and a couple specials that would serve as pilots, The Muppet Show launched in first run syndication in the US, and on ITV in the UK, having been bankrolled by British entertainment legend Lord Lew Grade (who had previously bankrolled another puppeteer, Gerry Anderson). 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 '80s — 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, Jim 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 suddenly of toxic shock syndrome following a severe strep throat infection on May 16, 1990.note 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). He was only 53 years old. 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 for two seasons before falling into obscurity. New film productions were largely overlooked. Other productions by the Jim Henson Company and its performers, ranging from Dinosaurs and Farscape 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 Jim 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. And then in 2015, they came back to TV once again.
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 Henson's family and co-workers.
Tropes related to Jim Henson include:
- 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.
- Of course, there was also Kermit — the sanest member and leader of a group of crazy performers. Though unlike Kermit, Henson was far less likely to complain or criticize — apparently only saying "Hmm" if he disliked something. The harshest language he was ever heard uttering was an emphatic and heartfelt "Oh, for heaven's sake!""He can say things I hold back."
- And then there's Ernie and Bert, which were basically this for both Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Many have said that Ernie and Bert are very much like Jim and Frank, in that Jim had a little bit of a mischievous streak, and especially loved to pester Frank, meanwhile Frank was rather uptight. Jim also confessed that he and Frank were so comfortable with Ernie and Bert, that most of the time, they would ad-lib many of the Ernie and Bert inserts — keeping the original educational goal and specific gag of the bit in mind, but forgoing the rest of the script otherwise. One insert in particular, featuring Bert showing off his new aquarium of goldfish to Ernie, was completely improvised by Jim and Frank from start to finish.
- Author Existence Failure: One of the most heartbreaking examples in recent memory.
- Cash Cow Franchise: The Muppets.
- 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.
- Flip-Flop of God: For many years, Jim had said that the word "Muppet" was combination of the words "Marionette" and "Puppet" (and given that most Muppet puppets resemble marionettes that are worked more like traditional hand puppets, it's convincing), but later in his life, he retracted this, and said "Muppet" was just a funny-sounding word he and his wife Jane made up — a claim that the Henson family continues to use to this day.
- 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.
- Tale of Sand was an unproduced screenplay by Henson and Jerry Juhl that attempted to adapt some of the dark themes and stream-of-consciousness filmmaking techniques of Time Piece to a feature-length presentation. After languishing in the Henson Company archives for decades, it was finally produced as a graphic novel by Archaia Entertainment.
- A number of film inserts for Sesame Street, such as animations (affectionately 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).
- In 1960, he put out a novelty record called "Tick Tock Sick." No, really.
- 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 find out Henson himself hated the taste of coffee and only ever drank it to be polite.
- 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. You can even hear him almost crack up while saying "You're just teasing me."
- Incredibly Lame Pun: He loved these.
- When he was announcing the winner for Best Animated Short in his first appearance as himself at the Academy Awards, he began to read in Kermit's voice, "So, the winner is...", cleared his throat, and said, "Had a frog in my throat, there" then immediately apologized and claimed, "I haven't used that line before!"
- As Kermit on Sesame Street, he mentioned the joke about having a man in his throat. (He didn't actually do the joke.)
- 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.
- Nice Guy: Jim was a pretty easygoing and nice guy in real life. It has been said that Rowlf the Dog was very much like what Jim really was.
- 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 over 25 years after losing Jim.
- Precision F-Strike: A milder example is a presentation he taped to pitch The Muppet Show to networks; the pitch was a brief showcase of the typical kind of mayhem the Muppets are known for, and when all is over with, Kermit enters frame, looks to the camera, and asks, "What the hell was that?!"
- Reality Subtext: He had been really close to his older brother Paul, Jr., and Paul, Jr.'s sudden death due to a car accident 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.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Smack in the middle. Henson's work was almost always a source of joy, optimism and good old-fashioned entertainment, yet always had noticeable undertones of somberness. As mentioned under "Reality Subtext," this optimistic realism stemmed from seeing his brother die in a motorcycle accident when he was young.
- Something Completely Different: The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and MirrorMask are Darker and Edgier than the Jim Henson Company's other productions.
- 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 characters 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.
- He planned to sell off the Muppets to Disney in order to return to strictly puppeteering. One wonders what might have happened if he'd remade himself as a for-hire performer instead of a show runner.
- Additionally, Disney was hoping to have Jim become the new Walt-esque creative face of the company and consult on various projects, similar to the role John Lasseter would fill after Pixar's buyout. One can only imagine how a Henson influenced Disney Renaissance could turn out.
- 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 Jim's fascination with computer animation in his last few years, he might 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.
- At the beginning of The New '10s, there was such a resurgence in interest of Jim Henson's life and career that a screenplay for a biopic was penned and shopped around to studios. When a sample of the script surfaced on the web, fans found the depiction of him inaccurate and so disrespectful (the climax of the biopic depicted him as losing his mind to the point that he was hallucinating his puppets were coming to life and communicating with him, when in fact Jim never talked to his puppets, nor was he ever sentimental of them) that plans for the movie were soon shot down and the script was laid to rest.
- World Building: