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Jim Henson

The legendary Jim Henson (RIP).

Jim & Muppets

Jim Henson & some of his Muppets.

Henson-Oz-Nelson-Hunt-Goelz-Whitmire

Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire on the staircase of the Henson Townhouse.

Jim Henson Frank Oz Rowlf the Dog

Jim Henson, Frank Oz together with Rowlf the Dog.

Jim Henson (September 24th, 1936 - May 16th, 1990) was the creator of the Muppets. He was also the performer behind many of the troupe's most famous characters, including Kermit the Frog, Ernie, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, Mahna Mahna, Waldorf, Link Hogthrob, Thomas Twiddlebug, The Swedish Chef, The Newsman, Guy Smiley, Convincing John & Cantus the Minstrel.

Early Years

James Maury Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi on September 24th, 1936, the younger of 2 boys, the older being his brother Paul. His parents were Betty Marcella (née Brown) & Paul Ransom Henson, an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 10 years later, in 1946, Paul Sr. moved the family to Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb near Washington, D.C.. While growing up, he loved watching Disney films & movies with comic legends like Bob Hope & George Burns, & enjoyed listening to such radio acts as Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy. He would grow up to pay tribute to & work w/ many of these same legends. Henson graduated as a member of the National Honor Society from Northwestern Senior High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, on June 14th, 1954.

Sam and Friends

Henson made his earliest foray into TV puppetry with friend & 1st puppeteering partner Russell Wall in the summer of 1954. The 2 created & performed the puppets Pierre the French Rat & Longhorn & Shorthorn for The Junior Morning Show on local station WTOP. Although the show lasted only 3 weeks before being cancelled, Henson quickly landed a puppeteering job on the show Aftertnoon at NBC affiliate WRC-TV.

In 1955, while a college student at the University of Maryland, WRC-TV offered Henson his own show, resulting in the creation of Sam & Friends. The 5-minute shows aired live twice a day after the news, & often involved the puppets lip-synching to a comedy or novelty record. Henson's co-puppeteer was the woman who would later become his wife, Jane Nebel. They wed on May 28th, 1959. Of the cast of characters created for this series, only Kermit the Frog would remain as a major figure with Jim Henson for later productions.

Jim Henson made several important innovations in terms of how puppets were used on TV. The 1st is that he did away with tiny 1-hand puppets whose heads only bobbed when they talked, preferring instead to use puppets with moving mouths & often real hands. The 2nd innovation was to get rid of the stage that all puppets on TV hid behind, just as they did in conventional theater. He wisely realized that the TV screen itself is the stage. Freeing the puppets from the constrictions of the past, Henson found that the characters were able to move around their environment in a much more imaginative & exciting way.

Beginning in the late 1950s, while still producing Sam and Friends, Henson kept his fledging company afloat by using his puppets in TV commercials. Early forays included Wilkins & Wontkins & other characters for local companies, under the name "Muppets Inc.", formed in 1958. By the 1960s, the burgeoning Muppets Inc. had expanded to national campaigns, & 1 of the characters created for these commercials was Rowlf the Dog. Rowlf helped Henson get nationwide attention for the 1st time by appearing in regular comedy bits on The Jimmy Dean Show. This led to increased appearances by the Muppets on variety shows & talk shows, including Today & The Ed Sullivan Show.

During this same time, Jim met & hired 2 more people who would become enormously important to his work: Frank Oz, who had once been referred to by Jim as "absolutely the greatest puppeteer in the world", who, sooner or later, become Jim's best friend in the world, & Jerry Juhl, who would have a hand in writing nearly every Muppet production for 35 years. In 1962, Don Sahlin also joined the Muppets, building Rowlf & laying the foundations for the Muppet Workshop. Apart from puppetry, Henson also experimented as an animator & filmmaker, with such films as the 1965 Academy Award nominated short Time Piece (which he wrote, directed, and starred in), several comedic industrial films (paving the way for the Muppet Meeting Films), the documentary Youth '68, & the hour-long experimental drama The Cube in 1969.

Sesame Street

In 1969 Joan Ganz Cooney & the newly-formed Children's Television Workshop approached Henson about creating & performing puppets on a new show aimed at pre-schoolers. The show would become Sesame Street, & it introduced viewers to such memorable characters as Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Count von Count, Ernie & Bert, Cookie Monster, Grover, & eventually Elmo as well.

Jim Henson was initially reluctant to use his characters on an educational kids' series, for fear of being typecast as a children's entertainer. However, Joan Ganz Cooney, once remarked that while the show's creative team had a collective brilliance, Henson was the only "individual genius.": "He was our era's Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W.C. Fields & Marx Brothers," Cooney said, "& indeed he drew from all of them to create a new art form that influenced popular culture around the world."

By the late 1970s/early 1980s, Henson became more involved w/ other projects, & he mainly just voiced his characters in inserts rather than in main street plots. However, he was still involved in related productions, voicing his characters in the 1st Sesame Street movie, Follow That Bird, performing his characters' voices in various Sesame Street Live shows, & also performing in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, Big Bird in China, Don't Eat the Pictures, The Sesame Street Special, & Sesame Street: 20 & Still Counting. In the last production mentioned, Henson also appeared as himself in 2 scenes. He was also interviewed on The Sesame Street Experiment & Sing! Sesame Street Remembers Joe Raposo & His Music.

Jim Henson's last segments for the show were taped on November 21, 1989. Henson's later performances include a Sesame Street News Flash segment in which Kermit interviews a bird whose parents live in different trees, Kermit's song "I Wonder 'Bout the World Above Up There", & Ernie's song "Don't Throw That Trash on the Ground".

The Muppet Show

Jim always felt that puppetry should be for all ages, including adults, & he was frustrated that Sesame Street, even w/ its appeal to adults, was still children's programming. The Muppets were labeled "kiddie entertainment" by network executives. His agent Bernie Brillstein got him as an act on season 1 of the groundbreaking SNL w/ the Land of Gorch, but w/ the content not written by his staff & w/ certain cast members annoyed of sharing the show w/ puppets, Henson never felt right there. Fortunately, he received another break when Lord Lew Grade invited him to produce a proposed half-hour show in England. The resulting Muppet Show became 1 of the most successful TV shows of all time. Also, in addition to Kermit as the host, the show featured characters that would quickly become household names, such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo the Great, Rizzo the Rat, Statler & Waldorf, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew & Beaker, & Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem.

Performers who joined Henson's ever-growing team during this period include Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, & Louise Gold.

Henson created another innovation starting w/ The Muppet Show: from now on, all productions would be platformed up, so that humans could move about freely & interact convincingly w/ the puppets, while the puppeteers could remain easily hidden, & move about their environment w/ even greater fluidity than before.

In 1979, Jerry Juhl described Henson's unique working style in an article about the making of The Muppets Go Hollywood special: "The [production assistants] are running around screaming, 'How are we ever going to do all this?' & Jim is wandering around in the middle of it all, perfectly calm, perfectly content. You go to him & ask, 'How's it going?' & he says, 'Oh, fine. There were hardly any airplanes overhead when we filmed Miss Piggy by the pool.' He's just like Kermit -- if The Muppet Show had a basketball team, the score would always be Frog 99, Chaos 98."

The Muppet Show was so successful that it spawned 3 movies during Henson's lifetime (& more since): The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, & The Muppets Take Manhattan. Each film provided him w/ further opportunities to break technological barriers, including letting Kermit ride a bike.

Fraggle Rock

In 1983, Henson introduced a new show for children called Fraggle Rock. The show was concerned with promoting understanding across cultures & around the world, a subject that was very important to him. Henson was the guiding force in developing the concept for the series, which began with his own notes for "The Woozle World" scribbled on a small pad. Later, in collaboration with such team members as Jerry Juhl & Jocelyn Stevenson, this extended to specific personality details coining & character names (with Boober named after a cow encountered by Henson's daughters). As Henson defined the series' purpose in that first draft, "What the show is really about is people getting along with other people, & understanding the delicate balance of the natural world. These are topics that can be dealt with in a symbolic way, which is what puppets basically do all the time." From the beginning, Henson also insisted that the show be tailored for different countries, so that the message about brotherhood & understanding conflicting cultures could be spread to as many nations as possible. This led to co-productions, with involvements ranging from completely new frame sequences tailored to each nation to unique Uncle Traveling Matt postcard inserts, to simple dialogue dubs.

Although very much involved in the series as a creator, & serving as a director on several episodes, by this point Jim Henson was becoming increasingly "hands-off" as a performer & beginning to look at ambitious "realistic" puppet projects, instead assigning the regular roles to The Muppet Show veterans as well as up-&-comers & Canadian talent. However, his very occasional appearances on Fraggle Rock showcased two scene-stealing characters, the enigmatic, "implacably calm" Cantus the Minstrel, who represented Henson's Zen-like beliefs & musical interests, & the flamboyant, fast-talking Convincing John, representing Henson's more frenetic, showman qualities.

Henson & Oz's friendship

After working together for so many years, every 1 of Henson's fellow Muppeteers eventually grew very close to him in no time at all. However, the man that it is quite clear Henson was always closest w/ was Frank Oz cause of the incredible partnership & friendship that they shared. There have been countless occasions where Henson's characters were paired up w/ Oz's characters. While it was actually Richard Hunt who voiced Statler to Jim Henson's Waldorf, (the famous hecklers from The Muppet Show), the friendship that Henson & Oz shared was the best in the whole Muppet business. At his Memorial Service, 5 short days after Jim's death, Frank speaks of a Christmas gift Jim gave him, which he called "Bert in Self-Contemplation". He starts to cry but manages to say "That's when I knew, he loved me & I loved him."

Henson's Death & Legacy

In late 1989, Jim Henson made a radical change in his career. Wanting to become less of a businessman & focus more on the creative side of the production, he entered into talks w/ Michael Eisner to sell his company & characters (minus Sesame Street) to the Walt Disney Company. After Henson's sudden & untimely death, negotiations went awry, & Disney didn't acquire the Muppets till February 2004, which it now controls through the wholly owned subsidiary The Muppets Studio.

Jim became infected w/ a very rare bacterium called Group A streptococcus in May 1990 that was discovered too late for him to receive proper treatment. He died at 1:21 a.m. on Wednesday, May 16th, 1990, approximately 20 hours & 23 minutes after checking himself into the emergency room at New York Hospital, not realizing how sick he really was. Steve Whitmire then took over for Kermit, only months after Jim passed away, then he took over for Ernie in 1993 to Frank Oz's Bert on Sesame Street. Waldorf, in 1992, had been taken over by Dave Goelz. Starting in 1991 the role of Dr. Teeth had been officially taken over by John Kennedy, however, the character only had made brief appearances with very little dialogue. However, following his death, Rowlf was kept completely silent until episode 2 of Muppets Tonight, on which he broke that silence thanks to the vocal help of Bill Barretta, who now voices The Swedish Chef, Mahna Mahna & Dr. Teeth, as of 2005, as well as Rowlf, primarily as of 1996.

According to FindAGrave.com, Henson was cremated, & his ashes were scattered at his ranch outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Jim Henson's legacy is carried on in different forms today. Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop) owns all the Sesame Street characters & continues to experiment with its format. However, in 2001, they lost the rights to Kermit, cause he was mainly part of the Muppet gang. As noted, the Walt Disney Company owns the Muppet characters & continues to use them in new productions. Fortunately, the Jim Henson Company itself, under the guidance of Henson's children Brian, Lisa, & Cheryl, John, & Heather, continues to release new material, including Creature Shop films & original content.

Muppeteer Credits

See also

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