Influential children's entertainer Jim Henson (1936-1990) is best known for inventing the Muppets, asofter versions of puppets. His characters were a key component of Sesame Street, the children's educational television program seen worldwide. Henson'screations also appeared in their own program, The Muppet Show, as well as a number of other television programs and films.
Henson was born on September 24, 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi, and grew up in the nearby town of Leland. His father worked for the federal government as an agronomist. When Henson was about ten years old, his family moved to suburban Maryland when his father's job took him to Washington, D.C. While in high school, Henson became intrigued by television and its possibilities. He was a fan of early puppet television shows Kukla, Fran and Ollieand Life with Snarky Parker, and their creators Burr Tillstrom and Bil and Cora Baird, respectively. Henson became involved in a local puppetry club. During the summer of 1954, a local television station, WTOP in Washington, D.C., needed a puppeteer for one of their children's programs. Henson and a friend put together several puppets and worked there for a short time.
Created the First Muppets
In 1955, Henson entered the University of Maryland where he studied theater arts. He also landed a job as a puppeteer for another television station, WRC-TV, an NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C. Within a few months, Henson had his own show called Sam and Friends. The five-minute long program aired twice daily before two of the network's most popular shows for six years. While working on the show Henson met his future wife, another University of Maryland student named Jane Nebel. They eventually had five children together, who often accompanied their parents to work. Sam and Friends also marked the beginning of the Muppets, Henson's own invention.
Unlike puppets, who have solid, unchanging heads, Muppets were softer, with mouths that moved and expressive eyes. The Muppets were more animated than puppets. As was written in Broadcasting magazine: "Jim Henson was the first and the best to create a new form of puppetry tailored to the technical constraints and newfound freedoms of television." One of Henson's most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog, was introduced on Sam and Friends in 1955. The original Kermit was made from Henson's mother's old spring coat and a ping pong ball cut in half. Kermit did not begin as a frog but evolved into one. Similarly, Kermit's character gradually became more complex. As Stephen Harrigan wrote in Life magazine: "he [Henson] did not just perform Kermit, he was Kermit." Harrison Rainie in U.S. News & World Report quoted Henson as calling Kermit "literally my right hand."
In addition to Kermit, Henson created over 2000 Muppets in his lifetime. James Collins of Time wrote, "The beauty of the Muppets … was that they were cuddly but not too cuddly, and not only cuddly. There is satire as sly wit.… By adding just enough tartness to a sweet overall spirit, Henson purveyed a kind of innocence that was plausible for the modern imagination. His knowningness allowed us to accept his real gifts: wonder, delight, optimism."
Henson took six years to graduate from the University of Maryland because of the demands of his television show. However, the success of Sam and Friends gave Henson the money to pay his way through college. On graduation day in 1960, Henson bought a Rolls Royce automobile to take himself to graduation. He then turned his attention to the Muppets full time. They were featured in commercials for Wilkins coffee, their first nation-wide exposure in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Throughout the 1960s, Henson and his Muppets appeared on television variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show, and The Jimmy Dean Show as well as NBC's The Today Show.
Moved to Sesame Street
In 1969, Henson was approached by the Children's Television Workshop for a new show they were creating called Sesame Street. Henson hesitated at first, because he did not want to be just a children's entertainer. But he eventually signed on and developed some of his most memorable Muppets: Grover, Big Bird, the Count, and Bert and Ernie, among others. Older Muppets like Kermit the Frog also made appearances. Henson's Muppets contributed to the popularity of the show. Sesame Street appeared in 100 countries in 14 different languages. Its international success made Henson famous throughout the world. As Eleanor Blau wrote in the New York Times, "the Muppets helped youngsters learn about everything from numbers and the alphabet to birth and death. They were role models and they imparted values."
By the mid-1970s, Henson wanted his own television show, but had problems getting one on American network television. Henson created two pilots for ABC under the title of The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence in the mid-1970s, but all major networks eventually passed on the project. Brian Henson told David Owen of The New Yorker, "The show was so wacky, so out of left field, that the networks didn't want anything to do with it." Still Henson managed to expand his Muppet empire in other ways. Muppets appeared in the first seven episodes of NBC's Saturday Night Live during its first season in 1975.
Henson's pilot was viewed by a British producer named Lew Grade. He agreed to fund the first season of what became known as The Muppet Show. The first episodes aired in 1976, appearing in syndication in the United States. The Muppet Show used both Muppets and Hollywood stars in a parody of the backstage antics. The Muppet Show also introduced another popular Muppet, the femme fatale pig named Miss Piggy, who was perpetually in love with Kermit. At its peak, the show had 235 million viewers each week in over 100 countries, making it one of the most widely watched programs in history. After five years, Henson voluntarily ended the show in 1981, when he feared the quality might begin to diminish. As Henson Associates Vice President Michael Firth told Kristin McMurran of People Weekly, "every time he reaches a plateau, he rumbles around and comes up with something new."
Henson's horizons expanded in a number of ways after The Muppet Show. He created new television programs. In 1983, Fraggle Rock was introduced, featuring completely new Muppet characters. Airing on HBO in the United States, the program featured three species living below ground, the Fraggles, the Gords, and the Dozers. The show primarily followed five Fraggles, including Gobo and Mokey, and promoted harmony in living. Fraggle Rock aired for four season in the United States, Canada and several other countries. It was eventually syndicated in 96 countries. Of his experience on the show, producer Duncan Kenworthy told Kristin McMurran of People Weekly, "When Jim directs, there is an excitement and a delight. He draws the best from everyone. He keeps track of the small things that are so key to all puppet work on television." Henson also produced a successful cartoon based on The Muppet Show called The Muppet Babies, beginning in 1984, as well as numerous television specials.
Henson also produced television shows that were relatively unsuccessful, including Jim Henson's The Storyteller, a rather dark show which featured adapted folktales and stories from mythology. It was canceled after only a few episodes. In 1989, Henson produced a variety show called The Jim Henson Hour. It was canceled after ten episodes, though it eventually won an Emmy award. He also created a show for HBO called The Ghost of Faffner Hall, which featured music, Muppets, and special celebrity guests.
Henson had done some corporate work beginning in the late 1960s, when he produced short films and videos for IBM that touched on business topics. Beginning in 1985, Henson expanded his corporate work and produced more than two dozen short films and videos designed for business meetings, continually adding new titles. He also designed characters and creatures for other films via the Jim Henson Creature Shop, based in London, England. For example, he designed the face masks for the movie version of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Henson also dabbled in his own feature films. Characters from The Muppet Show were featured in a trio of films beginning in 1979 with The Muppet Movie. It was followed by 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, which was also Henson's directorial debut, and 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan. All three movies did extremely well at the box office. His subsequent efforts, however, did not fare as well. The Dark Crystal, with all new Muppets, made a poor box office showing in 1982. The dark fantasy, Labyrinth, was also a box office failure. These failings affected Henson deeply, though he was wealthy and had had good business sense throughout his career. Though a quiet, kind man, Henson was also a strong leader who valued employees and let them have fun with their jobs. Harrigan of Life magazine described him as "a quiet, authoritative, beloved man without a trace of aggression but with a whim of steel."
In 1989, Henson began negotiating a merger with Disney Corporation to reduce the pressure of running his own business. Had the sale been completed, Henson's already large fortune would have increased by an estimated $100 to $180 million. Puppeteer Kevin Clash told Harrigan of Life, "He wanted those characters [the Muppets] to be around when he wasn't and the main company that could do that was Disney." Henson had doubts about the merger because Disney's corporate policies were quite the opposite of his. As Owen of The New Yorker explained, "To Henson and his associates, the Muppets were not products; they were friends."
While the negotiations were still in progress, Henson became seriously ill. A kind and patient man, Henson did not alert a doctor or visit a hospital because he did not believe he was sick; nor did he want to bother anyone. He had been raised as a Christian Scientist, a religion that does not subscribe to conventional health care practices. By the time he sought medical attention, it was too late to treat him. Henson died an untimely death from an aggressive form of pneumonia called Group A streptococcus in New York City on May 16, 1990.
Henson left his company to his children, as he and his wife had separated in 1986. His son Brian continued the family tradition by becoming a puppeteer and president of Jim Henson Productions. The deal with Disney was never completed, but the companies did do some business together, most notably by including the Muppets in Walt Disney World and producing one of Henson's last ideas, the television show, Dinosaurs. At the time of Henson's death, James Collins in Time magazine wrote, "Through his work, he helped sustain the qualities of fancifulness, warmth and consideration that have been so threatened by our coarse, cynical age."
Further Reading on Jim Henson
Brownstone and Irene Franck, People in the News, Macmillan, 1991.
Curran, Daniel, Guide to American Cinema, 1965-95, Greenwood, 1998.
Monaco, James, The Encyclopedia of Film, Perigee, 1991.
Broadcasting, May 21, 1990.
Forbes, June 11, 1990; November 21, 1994.
Fortune, February 4, 1985.
Life, July 1990.
Maclean's, May 28, 1990.
Newsweek, May 28, 1990.
The New York Times, May 17, 1990.
The New Yorker, August 16, 1993.
People Weekly, July 17, 1983; Spring 1990; May 28, 1990; June 18, 1990; April 8, 1991.
Time, May 28, 1990; June 8, 1998.
U.S. News & World Report, May 28, 1990; July 2, 1990.