James Maury “Jim” Henson (September 24, 1936 – May 16, 1990) was an American puppeteer, best known as the creator of The Muppets. As a puppeteer, Henson performed in various television programs, such as Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, films such as The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper, and created advanced puppets for projects like Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. 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. He died on May 16, 1990 of organ failure resulting from a Group A streptococcal infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.
Henson, who was born in Greenville, Mississippi and educated at University of Maryland, College Park, is one of the most widely known puppeteers ever. He created Sam and Friends as a freshman in College Park. After suffering struggles with programs that he created, he eventually was selected to participate in Sesame Street. During this time, he also contributed to Saturday Night Live. The success of Sesame Street spawned The Muppet Show, which featured Muppets created by Henson. He also co-created with Michael Jacobs the television show Dinosaurs during his final years. On June 16, 2011, he posthumously received the Disney Legends Award.
Jim Henson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, the younger of two boys. His parents were Betty Marcella (née Brown) and Paul Ransom Henson, an agronomist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture . He was raised as a Christian Scientist and spent his early childhood in Leland, Mississippi, moving with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington, DC, in the late 1940s. He later remembered the arrival of the family’s first television as “the biggest event of his adolescence,” having been heavily influenced by radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and the early television puppets of Burr Tillstrom (onKukla, Fran, and Ollie) and Bil and Cora Baird.
In 1954 while attending Northwestern High School, he began working for WTOP-TV, creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show called The Junior Morning Show. After graduating from high school, Henson enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park, as a studio arts major, thinking he might become a commercial artist. A puppetry class offered in the applied arts department introduced him to the craft and textiles courses in the College of Home Economics, and he graduated in 1960 with a B.S. in home economics. As a freshman, he had been asked to create Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The characters on Sam and Friends were forerunners of Muppets, and the show included a prototype of Henson’s most famous character: Kermit the Frog. Henson would remain at WRC for seven years from 1954 – 1961. “Among the first of his assignments at WRC was Afternoon, a magazine show aimed at housewives. This marked his first collaboration with Jane Nebel – the woman who later became his wife”
In the show he began experimenting with techniques that would change the way puppetry had been used on television, including using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-camera. Believing that television puppets needed to have “life and sensitivity,” Henson began making characters from flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions at a time when many puppets were made of carved wood. A marionette‘s arms are manipulated by strings, but Henson used rods to move his Muppets’ arms, allowing greater control of expression. Additionally, Henson wanted the Muppet characters to “speak” more creatively than was possible for previous puppets – which had seemed to have random mouth movements – so he used precise mouth movements to match the dialogue.
When Henson began work on Sam and Friends, he asked fellow University of Maryland freshman Jane Nebel to assist him. The show was a financial success, but after graduating from college, Jim 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 look on their work as an art form. Upon Henson’s return to the United States, he and Jane began dating. They were married in 1959 and had five children, Lisa (b. 1960), Cheryl (b. 1961), Brian (b. 1962), John (b. 1965), and Heather (b. 1970).
Projects in the 1960s
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”. The popularity of his work on Sam and Friends in the late fifties 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 (although on his appearance on the Sept. 11, 1966 episode of the show – released to DVD on 2011 as part of a collection of episodes featuring the Rolling Stones – Sullivan mis-introduces Henson as “Jim Newsom and his Puppets”). This greatly increased exposure led to hundreds of commercial appearances by Henson characters throughout the sixties.
Among the most popular of Henson’s commercials was a series for the local Wilkins Coffee company in Washington, D.C., in which his Muppets were able to get away with a greater level of slapstick violence than might have been acceptable with human actors and would later find its way into many acts on The Muppet Show. In the first Wilkins ad, a Muppet named Wilkins is poised behind a cannon seen in profile. Another Muppet named Wontkins (with Rowlf’s voice) is in front of its barrel. Wilkins asks, “What do you think of Wilkins Coffee?” and Wontkins responds gruffly, “Never tasted it!” Wilkins fires the cannon and blows Wontkins away, then turns the cannon directly toward the viewer and ends the ad with, “Now, what do youthink of Wilkins?” Henson later explained, “Till then, [advertising] agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a very different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh.” The first seven-second commercial for Wilkins was an immediate hit and was syndicated and re-shot by Henson for local coffee companies across the United States; he ultimately produced more than 300 coffee ads. The same setup was used to pitch Kraml Milk in the Chicago, Il., area and Red Diamond coffee.
In 1963 Henson and his wife moved to New York City, where the newly formed Muppets, Inc., would reside for some time. 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 writers with developing much of the humor and character of his Muppets. Henson and Oz developed a close friendship and a performing partnership that lasted 27 years; their teamwork is particularly evident in their portrayals of the characters of Bert and Ernie and Kermit and Fozzie Bear.
Henson’s sixties’ talk show appearances culminated when he devised Rowlf, a piano-playing anthropomorphic dog. Rowlf became the first Muppet to make regular appearances on a network show, The Jimmy Dean Show. Henson was so grateful for this break that he offered Jimmy Dean a 40% interest in his production company, but Dean declined stating that Henson deserved all the rewards for his own work, a decision of conscience Dean never regretted. From 1963 to 1966, 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 Oscar for Short Film in 1966. The year 1969 saw the production of the NBC-TV movie The Cube – another Henson-produced experimental film.
Also around this time, the first drafts of a live-action experimental film script were written with Jerry Juhl, which would eventually become Henson’s last unproduced full-length screenplay, Tale of Sand. The script remained in the Henson Company archives until the screenplay was adapted in the 2012 graphic novel, Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand.
In 1969, 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 living 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. It was around this time that a frill was added around Kermit’s neck to make him more frog-like. The collar was functional as well: it covered the joint where the Muppet’s neck and body met.
At first Henson’s Muppets appeared separately from the realistic segments on the Street, but after a poor test-screening in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the show was revamped to integrate the two, placing much greater emphasis on Henson’s work. Though Henson would often downplay his role in Sesame Street’s success, Cooney frequently praised Jim’s 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. He later remembered that “it was a pleasure to get out of that world”.
In addition to creating and performing Muppet characters, Henson was involved in producing various film and animation insets during the first two seasons. During the first, Henson produced a series of counting films for the numbers 1 through 10, which always ended with a baker (voiced by Henson) falling down the stairs while carrying the featured number of desserts. For seasons two to seven, Henson worked on a variety of inserts for the numbers 2 through 12, in a number of different styles – including film (“Dollhouse”, “Number Three Ball Film”), stop-motion (“King of Eight”, “Queen of Six”), cut-out animation (“Eleven Cheer”), and computer animation (“Nobody Counts To 10”).
Concurrently with the first years of Sesame Street, Henson directed Tales From Muppetland, a short series of TV movie specials – in the form of comedic tellings of classic fairy tales – aimed at a young audience and hosted by Kermit the Frog. The series included Hey, Cinderella!, The Frog Prince, and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.
Expansion of audience
Concerned that the company was becoming typecast as a purveyor of solely children’s entertainment, Henson, Frank Oz, and his team targeted an adult audience with a series of sketches on the first season of the groundbreaking comedy series Saturday Night Live (SNL). Eleven “Dregs and Vestiges” 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. Henson recalled that “I saw what [creator Lorne Michaels] was going for and I really liked it and wanted to be a part of it, but somehow what we were trying to do and what his writers could write for it never gelled.” The SNL writers never got comfortable writing for the characters, and frequently disparaged Henson’s creations; one, Michael O’Donoghue, memorably quipped, “I won’t write for felt.”
Around the time of Henson’s characters’ final appearances on SNL, he began developing two projects featuring the Muppets: a Broadway show and a weekly television series. In 1976 the series was initially rejected by the American networks who believed that Muppets would appeal to only a child audience. Henson was finally able to convince British impresario Lew Grade to finance the show, which would be shot in the United Kingdom and syndicated worldwide. That same year, he abandoned work on his Broadway show and moved his creative team to England, where The Muppet Show began filming. The Muppet Showfeatured Kermit as host, and a variety of other memorable characters, notably Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear. Kermit’s role on The Muppet Show was often compared by his co-workers to Henson’s role in Muppet Productions: 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.” Caroll 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 his creator; he once said of Kermit, “He can say things I hold back.”
Jim Henson was the performer for several well known characters, including Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, the Swedish Chef, Waldorf, Link Hogthrob, and the Muppet Newsman.
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;it made US$ 65.2 million domestically and (at the time) was the 61st highest-grossing film ever made.
A song from the film, ” he Rainbow Connection“, sung by Henson as Kermit, hit No. 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 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 asked by the producers of the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back to aid make-up artist Stuart Freeborn in the creation and articulation of enigmatic Jedi Master Yoda. Henson suggested to Star Wars creator George Lucas that he use Frank Oz as the puppeteer and voice of Yoda. Oz voiced Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and each of the four subsequent Star Wars films, and the naturalistic, lifelike Yoda became one of the most popular characters of the Star Wars franchise. Lucas even lobbied unsuccessfully to have Oz nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
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 [where] it’s not so much a symbol of the thing, but you’re trying to [present] the thing itself. ” To provide a visual style distinct from the Muppets, the puppets in The Dark Crystal were based on conceptual artwork by Brian Froud.
The Dark Crystal was a financial and critical success, and, a year later, the Muppet-starring The Muppets Take Manhattan (directed by Frank Oz) did fair box-office business, grossing $25.5 million domestically and ranking as one of the top 40 films of 1984. However, 1986’s Labyrinth, a Crystal-like fantasy that Henson directed by himself, was considered (in part due to its cost) a commercial disappointment. Despite some positive reviews (The New York Times called it “a fabulous film”), the commercial failure of Labyrinth demoralized Henson to the point that son Brian Henson remembered the time of its release as being “the closest I’ve seen him to turning in on himself and getting quite depressed.” The film later became a cult classic. 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, as Cheryl Henson remembered, “one of the best ways of being around him was to work with him”.
Though he was still engaged in creating children’s television, such as the successful eighties shows Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies, Henson continued to explore darker, mature themes with the folk tale and mythology-oriented show The Storyteller (1988). The Storyteller won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program. The next year, Henson returned to television with The Jim Henson Hour, which mixed lighthearted Muppet fare with riskier material. The show was critically well-received and won Henson another Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Variety or Music Program, but was canceled after 13 episodes due to low ratings. Henson blamed its failure on NBC‘s constant rescheduling.
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 (Later Disney California Adventure Park as well) attraction, Jim Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D , and was developing film ideas and a television series titled Muppet High.
Natural History Project and Dinosaurs
In the late 1980s, Henson worked with illustrator/designer William Stout on a feature film starring animatronic dinosaurs with the working title of The Natural History Project. In 1991, news stories written around the premiere of T he Jim Henson Company– produced Dinosaurs sitcom highlighted the show’s connection to Henson. “Jim Henson dreamed up the show’s basic concept about three years ago,” said a New York Timesarticle in April 1991. “‘He wanted it to be a sitcom with a pretty standard structure, with the biggest differences being that it’s a family of dinosaurs and their society has this strange toxic life style,’ said [his son] Brian Henson. But until The Simpsons took off, said Alex Rockwell, a vice president of the Henson organization, ‘people thought it was a crazy idea.'” A New Yorker article said that Henson continued to work on a dinosaur project (presumably the Dinosaurs concept) until the “last months of his life.”
Illness and death
During production of his later projects, Henson began to experience flu-like symptoms. On May 4, 1990, Henson made an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, one of his last television appearances. At the time, he mentioned to his publicist that he was tired and had a sore throat, but felt that it would go away.
On May 12, 1990, Henson traveled to Ahoskie, North Carolina, with his daughter Cheryl to visit his father and stepmother. The next day, feeling tired and ill, he consulted a physician in North Carolina, who could find no evidence of pneumonia by physical examination and prescribed no treatment except aspirin. Henson returned to New York on an earlier flight and cancelled a Muppet recording session scheduled for May 14.
Henson’s wife Jane, from whom he was separated, came to visit and sat with him talking throughout the evening. At 2 am on May 15, Henson was having trouble breathing and began coughing up blood. He suggested to his wife that he might be dying, but did not want to bother going to the hospital which would have gone against his religion. She later told People Magazine that it was likely due to his desire not to be a bother to people.
Two hours later, Henson finally agreed to go to New York Hospital. By the time he was admitted at 4:58 am, he could no longer breathe on his own and had abscesses in his lungs. He was placed on a mechanical ventilator to help him breathe, but his condition deteriorated rapidly into septic shock, despite aggressive treatment with multiple antibiotics. After two cardiac arrests over 20 hours after he was admitted, Jim Henson died on the morning of May 16, 1990, at the age of 53.
The official cause of death was first reported as Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacterial infection. Bacterial pneumonia is usually caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, an alpha-hemolytic species of Streptococcus. Henson’s cause of death, however, was organ failure resulting from Streptococcus pyogenes, a severeGroup A streptococcal infection. S. pyogenes is the bacterial species that causes strep throat, scarlet fever, and rheumatic fever. It can also cause other infections.
On May 21, a public memorial service was held in New York City at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Another one was held on July 2 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. As per Henson’s wishes, no one in attendance wore black, and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band finished the service by performing “When the Saints Go Marching In“. Harry Belafonte sang “Turn the World Around,” a song he had debuted on The Muppet Show, as each member of the congregation waved, with a puppeteer’s rod, an individual, brightly-colored foam butterfly. Later, Big Bird (performed by Caroll Spinney) walked out onto the stage and sang Kermit the Frog’s signature song, “Bein’ Green“. Henson was cremated at Ferncliff Cemetery. His ashes were scattered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at his ranch.
In the final minutes of the two-and-a-half hour service, six of the core Muppet performers sang, in their characters’ voices, a medley of Jim Henson’s favorite songs, culminating in a performance of “Just One Person” that began with Richard Hunt singing alone, as Scooter. “As each verse progressed,” Henson employee Chris Barry recalled, “each Muppeteer joined in with their own Muppets until the stage was filled with all the Muppet performers and their beloved characters.” The funeral was later described by LIFE as “an epic and almost unbearably moving event.” The image of a growing number of performers singing “Just One Person” was recreated for the 1990 television special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson and inspired screenwriter Richard Curtis, who attended the London service, to write the growing-orchestra wedding scene of his 2003 film Love Actually.
Henson’s sudden death resulted in an outpouring of public and professional affection. There have since been numerous tributes and dedications in his memory. Henson’s companies, which are now run by his children, continue to produce films and television shows.
The Jim Henson Company and the Jim Henson Foundation continued after his death, producing new series and specials. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, founded by Henson, also continues to build creatures for a large number of other films and series (e.g. the science-fiction production Farscape, the film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the movie MirrorMask) 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.
On February 17, 2004, it was announced that the Muppets (excluding the Sesame Street characters, which are separately owned by Sesame Workshop) and the Bear in the Big Blue House properties had been sold by Henson’s heirs to The Walt Disney Company. However, as a result, Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children’s Television Workshop), also lost the rights to Kermit the Frog, and he could no longer appear on any new material on Sesame Street, although Kermit did later appear on the premiere of the show’s 40th season on November 10, 2009.
In 2010 it was announced that the first major biography of Henson, sanctioned by the family and the Jim Henson Legacy, A true Legend.
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