Jim Henson - Storyteller and Puppet Master
Created | Updated Oct 28, 2013
Visionary puppeteer, producer and filmmaker Jim Henson shaped and changed television history. Best known for creating The Muppets, he also directed breath-taking fantasy films such as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal as well as being behind television series such as Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller.
The Young Jim Henson
When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there. It's a wonderful life and I love it.
- Jim Henson
James Maury Henson was born on 24 September, 1936 in King’s Daughters Hospital, Greenville in Mississippi, Paul and Betty Henson's second son. Paul Henson worked for the US Department of Agriculture and the family originally lived in Leland but when Jim was ten his father moved the family to Hyattsville, Maryland when his job moved to Washington DC. Jim's hobbies as a child were swimming, cycling and the cinema, with fantastical films like The Wizard of Oz (1939)1 among his favourites. When his family bought their first television, he was entranced, especially by puppet shows such as Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1947-1957).
Henson first tried to break into television when he was just 16. He was unsuccessful until two years later, in 1954, when the Washington television channel WTOP were searching for puppeteers for their Junior Morning Show. Auditioning alongside his friend Russell Wall, Henson was hired and the first puppets Henson worked with were 'Pierre the French Rat' and a couple of cowboys called 'Longhorn' and 'Shorthorn'. Though the show was cancelled only three weeks later, this was unrelated to Henson's contribution.
Genesis of the Muppets
Having drawn the shorthorn on his early television career, it was back to his art studies at the University of Maryland. There he met Jane Anne Nebel, later to become his wife. In 1955, while still studying, Henson worked on his own five-minute puppet show called Sam and Friends, assisted by Jane, for WRC-TV. This appeared nightly and won him an Emmy in 1958. The puppets' heads were hand-operated to control expression and the mouth, with additional rods to control the arms and hands. This basic design would later be used for the Muppets. One of the characters was a green lizard called Kermit, made from Henson’s mother’s coat.
Sam and Friends ran for six years, and Henson supplemented this work by doing adverts, having formed his own company, initially under the name Muppets Inc. but later called the Jim Henson Company. He and Jane married in 19592 and later had five children: Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather. Since he was a notorious work-addict, all his children would assist him with his projects, as that was the best way for them to be able to see their father.
Henson's characters on Sam and Friends were soon dubbed 'Muppets' as they were a mixture of both marionette, being rod-controlled, and hand-puppet. Unlike traditional wooden-headed puppets, Henson's Muppets were cloth and foam rubber based, with the lower jaw operated like a sock puppet. This gave them a strangely believable appearance, despite their cartoon-sized eyes and furry-felt skin, and allowed a greater degree of emotion to be displayed on their faces. By the time he graduated in 1960, the Muppets had appeared on television programmes such as The Today Show, adverts and even on radio.
In 1963, Henson moved to New York, confident that the Muppets he had been creating were going to be a success. While Jane retired from puppetry in order to concentrate on raising the family, Henson began to gather a core team of talented, creative people including writer Jerry Juhl3 and Frank Oznowicz, better known as Frank Oz4.
Rise of Rowlf
In New York, Henson was approached by singer and Western star James Dean. He wanted a Muppet to appear with him on The Jimmy Dean Show, a television programme broadcast nationwide. Henson readily agreed, and created a brown, piano-playing dog called Rowlf. This was the first true Muppet, and appeared with Dean from 1963 to 1966.
The Muppets continued to appear on programmes such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show and the Hollywood Palace.
Henson took advantage of this success by experimenting in making his own short films. His nine-minute film Time Piece was even nominated for the 1966 Best Short Film Oscar. Other short films included The Cube and Youth '68. By undertaking these film pieces, Henson gained immense camera knowledge and expertise.
Sunny Days, everything's A-Okay
In 1969 the Children's Television Workshop was founded. This aimed to create educational programmes for pre-school children. Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney believed that colourful puppets would keep children's attention, and approached Henson to see whether the Muppets could be used in a programme to be called Sesame Street. Although Henson wished to expand his horizons beyond children's television, he agreed. Initially it was intended for Henson's characters to appear only briefly during the programme, but soon the Muppets became its main feature.
Muppet characters that appeared in Sesame Street included Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Count 'The Count' von Count, the Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Elmo and game show host Guy Smiley. Kermit also emerged fully-fledged as a frog, finally gaining his widely recognised appearance. Part of this is due to his frilled collar, which as well as being decorative and distinctive, also hides the join where his neck is attached to his body.
Sesame Street taught children reading, arithmetic and skills in how to look after themselves. Celebrities were soon eager to interact with the Muppets on the show. Sesame Street was not entirely about the Muppets and also used comedy sketches, animation and songs5. Sesame Street continues on television well into the 21st Century with over 4,000 episodes made. It has been translated into over 20 languages and broadcast to children in 120 countries. It has also won 109 Emmy Awards. Much of this success is attributable to Jim Henson and his team behind the Muppets.
Sesame Street's success enabled Henson to create three feature-length fairy tales using the Muppet characters: Hey Cinderella! (1970) The Frog Prince (1971) and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen (1972). Fairy tales and the fantasy world held a life-long fascination for Henson, and would be a theme he would frequently return to.
The Muppets' success allowed them to appear as guests on numerous television shows, most notably The Herb Alpert Special where the notorious Muppet and Kermit's love interest, Miss Piggy, was unleashed on an unsuspecting public for the very first time. Yet despite the Muppets' popularity, Henson had yet to achieve his aim. He felt that Sesame Street had typecast him as a children's entertainer when he wanted to entertain everyone, old and young alike. In 1974, desperate to break out of the children's television, he created a half-hour pilot entitled The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence, although this failed to make an impact. Henson, Oz and Juhl attempted writing sketches for adults to be shown in the first seven episodes of Saturday Night Live, yet this too was not a success. Despite hard work and perseverance, no American television company was interested in making a family comedy featuring Muppets, believing that only children could be entertained by puppets.
The Muppet Show
Some people claim Kermit is my alter-ego. I'm not sure I know what that means. I like to work Kermit because there's a lot of leeway for ad-libbing, which I don't have with most other characters, but I'm not sure that I'm not Kermit.
- Jim Henson
In 1976, British producer Lord Lew Grade saw a reel of Muppet highlights and learned that Henson was looking for someone to make family entertainment featuring his creations. Lord Grade, who had previously enjoyed success producing the puppet creations of Gerry Anderson6, commissioned Henson to make 24 half-hour episodes on the condition that they were made in Britain, but otherwise allowing Henson free rein. The Muppet Show was born.
The show was an unprecedented international success, reaching 235 million viewers in over 100 countries. You could even call it a phenomenon7. Henson played many of the key characters, including Kermit the Frog, Rowlf, the Swedish Chef, Waldorf the heckler and Dr Teeth of the Electric Mayhem, with Frank Oz performing as many of the others. The show's format was simple. The Muppets ran a theatre, and each week one or more special guest stars would come to appear in the show. Normally the star would appear in a couple of comic sketches and maybe sing a song. Meanwhile, behind the scenes chaos would reign, with Kermit attempting to keep control while avoiding the amorous advances of the formidable Miss Piggy. Other key characters included Gonzo the Great, a chicken-loving stuntman, and Fozzie Bear, who desperately wished to make people laugh, but was constantly heckled by two old men in the audience, Statler and Waldorf. There were numerous supporting recurring characters.
The Muppet Show won its first of three Emmy Awards in 1978, and ran on television until 1981. One episode first broadcast a long time ago from a Muppet theatre far, far away even had a distinctive Star Wars theme, featuring actor Mark Hamill playing two roles, himself and his 'cousin' Luke Skywalker, as well as R2-D2 and C-3PO. This was an indication of things to come.
The Force is Strong with This One
In 1979 George Lucas approached Henson, asking if he would help make-up artist Stuart Freeborn create the enigmatic Jedi Master Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back. Henson agreed, and Frank Oz not only provided the voice for Yoda, he also brought him to life. Lucas was delighted, and even suggested, though unsuccessfully, that Oz should be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award. This was to be the start of a strong link between Henson and Lucas that would culminated with Henson's film Labyrinth.
The Muppet Movie
After the overwhelming international success of The Muppet Show and Henson's passion to break into films, it was almost inevitable that a feature film would be made, and so The Muppet Movie was made in 1978 and released in 1979. This film was a triumphant financial success, and is perhaps best remembered for the song sung by Henson as Kermit. 'The Rainbow Connection' received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song as well as becoming an international hit record. This song had been inspired by The Wizard of Oz's 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'. Composers Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher also were nominated for best score.
After this success a sequel was inevitable, and Henson himself directed the follow-up, his first feature film, The Great Muppet Caper in 1979, a film released in 1981 and again was nominated for best song. Henson found filmmaking to be so rewarding an experience that in 1981, after five series and 120 episodes, Henson decided to finish the television series of the Muppets in order to concentrate on his film career.
1984 saw the release of the third Muppet film, The Muppets take Manhattan, directed by Frank Oz. Jim Henson was the Executive Producer, provided the voice for many of the lead Muppet roles, including Kermit, and also cameoed. A sequence in this showed Kermit and Miss Piggy as babies, which inspired the creation of the animated television series.
Muppet Babies, also known as Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, showed the imaginative adventures of baby Muppets Kermit, Rowlf, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal and Scooter. Muppet Babies was another worldwide hit and won four consecutive Emmys for 'Outstanding Animated Programme'.
The Muppets continue to appear in countless television talk shows and other programmes, and even featured in horror film An American Werewolf in London.
Film Director and Creature Shop Creator
As early as 1977, Henson began to plan a dark fantasy film about the balance of good and evil. He began collaborating with his daughter Cheryl on the fantasy world's background, with much of the work created while the pair were snowed in at Kennedy International Airport. British artist Brian Froud created the look of the creatures for what was to become The Dark Crystal, but this project had to take a back seat when Henson made The Muppet Movie in Los Angeles. In 1979, with Lew Grade's backing, work began on making both Henson's first feature film, The Great Muppet Caper and The Dark Crystal, which he co-directed with Frank Oz. As Henson intended all the characters in The Dark Crystal to be puppets, he needed a base in which to create the characters. In 1979, Henson bought the first home of what was to become the Creature Shop on the same road that he lived on. This was former Post Office, 1B Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London. By early 1980 the team he had assembled were pushing puppetry's boundaries, pioneering techniques never applied to the craft before. The film was popular with critics and a modest financial success.
Following The Dark Crystal, some of the team, including Brian Henson, were employed on Disney's Return to Oz while others enabled a menagerie of aliens to appear in Return of the Jedi. Henson himself was involved in making puppets for Dreamchild, a story inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and written by Dennis Potter. As Henson had been very impressed by Potter's previous television work and being excited by dark fantasy adventures, he readily agreed to have his team create six creatures for the project.
Films such as Return to Oz, Return of the Jedi and Dreamchild convinced Henson that there was a high demand for the specific skills needed to design and bring to life animatronic creatures of all shapes and sizes. When he re-assembled his team to make cult-classic Labyrinth, he was determined to keep the key members of his team together. Thus was born Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
HIT Man - Down at Fraggle Rock
Dance your cares away
Worries for another day
Let the music play
Down at Fraggle Rock.
- Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock song lyrics
As both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show had proven popular in over a hundred different countries worldwide, while also pursuing his film career, Henson decided to deliberately create a television programme with international appeal. After receiving support and backing from many television companies worldwide, Henson created Henson International Television, or HIT for short, as a branch of the Jim Henson Company. Its first creation was Muppet-like television series Fraggle Rock in 1983. There were 96 episodes of Fraggle Rock altogether and the programme was even broadcast in Russia. Part of the programme's appeal was that it was designed to allow each country that showed it to make their own bookend film sequences, setting the adventure in their own country. For instance, in the UK, Fraggle Rock was set beneath a lighthouse while in France it was beneath a bakery. Dubbing the appropriate language was easy to do with the puppets. Henson's aim was a success, as the series has been shown worldwide.
An animated series was made and various Muppets made guest appearances. Henson International Television continues today as HIT Entertainment, owning numerous well-known children's television series including Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder.
Labyrinth is the second fantasy film that Jim Henson directed. Not content to rest on his laurels, Henson challenged convention and revolutionised filmmaking by featuring the first realistic CGI animal at the start of the film, and whole-heartedly supported the use of radio-controlled puppetry in the most complex animatronic head yet created, used for the character of Hoggle. The film starred David Bowie as the Goblin King, with goblins of all shapes and sizes played by puppets. The film's story was much tighter than The Dark Crystal. Despite being a box office disappointment on first release, it is since considered a cult classic.
Henson, for many years fascinated by dark fantasy and fairy tales, decided that one of the Jim Henson Creature Shop's first projects would be The Storyteller. Nine magical episodes, all written by future Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Sir Anthony Minghella, were lovingly crafted. Starring John Hurt as the Storyteller, he was supported not only by a remarkable cast of British actors but also stars created by the team. The idea for the series came from Henson's daughter Lisa, who had studied European folklore at Harvard. Their aim was to return to original versions of popular stories, rather than the retold, censored and bowdlerised versions commonly seen in cinemas and television. The gothic series was broadcast on Channel 4 in Britain, where it was a critical and ratings success.
When the show was broadcast in the USA it was shown as part of a 'Jim Henson Hour'. Television executives did not consider The Storyteller suitable to be broadcast to children as a standalone series, and so the episodes were sandwiched between lighter Muppet banter in order to be sugar-coated. Other unrelated Henson television productions made around the same time including the Dog City pilot and television movies Monster Maker and Anthony Minghella's Living With Dinosaurs were also incorporated into the 'Jim Henson Hour', giving the series an uneven texture which led to it being cancelled after only ten episodes.
The Storyteller won both BAFTA and Emmy awards, and so Henson was keen to continue, inspired by Greek legends to make the series even darker. Four episodes of The Storyteller: Greek Myths were made and broadcast in 1989. Again these were successful in Britain, but Jim Henson's Greek Myths was too dark for American audiences.
Following The Storyteller, Henson returned to dark fantasy by adapting Roald Dahl's novel The Witches into a film. For this he worked as Executive Producer, choosing Nic Roeg, famous for Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth, as director, with the Creature Shop providing animatronic mice as well as prosthetic make-up.
A short while later, the Creature Workshop, which had survived the 80s mainly by making adverts as well as supporting Henson's own projects, got a break when it was approached to make the costumes for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. This was directed by Steve Barron, who had previously directed episodes of The Storyteller, and so naturally Jim Henson was the first person he approached to create the vital characters. He originally had reservations as the Turtles were more violent than he was comfortable with, but agreed as a favour to his friend. The film would later make over $150million - cowabunga! After this success, a sequel was quickly proposed.
One of the last projects that Henson was involved in was Dinosaurs. The idea was to make a sit-com satire inspired by cartoon The Flintstones. Instead of the sit-com featuring people, it would feature dinosaurs, and as dinosaurs are extinct, the central family would be irresponsible, make constant mistakes and thus demonstrate why dinosaurs became extinct, and why we should learn not to make the same blunders.
Henson began negotiating with the Walt Disney Corporation to co-produce this project. At the time of Henson's death the details of the deal were yet to be finalised, yet 65 episodes of the series were made over four years.
Death of a Visionary
Life's like a movie, write your own ending.
Keep believing, keep pretending.
- Jim Henson
Towards the end of his life, Henson became worried about what would happen to the Muppets he had spent his whole life creating. He felt that the best way to ensure the continued existence of characters that he had come to regard as part of the family was to sell Jim Henson Productions to the Walt Disney Corporation. He began working closely with Disney, on two projects, a projected sit-com called Dinosaurs and Muppet*Vision 3D, a Muppet-based ride for Walt Disney World. The deal was not finalised when Jim Henson suddenly died after suffering flu-like symptoms for a couple of weeks on 16 May, 1990. The cause of death was reported as streptococcus caused by bacterial pneumonia. He was only 53.
Very Public Memorial Service
On 21 May a public service was held in the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, followed by one on 2 July at St Paul's Cathedral in London. In accordance with his wishes, nobody wore black to the service, 'When The Saints Go Marching In' was performed by a Dixieland jazz band and Caroll Spinney, wearing the Big Bird outfit, touched the hearts of those who watched by singing Kermit the Frog's signature song, 'Bein' Green'.
Richard Curtis, who attended the service in St Pauls, described a part of Henson's memorial service on the DVD commentary for his film Love Actually. Henson's funeral provided the inspiration for the characters of Peter and Juliet's wedding, with Mark's sudden surprise of the band singing 'All You Need Is Love' before others in the audience joined in and played their musical instruments.
At the end of (the funeral)...Frank Oz was talking and he suddenly lifted up Kermit's puppet and started to sing this song called 'One Voice'. And it turned out that all the guys in the memorial service had brought their puppets with them, and they lifted them up, and when you turned around and looked backwards there were fifty puppets all singing. And Big Bird walked down the aisle of Saint Paul's Cathedral, and they all came forward and just this massive chorus of puppets all singing...It was an extraordinary thing...
The funeral was even broadcast to allow the millions of people worldwide who had been touched by his work a chance to grieve also.
In 1987 Henson became part of the Television Academy Hall of Fame.
He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; both as himself and also as Kermit the Frog.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was dedicated to him. Henson had been negotiating a deal to make the costumes for this film at the time of his death.
There is a life size statue of Kermit the Frog talking to Jim Henson on a bench in University of Maryland, College Park campus. The statue was erected on 24 September, 2003.
More recently (2006) the University of Maryland, College Park introduced 50 statues of their school mascot, Testudo the Terrapin, one of which looked remarkably like Kermit the Frog. This was nicknamed 'Kertle', appearing half Kermit, half-turtle.
In 1993 The Jim Henson Legacy was created by friends and family who wished to showcase Jim Henson's life and work and carry it into the future.
The Jim Henson Creature Workshop continued to push the boundaries of animatronics and make-up, creating stars in television series such as Farscape and films like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
Characters Henson created continue to entertainment millions worldwide today, with a new Muppet movie, The Muppets... Again in production at time of writing. Out of respect for Jim Henson his first Muppet creation, Rowlf, has had a reduced role in films made since his death.
Henson's greatest legacy are the thousands of hours of high-quality entertainment that his work has left the world.
1965 - Oscar nominated short film.
1969-Present - Children's television series
Hey Cinderella! and Tales From Muppetland: The Frog Prince and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen
1970 – 1972 - Early Muppet television movies starring Kermit the Frog and first indications of Henson's lifelong love and fascination with fairy tales.
The Muppet Show
1976-1981 - One of the world's most popular television series of all time.
The Muppet Movie
1979 - The first Muppet film
The Great Muppet Caper
1981 - Second Muppet film, first feature-length film directed by Jim Henson.
The Dark Crystal
1982 - Directed, written and characters performed by Jim Henson.
1983-7 - Pioneering international television series.
Muppets Take Manhattan
1984 - Third Muppet film, starring and produced by Henson. Inspires Muppet Babies television series.
1984-1991 - Award-winning imaginative animated series.
Sesame Street Presents: Follow that Bird
1985 - First Sesame Street film, Henson performs as Kermit.
1986 - Classic fantasy film conceived and directed by Henson. A documentary entitled Inside the Labyrinth was also made.
Tale of the Bunny Picnic
1986 - One of Henson's best-directed TV Movies, with a plot that would later inspire Pixar's A Bug's Life.
A Muppet Family Christmas
1987 - A TV Movie not only featuring the Muppets, but also Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock characters too.
1987 - Visionary television series.
The Storyteller: The Greek Myths
1989 - Continuation of the visionary television series.
1989 - Almost autobiographical television movie directed by Jim Henson.
The Christmas Toy
1990 - Television movie hosted by Kermit, played by Henson, with a plot similar to Pixar's later Toy Story.
1990 - Executive Producer on this Roald Dahl dark fairy tale adaptation.
1991 - Television series conceived by Henson, made after his death.