"The Muppet Show" did have a way of getting a whole lot of people to appear that you wouldnt expect to go on a show like that
NELSON: This is true. The wonderful part about that, too, was that they got people like Gilda, and people like Wally Bogue - who nobody ever heard of, but Jim loved. Wally worked that show for years in Disneyland, and nobody knew him. I remember the first time I went to Disneyland, I went with Jim. Jim took me there. He said, "Youve got to see this guy!" He was so excited about seeing Wally Bogue. Wally made me laugh the whole time I was there, and it was great having him on the show. Same with Senor Wences. A guy who had sort-of a heyday in Ed Sullivan times, but a lot of young people wouldnt have known who he was. These performers who were like this, Jim loved them. He wanted other people to see these people.
Like a showcase vehicle.
NELSON: It was indeed. When Senor Wences came for our read-through that we had on Sundays, he did his show for all of us. We were all like little kids sitting there watching him it. It was so wonderful.
How many times did you encounter him while doing "Sullivan" appearances?
NELSON: Never. Jim may have, because certainly Jim did more shows than I did. I didnt do all of those shows. You know who I did encounter there, as an addendum since he died recently, was Flip Wilson. Either the first or second time I did the "Ed Sullivan Show", I see this guy, and hes pacing back and forth. You can tell hes nervous, so I said, "Whats up, man?" He said, "Aw, Im a standby comic." "Whats that mean?" He said, "Well, if they have time or someone gets sick or something happens, then I get to go on." I said, "Oh wow, man." He said, "Yeah, its a drag." As it turned out, he did not get to go on that night. He did eventually make appearances.
And when he got his own show, he provided a showcase to the Muppets in the early 70s
NELSON: Yeah. He was a great performer and a funny guy. I remember him very fondly.
Did you ever do any of the "Flip Wilson" appearances?
NELSON: I dont think so. I dont think I had any characters then. I may have had Herry Monster fairly early on, because they thought, "Well, you dont have a monster. Lets give you a monster." I think thats one of the first characters I did, other than Herbert Birdsfoot.
And Richard joined the show in 72, right?
NELSON: I believe so, but Im not positive about that. He would come in once in awhile and do things. In the early days, occasionally they would need someone else, and even Jane would come in and do a right hand. Fran Brill was there for a little while, and then she decided she wanted to pursue her acting career, which she did. Then she rejoined the company again.
Jumping ahead a bit, and back to what sidetracked chronology weve been following, what are your thoughts on "Fraggle Rock?" pr
NELSON: That was the first time Jim really kind-of walked away, although he participated, especially at the beginning, it was the first time he left it basically to others. I think he knew by then that everyone had the same concerns as him that the work was quality work.
Was there an audition process for the characters, or did he approach you and say, "I want you to perform Gobo?"
NELSON: I think we all auditioned for those characters. I think when I read it, I said Id rather do Boober, and Jim said, "No, I want you to do Gobo because hes the one that holds everyone together."
"Fraggle Rock" strikes me as a show that stands up well to the test of time, even more so than "The Muppet Show".
NELSON: I think it definitely does. Its about relationships. Its not always as funny as "The Muppet Show", even though there are a lot of funny moments.
It also strikes me as a more musical series than even "Sesame Street"
NELSON: Oh definitely. I think so too. Thats another amazing thing Dennis Lee and Phil Balsam as a team. Just the amount of work they did
And the range
NELSON: Its so vast. I remember Phil telling me, "Oh, I write five songs a day. A lot of them are terrible, but I sit down and write five songs a day. Sometimes one of em is real good." Thats the kind of dedication and determination all of the crew and everybody had. Focus is probably the key word that comes into play with everything that anybody endeavors to do in life. "Fraggle Rock", I think, was the culmination of team effort in terms of putting it together. All of us think it would be so great if we could find another project like that.
What do you see as the strong points of the show?
NELSON: Everything. The story. The overall scope and concept of the show. The interrelationship of the characters.
It was a very self-contained world
NELSON: And yet, in the last show, where they meet Doc and Sprocket, its such a joyful moment
NELSON: Yeah. We all cried when we watched it, and we probably cried when we did it. It was a very moving thing, for a lot of reasons. It was real in some ways A very final thing, yet it was the hope of a beginning.
It was a mutual agreement for the show to end when it did, right?
NELSON: Well no, it wasnt. What happened was that the show was a co-production between CBC and HBO. HBO, at that time, felt that they were over-extended and needed to cut back, and "Fraggle Rock" was one of the places where they did that. CBC would have been perfectly happy keeping it, and, in fact, they tried to find some other way to carry on with it. Another season would have been ideal.
It had the performances and momentum to carry on
NELSON: It certainly did. With "The Muppet Show", I believe the writers felt that they had covered it all. That they had done it all, and were moving into the territory where "Sesame" is now, where they just plug characters into sketches "Oh, we havent done this with Ernie yet. We havent done this with Tell yet."
Plug and play
So after "Fraggle Rock" came the segue into the "Jim Henson Hour"
NELSON: Yeah. That was the next big project. Im not sure why that project didnt work. I thought it was a good show. It may have been that it was too much to see something like "The Storyteller", and then the Muppets. The other shows that we did within that framework, like "Dog City", were wonderful. The atmosphere in that show was fantastic. So were the others, like "Cloud Forest."
I do want to ask you, before we wrap up, how you would describe your relationship with Richard.
NELSON: Richard came into the company when he was pretty young, and I kind-of took Richard under my wing, when he first came in, since Frank and Jim were sort-of a team and I was like a straight man or foil that worked off their characters. So when Richard came in, we got to the point where we would work really well together. When one of us would start to go somewhere, the other would know what was happening. We played well together. Like with the Two-Headed Monster. We were just goofing around on the set one day, without a puppet even, and one of the writers was there and said, "Whats that youre doing?" And we said, "One monster with two heads!" And they decided to do that. We had a lot of characters that worked together, like Floyd and Janice. We were good friends. When we had someplace to go, we would travel together. He was always so late that it used to drive me crazy. Eventually Id say, "If youre there, Ill see you at the plane. If youre not, Ill see you where were going." Richard and I were like what Steve and Dave are now. You find somebody you work well with, and have that rapport with. I knew all of Richards family - his sisters and brother - and wed spend time together.
When did Richard find out he was ill?
NELSON: Im not sure exactly when. Once I got married, we didnt hang out as much, and he did other shows, like "Faffner Hall", so he was away in England. When he told me about it was about two years before he died.
So it was after Jim passed away
And he had a "Going Away Party" for himself, right?
NELSON: That was held downstairs in a meeting hall at St. John the Divine. It was a big crowd. Everyone from the company, all of his friends
How festive was it?
NELSON: It was pretty festive. By that time, the effects of AIDS were really zapping his energy, but he gave a show, essentially, with his brother and sisters. His family used to do that as kids. Richard was always the director and told them what to do, and they did it. "Here girls, youre going to sing a song. Now sing it." I did something with a puppet, but I cant even remember which puppet or what I did. I guess Ive blocked it out
Was it similar to what you did at Jims funeral?
NELSON: This was a thing with Richard and the puppet, but I cant really remember what it was we said or did. The company had a whole separate memorial. There was another memorial held after he passed away, which was also held at St. John the Divine, but in the Chapel. The company had a going away party, but by that time, Richard was in a wheelchair. The company put together a Richard Hunt puppet montage of bits that Richard had done. They showed that, and everyone hugged him and kissed him and told them they loved him.
Its ironic that, after Richards passing, you took up the character of Statler again... The only character I can see not returning is Scooter.
NELSON: Yeah, that was very much Richard. When Richard joined, he was such a bouncy little puppy. We had to squelch him all the time. He was totally just exuberance gone mad. Just bouncing all over the place. It would be nice to see Janice too, and Im sure someone will eventually pick it up. Its a lovely character. He made her such a gal.
On final thought From what youve seen, what is your opinion of "Muppets From Space"?
NELSON: I think it will be a good, funny film that people will enjoy.