The TV Creator: Jim Henson - One of the Top Twenty Artists and Entertainers of the 20th Century
Jim Henson can be credited with many accomplishments: he had the most profound influence on children of any entertainer of his time; he adapted the ancient art of puppetry to the most modern of mediums, television, transforming both; he created a TV show that was one of the most popular on earth. But Henson's greatest achievement was broader than any of these. Through his work, he helped sustain the qualities of fancifulness, warmth and consideration that have been so threatened by our coarse, cynical age.
Born in 1936, Henson grew up in the small town of Leland, Miss., where his father worked as an agronomist for the Federal Government. When Henson was in fifth grade, his father took a job in Washington, and the family moved to a suburb in Maryland. There, in high school, Henson became fascinated by television. "I loved the idea," he once said, "that what you saw was taking place somewhere else at the same time." In the summer of 1954, just before he entered the University of Maryland, he learned that a local station needed someone to perform with puppets on a children's show. Henson wasn't particularly interested in puppets, but he did want to get into TV, so he and a friend made a couple--one was called Pierre the French Rat--and they were hired.
The job didn't last long, but within a few months, Henson was back on TV, puppeteering for another station, the local NBC affiliate. Soon he had his own five-minute program, called Sam and Friends. It aired live twice a day, once before the network news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and later preceding the Tonight show, which at that time starred Steve Allen. Remaining in college, where he studied art and theater design, Henson produced Sam and Friends for six years. Assisting him was a fellow student named Jane Nebel, whom he married in 1959.
Puppets have been around for thousands of years, but the proto-Muppets that began to appear on Sam and Friends were different. Kermit was there, looking and sounding much as he would later (until his death Henson always animated Kermit and provided his voice). Typical hand puppets have solid heads, but Kermit's face was soft and mobile, and he could move his mouth in synchronization with his speech; he could also gesticulate more facilely than a marionette, with rods moving his arms. For television, Henson realized, it was necessary to invent puppets that had "life and sensitivity." (Henson sometimes said Muppet was a combination of puppet and marionette, but it seems the word came to him and he liked it, and later thought up a derivation.)
Throughout the early 1960s, the Muppets made appearances on the Today show and a range of variety programs. Then, in 1969, came Sesame Street. Henson was always careful not to take the credit for Sesame Street's achievements. It was not his program, after all--the Children's Television Workshop hired him. In fact, Henson hesitated to join the show, since he did not want to become stuck as a children's entertainer. Nonetheless, few would disagree that it was primarily Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Grover and the rest who made Sesame Street so captivating. Joan Ganz Cooney, who created the show, once remarked that the group involved with it had a collective genius but that Henson was the only individual genius. "He was our era's Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers," Cooney said, "and indeed he drew from all of them to create a new art form that influenced popular culture around the world."
Since Sesame Street has been on the air for 30 years and has been shown in scores of countries, Henson's Muppets have entranced hundreds of millions of children. And the audience for the Muppets has not only been huge; it has also been passionate. In fact, given the number of his fans and the intensity of their devotion, Kermit may possibly be the leading children's character of the century, more significant than even Peter Pan or Winnie-the-Pooh.
But despite the Muppets' success on Sesame Street and their demonstrated appeal to adults as well as children, no U.S. network would give Henson a show of his own. It was a British producer, Lew Grade, who finally offered Henson the financing that enabled him to mount The Muppet Show. The program ran in syndication from 1976 until 1981, when Henson decided to end it lest its quality begin to decline. At its peak it was watched each week by 235 million viewers around the world. Stars from Steve Martin to Rudolf Nureyev appeared as guest hosts, and the show launched the career of Miss Piggy, the vain, tres sophistiquee female who was besotted with Kermit.
The beauty of the Muppets, on both Sesame Street and their own show, was that they were cuddly but not too cuddly, and not only cuddly. There are satire and sly wit; Bert and Ernie quarrel; Miss Piggy behaves unbecomingly; Kermit is sometimes exasperated. By adding just enough tartness to a sweet overall spirit, Henson purveyed a kind of innocence that was plausible for the modern imagination. His knowingness allowed us to accept his real gifts: wonder, delight, optimism.
Henson was a kind, infinitely patient man. Those who worked for him say he literally never raised his voice. Frank Oz, the puppeteer behind Bert, Miss Piggy and many others, was Henson's partner for 27 years. "Jim was not perfect," he says. "But I'll tell you something--he was as close to how you're supposed to behave toward other people as anyone I've ever known."
The only complaint of his five children seems to be that because Henson was so busy, he was unable to spend enough time with them. They often accompanied him while he worked, and he once even took his eldest daughter along when he held a meeting with the head of a movie studio. That child, Lisa, is now a powerful producer in Hollywood; Henson's elder son Brian runs the Jim Henson Co.; and another daughter, Cheryl, also works there.
However gentle, Henson was not a complete naif. He liked expensive cars--Rolls-Royces, Porsches--and after he and Jane separated in 1986 (they remained close and never divorced), he dated a succession of women.
In the '70s and '80s, Henson produced innumerable films and TV shows with and without the Muppets. Some were dark, like his adaptations of folktales and myths in the ingenious TV series Jim Henson's The Storyteller. Then in 1990, at age 53, Henson suddenly died after contracting an extremely aggressive form of pneumonia. He remains a powerful presence, though, on account of Sesame Street and the Henson Co., whose next venture will be a global family-entertainment network called the Kermit Channel. Because the works we encounter as children are so potent, Henson may influence the next century as much as this one, as his viewers grow up carrying his vision within them.
BORN Sept. 24, 1936, in Greenville, Miss.
1954 Gets first TV job as a puppeteer on a local Maryland station
1955 Creates Kermit, his alter ego
1959 Marries Jane Nebel
1969 Sesame Street appears on PBS, introducing Bert, Ernie and Big Bird
1976 Launches The Muppet Show, starring Kermit and Miss Piggy
1990 Dies suddenly in New York City on May 16