Henson with Kermit the Frog
Jim Henson is without
a doubt the most famous puppeteer in history. Both the creator and
a performer of the “Muppets,” Henson is known throughout
the world for his puppet creations, which include such characters
as Grover, Elmo, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Miss Piggy, and especially,
Kermit the Frog, whose voice was provided by Henson and who remains
the muppet with which Henson is most closely associated. Through
television and later through feature films, Henson developed the
art of puppetry to new heights of technical expertise and storytelling
capabilities, particularly in the ability to create sympathetic,
emotional characters with whom audiences, both young and old alike,
James Maury Henson
was born September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi, the second
son of Paul Ransom and Elizabeth Marcella Henson. He grew up in
nearby Leland, where his father, an agronomist, worked for the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. His childhood was a happy one, as he
explored both his artistic interests and the local countryside,
whether alone or with friends. One of his childhood friends, Kermit,
would later inspire the name of Hensons most celebrated creation.
When he was in fifth grade, his family returned to Maryland. Henson’s
first television appearance occurred while he was still in high
school, performing puppets on a local Washington, D.C., Saturday
morning program on WTOP-TV. While a freshman at the University of
Maryland, he turned professional when a local NBC affiliate hired
him to do a five-minute late-night show called “Sam and Friends.”
His first performing partner, Jane Nebel, would later become his
In creating the “muppets”a
combination of the words “marionette puppet”Henson
rejected the painted wood appearance of most puppets of the period
because they were not sufficiently expressive of emotion. Instead,
he crafted his puppets, including an early version of “Kermit,”
who was not yet a frog, out of flexible, fabric-covered foam rubber,
giving them supple bodies and large mouths that allowed them to
convey a wide range of emotions.
Success from the show proved the
stepping stone for a series of commercials that brought him nationwide
fame. Soon, he was making guest appearances on such national network
programs as The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Show,
and The Today Show. In 1961, as Muppets, Inc. grew, Jim and
Jane brought on puppeteer and writer Jerry Juhl, who would become
one of Jim’s major collaborators.
The Hensons moved to New York in 1963 as his television appearances
grew to include The Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan, and
The Jimmy Dean Show, and weekly appearances on The Today
Show as well as commercials. To keep up with demand, he hired
master puppet builder Don Sahlin and young puppeteer Frank Oz. During
this time also, he experimented with short films, including “Time
Piece,” which was nominated for an Oscar for best live-action
short subject. In 1968 he broadcast his first television special,
“Muppets on Puppets,” for National Educational Television.
With the premiere in 1969 of Sesame
Street, the Muppets reached superstardom. Produced by the nonprofit
Children’s Television Workshop, Sesame Street used flashy
imagery and quick pacing common in television commercials to teach
preschoolers about letters, numbers, and social values. PBS producer
Joan Ganz Cooney had invited Henson to create a family of Muppet
characters to populate Sesame Street. Henson and his creative team
created a number of memorable characters for Sesame Street,
including Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Grover, Cookie Monster,
and Big Bird, each with distinctive personalities.
Henson’s success on Sesame Street
paved the way for his next television production, The Muppet
Show, a weekly syndicated variety show hosted by Kermit the
Frog with an expanded cast of both new and familiar muppets and
guest starring live actors and celebrities. The show was an immediate
success upon its premiere in 1976 and was still popular when Henson
decided to cease production in 1981 in order to concentrate on greater
His company by now had expanded
to include a wide variety of children’s programming and educational
materials, including books, music, and television shows, such as
Fraggle Rock on HBO and Muppet Babies on CBS-TV. His
primary creative interest, however, was in motion pictures. In 1979,
he had scored a hit with young and old alike with the first big-screen
Muppet movie, titled simply The Muppet Movie. The musical-comedy
launched a series of Muppet movies, including The Great Muppet
Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), which
has continued into the present.
During the 1980s, Henson also produced
two big-screen productions starring a cast of puppets other than
the familiar cast of Muppets. The Dark Crystal (1982) and
Labyrinth (1986) expanded the art and craft of puppeteering
to new levels of technical achievement. Henson also continued to
produce some memorable television programs and specials. Jim
Henson’s The Storyteller and Jim Henson’s Greek Myths
were original series conceived by Henson to convey the metaphoric
richness of ancient stories. Based on authentic myths and folk tales
and produced with a strong literary research team, the two series
represented a rare combination of ancient tradition and modern technological
Henson died of pneumonia in New
York on May 16, 1990. Over the course of a career spanning more
than 30 years, Henson received eighteen Emmy awards, seven Grammy
awards, four Peabody awards, and numerous other honors.
Related Links & Info
You can find
out more about the Jim Henson Company
- Time Piece. (Also producer and director.) Contemporary Films, 1965.
- The Cube. Teleplay. (Co-author, producer and director.) Broadcast by NBC-TV, 1969.
- The Muppet Show Book New York: Abrams, 1978.
In addition to these works, Henson’s Muppets have been the basis for hundreds
of books for children, including Sweet Dreams on Sesame Street
(Random House, 1983); You Are the Star of a Muppet Adventure, by
Ellen Weiss (Random House, 1983); and Muppet Babies at the Circus
(Random House, 1985).
Television and Motion Pictures:
film and television productions are too numerous to recount here, as are
his varied roles in them: he often served as writer, director, producer,
and “performer” (as puppeteer and voice) in his productions,
and occasionally in other roles as well (such as choreography for The
Muppets Take Manhattan).
A comprehensive filmography, which includes television productions also,
is available online
at the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/).
Biographical and General Sources:
- Bacon, Matt. No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. New York: MacMillan, 1997.
- Finch, Christopher, and Charles S. Finch. Jim Henson: The Works: The Art, the Magic, the Imagination. New York: Random House, 1993.
- Henson Associates. The Art of the Muppets: A Retrospective Look at Twenty-five Years of Muppet Magic. New York: Bantam, 1980.
- St. Pierre, Stephanie. The Story of Jim Henson: Creator of the Muppets. N.p.: Gareth Stevens, 1997.
General and Fan web sites:
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