Jim Henson was one of the most innovative and creative minds of our time. He was an American puppeteer, animator, cartoonist, actor, inventor, and filmmaker. He achieved worldwide notice as the creator of The Muppets, who changed the way that we view television and movies.
James Maury Henson was born on September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi. As a freshman, he created Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. The characters on Sam and Friends were forerunners of the Muppets, and the show included a prototype of Henson’s most famous character Kermit the Frog.
He remained at WRC from 1954 to 1961. In the show, storyteller Henson began experimenting with techniques that changed the way in which puppetry was used on television, including using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppet performer to work from off-camera.
Jim Henson believed that television puppets needed to have “life and sensitivity”
He 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, he wanted the Muppet characters to “speak” more creatively than was possible for previous puppets, which had random mouth movements, so he used precise mouth movements to match the dialogue.
The innovative work of Jim Henson’s Muppets and Sesame Street appears on television in 140 countries and his fantasy films have become classics for multiple generations.
A lovingly crafted and richly illustrated tales of dragons.
A lovingly crafted and richly illustrated tales of fairies.
A lovingly crafted and richly illustrated tales of witches.
Training and Early Career
Storyteller Henson began working for WTOP-TV (now WUSA-TV) in 1954 while attending Northwestern High School, where he created puppets for a Saturday morning children’s program called The Junior Morning Show.
He attended the University of Maryland, College Park as a studio art major after high school, but he thought he might make it as a commercial artist. He was introduced to the craft and textiles courses at the college of home economics by a puppetry lesson in the applied arts department.
In 1960, he received a Bachelor of Science in home economics from the University of Tulsa.
Jim Henson met Jane Nebel (1934-2013) at university, who assisted in the development of the Muppets and became his first performing partner. Jane and Jim got married in 1959, and they had five children together. Their family has continued to build on the foundation laid by their parents.
Guest appearances on a national variety show hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, and others were a result of Sam and Friends. Jim and Jane Henson began creating television commercials for a variety of businesses.
At Puppeteers of America festivals, he met other creative geniuses who would go on to become major contributors. Burr Tillstrom, the creator of I Love Lucy and other television classics introduced him to Don Sahlin, the world’s greatest puppet builder.
Jim met Jerry Juhl (Jerome Ravn Juhl, 1938-2005) and Frank Oz (Richard Frank Oznowicz, b.1944) at a festival in 1961.
Jim Henson cast Juhl as a puppeteer in the Muppets and promoted him to the chief writer. Frank Oz became one of the most well-known Muppet performers and Jthe inventor’s closest collaborator.
In 1962, Jim Henson became the president of Puppeteers of America. The Muppets moved to New York City in 1963. He began his career by creating Rowlf, the first Muppet to gain national popularity, for the Jimmy Dean Show (1963-1966). In the same year, Frank Oz joined the team to help.
In the mid-1960s, Joan Ganz Cooney began planning Sesame Street, an educational children’s program that would premiere in 1969. Jim Henson was asked to create a family of characters for Sesame Street based on his prior success creating brief, amusing puppet pieces. Cooney and collaborator Jon Stone requested it after seeing his work.
These included Ernie (performed by Jim Henson) and Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster (performed by Frank Oz), Count von Count (performed byJerry Nelson), and Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird (performed by Caroll Spinney). Jim Henson also produced over two dozen live-action and animated shorts for early Sesame Street programmes.
Puppeteers Martin Robinson as Telly Monster and Snuffleupagus (since 1980), Kevin Clash as Elmo (from 1988 to 2012), Richard Hunt (from 1970 to 1991) and Fran Brill (from 1970 to 2015) have all made significant contributions.
After almost fifty years of broadcast in more than 140 countries, Sesame Street is one of the longest-running television programmes in the world and has won over 150 awards (as of 2009, Sesame Street has won 8 Grammy Awards and 143 Emmy Awards – more than any other children’s show in the United States).
After the show’s 1969 debut, producers and executives of the Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) explored the possibility of international co-productions based on the American Sesame Street but adapted to the countries in which they are produced, incorporating local characters and themes.
By 2012, there were more than 35 co-productions, including in the following countries:
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Israel, Israel and Palestine, Japan, Jordan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Norway, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal and Portuguese-speaking African countries, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom.
In addition, dubbed and repackaged versions of Sesame Street air around the globe.
The Muppet Show
It was Jim Henson’s ambition to attract a general family audience, creating a show that would delight both adults and children.
He was informed by London-based television producer Lord Lew Grade that he would be granted funding for The Muppet Show after years of advocating the concept.
The first production took place in England in 1975. The following is a list of the unforgettable characters from the program: Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, performed by Frank Oz; Gonzo the Great, performed by Dave Goelz; Scooter, performed by Richard Hunt (1951-1992); and Rizzo the Rat, performed by Steve Whitmire.
The Muppets, along with weekly guest stars, demonstrated the breadth of Jim Henson’s humour and imagination during the show’s run on ABC. With Kermit the Frog as host and serenaded by Doctor Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the Muppets presented a one-hour variety show broadcast in more than 140 countries.
Service to the Profession
UNIMA-USA’s founding president, Jim Henson, believed that an award should be created to acknowledge and reward the finest of the puppetry arts in America. In recognition of his services to UNIMA-USA and beyond, he was named a Member of Honour in 1976. He served as a UNIMA Member of Honour from 1976 until his death in 1990.
He was the driving force behind bringing the UNIMA 13th World Puppetry Festival to Washington, DC in 1980.
Jim Henson has always made time to assist other puppeteers throughout his long career. To heighten public awareness of the craft of puppetry, The Jim Henson Foundation was established in 1982.
The series, Jim Henson Presents the World of Puppetry (1985), presented six one-hour programmes documenting the work of puppeteers Sergei Obraztsov, Albrecht Roser, Philippe Genty, Henk Boerwinkel, Richard Bradshaw, and Bruce Schwartz.
Films and TV Shows
The Muppet feature films that Jim Henson produced included:
- The Muppet Movie (1979)
- The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
- The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
His son Brian produced and directed The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996), and produced Muppets from Space (1999).
The filmmaker created two major fantasy films, The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). With conceptual design by British illustrator Brian Froud, Jim Henson and collaborators developed elaborate three-dimensional characters with advanced movement abilities for puppets on film.
The Dark Crystal, five years in development, used scores of designers, builders, technicians, and performers. Labyrinth, executive produced by George Lucas and starring David Bowie, gave Jim Henson the opportunity to further develop the field of animatronics.
The multi-talented staff that worked on these two films formed the basis for what is now known as Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Founded in 1979 in London and now located in Los Angeles and New York, the Creature Shop continues to set industry standards while bringing previously unseen worlds to life.
Jim Henson had the keen ability of drawing together a strong team of performers, artists, and collaborators who shared his vision. The television series, Fraggle Rock (1983-1987) introduced innovations and refinements.
“When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for the storyteller.”
Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1987) and The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1989) had rich dramatic use of language, in contrast to the breezy scripts of earlier shows. John Hurt narrated both series, with Jim Henson directing The Storyteller and Frank Oz directing The Storyteller: Greek Myths.
Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Hans My Hedgehog won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program in 1987, and Henson’s The Storyteller: The Luckchild, and The Storyteller: A Story Short won in 1988. John Hurt’s title role and on-screen narration were both based on Jim Henson’s vision.
In addition to directing the original “C Is For Cookie,” Tales from Muppetland is a series of tv movie specials that retell classic fairy tales for a younger audience. The show is hosted by Kermit the Frog and includes episodes like Hey, Cinderella!, The Frog Prince, and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen.
The Storyteller Series has Jim Henson’s signature on it in more ways than one. Not only was Jim the creator and director, but he also lent his voice to many of the characters. Jim Henson brought the Storyteller character to life with his unique vocal talents and added an extra layer of magic to the series.
European folk/fairy tales that have become recognizable fantasies and Jim Henson’s innovative puppetry resulted in charming, memorable entertainment for children and adults. In 1990, Jim Henson directed Muppet*Vision 3D, a short film attraction for a custom-made theatre installation at Disney/MGM Studios’ theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Jim Henson’s Legacy
On May 15, 1990, he was brought to the emergency room at New York–Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. Shortly after admission, he stopped breathing and was rushed into the intensive care unit. X-ray images of his chest revealed multiple abscesses in both of his lungs as a result of a previous bacterial infection.
Henson was placed on a ventilator but quickly deteriorated over the next several hours despite increasingly aggressive treatment with multiple antibiotics. Although the medicine killed off most of the infection, it had already weakened many of Henson’s organs, and he died at 1:21 a.m. the following morning on May 16, 1990. He was 53.
Dr David Gelmont announced that storyteller Henson had died from Streptococcus pneumonia, an infection that causes bacterial pneumonia. However, on May 29, 1990, Gelmont reclassified it as organ dysfunction resulting from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes.
Gelmont noted Henson might have been saved had he gone to the hospital even just a few hours sooner. Medical expert Lawrence D. Altman also stated that Henson’s death “may have shocked many Americans who believed that bacterial infections no longer could kill with such swiftness”.
His work continues to entertain a global audience through The Jim Henson Company. In 1991, his son Brian Henson became president of The Jim Henson Company and now serves as Chairman. Daughter Lisa Henson currently serves as CEO and oversees a variety of film and television productions and projects for a range of platforms.
After 2000, The Jim Henson Company was briefly owned by EM.TV. It has been owned by the Henson family since 2003. In 2000, Sesame Workshop purchased the rights to the Sesame Street Muppet characters.
In 2004, The Walt Disney Company purchased the rights to the classic Muppets and the Muppet name. The films The Muppets (director, James Bobin, 2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (director, James Bobin, 2014), along with numerous Muppet television and Internet projects, were produced by The Walt Disney Company.
Daughter Cheryl Henson is president of The Jim Henson Foundation and daughter Heather Henson is a performer and producer (IBEX, Hand Made Puppet Dreams, Puppet Slam Network). Both serve on the board of The Jim Henson Legacy, helping to preserve and present their father’s body of work.
The Hensons’ donations to the Center of Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Museum of the Moving Image in New York provided for the creation of permanent exhibits focusing on their parents’ lives and work.
The Jim Henson Foundation, a charity founded by the Muppets creator in 1997 to educate future generations about creativity, and other contributions to the Smithsonian Institution, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and The Strong Museum of Play ensure that future generations will be inspired by Jim Henson.
Jim Henson was a creative genius who pushed the limits of puppetry while also pushing the envelope with technological innovation.
He was a key figure in the early development of modern puppetry and is known for revolutionizing it. He helped create the diverse visual lexicon of the 20th century as a leading commercial artist. As a world-famous entertainer, Jim Henson delighted and astonished audiences all over the world.