If you’re under a certain age Jim Henson probably taught you something, whether that’s how to tie your shoes, how to count to 10 in Spanish, or that a pig and a frog could fall in love. Labeled early in his career as “just” a puppeteer — a novelty act — Henson became the driving force behind a programming empire, winning fans in every age group from preschool to retirement while touching countless lives and developing scores of fellow artists. Make no mistake; this so-called novelty act was one of the most influential entertainers of his time.
And so there was a sad moment recently when I realized I had never fully examined his work in film. I had just viewed the Henson Company’s Mirrormask, meant as a continuation of Henson’s fantasy film legacy, and was severely disappointed. The movie was a brave experiment, yet it failed to assemble into anything more than the sum of its parts. The ideas were there, the story seemed to click, and yet there was not even a fraction of the heart felt in Henson’s classics. Why? Was it the switch from practical puppets to computer-generated monsters? Was it the dark tone? Something deeper? Where did Henson go so right, where everyone since has gone so wrong?
Filmmaking was an early interest for Henson. In fact, he was nominated for an Academy Award (for the short film Time Piece) a decade before his first Emmy. But filmmaking slipped to the background as he began his work in television, starting with the cult hit “Sam and Friends” through a stint on “Saturday Night Live” and on into “Sesame Street”, “The Muppet Show”, “Fraggle Rock” and many more. Henson is known primarily for his work in an episodic medium and this fact, along with his relatively small number of films, is why his movie work has been overshadowed.
While I can’t compare his film output to the tremendous influence of “The Muppet Show” or his other TV projects, I plan to use his films as a tiny window into what made Henson tick, his particular passions, and how his filmmaking should be seen in the greater context of his life’s work. I’m excited to make Jim Henson my next Hollywood Project.
Name: James Maury Henson
Birth: September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi
Death: May 16, 1990 (pneumonia) in New York, New York.
Parents: Paul Henson (agronomist), Elizabeth Henson
Life: Jim Henson grew up one of six siblings in the small town of Leland, Mississippi, known for its connection to blues music and for its colorful Christmas float parade on nearby Deer Creek. The Henson family moved to the Washington, DC area while Jim was in the fifth grade so his father, Paul, could work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The promotion went well for the family and Henson later recalled the profound moment when his father brought home his first television set. Jim quickly became fascinated with puppetry acts, such as Edgar Bergen and the “Fran and Ollie” show. These influences stuck.
While still in high school, Henson began working with puppets for a local television station’s children programming. At this time, Henson saw puppetry as just a stepping stone to the larger TV industry, and he used it snare his own local program, “Sam and Friends.” While working on “Sam”, Henson met and hired Jane Nebel as a muppeteer. Eventually, the couple would marry and raise five children. Although they were separated at the time of his death, they never divorced and remained quite close.
Henson developed flu-like symptoms in early May, 1990, but reportedly kept them to himself as to not bother family or friends. His condition worsened, however, and by the time he sought medical attention, the disease had taken hold. Henson had contracted a vicious strain of bacterial pneumonia and, despite aggressive efforts to cleanse his body of the illness, his organs shut down rapidly, leading to his death on May 16, 1990. His funeral was a festive celebration of his life – nobody wore black, and the Muppets led an emotional sing-along of his favorite music. His ashes were scattered near his ranch in New Mexico, and a permanent tribute sits at the University of Maryland, his alma mater.
Career: Jim Henson had his big break with “Sam and Friends” in 1954, a puppet show on local Maryland television that met with some modest success and ran for five seasons. The show is where Henson developed his team, elements of his humor (several sketches would reappear in his later projects), and a few of his signature characters, including a lizard-like puppet named Kermit, the name of a childhood friend.
Perhaps more importantly, “Sam and Friends” is where Henson developed his overall approach to puppetry in new media. At this time, American puppetry was still clinging to its roots in vaudeville and pre-vaudeville styles: a performer with a doll on his lap, or dangling a marionette in front of a camera ala Howdy Doody. In almost all cases the puppets were made from painted wood. Henson decided that felt-covered foam rubber would allow for more expression in his creations, and that for ease of use (and for a more lifelike effect), the puppeteer should be right there on the same stage as the puppet — the camera operator would just be told to shoot above the performer. Henson also shifted from marionette strings to arm rods, creating a hybrid marionette/puppet that he referred to as a “muppet.”
By this time, Henson had developed a passion to bring puppetry into the American mainstream, but his career was slow to get started. He crafted commercials and appeared on variety shows, but still suffered from the stigma of being a sideshow gimmick. Eventually, looking for a career break, Henson took a job creating puppet characters for a new children’s show on public television. The show –“Sesame Street” — proved to be exactly the kick start Henson needed. His characters were runaway successes, and Henson was suddenly in demand, but a fear of being typecast as a children’s performer led him to a failed stint on the first season of “Saturday Night Live.” After being told that the SNL writers wouldn’t “write for felt,” Henson brainstormed his own version of a puppet comedy and variety hour, an idea that eventually led to “The Muppet Show.”
Nothing went smoothly with “The Muppet Show.” Pushed to England because no American studio would fund it, airing only in syndication, and struggling to land even D-list guests, the show seemed doomed to failure. But then, just as Henson predicted, adult audiences discovered the show and the Muppets became an overnight phenomenon. The show eventually ran five successful seasons.
Beyond his work in film, which we’ll discuss on the countdown, Henson continued to create new television product for the rest of his life. In addition to a slew of Emmys and BAFTAs, Henson is one of the rare performers to be honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for himself and one for Kermit the Frog, his most popular character. Kermit, however, was not Henson’s favorite. That honor belonged to Rowlf, the piano-playing dog, who has been permanently retired since Henson’s death, even though the Muppets have lived on, and likely will for a very long time.
Trademarks: The most obvious trademark of Henson’s work is the presence of his muppet creations, either standing alone or performing alongside human actors. Henson often looked for innovations in puppetry in film and television, seeking to make the puppet characters as lifelike as possible, even using unorthodox tricks such as breaking the “fourth wall” illusion to lend life to his characters. Henson excelled at world-building, and spent enormous amounts of energy on the tiniest details so that his worlds could stand on their own. Henson also favored a variety-show approach to entertainment, combining music and celebrity cameos with a breezy, inoffensive comedic style.
Number of Eligible Films: 3 (Arguably, but we’ll deal with that as it comes.)
Remarks: Directors are known for being a bit megalomaniacal, but all evidence suggests that Jim Henson was a pretty nice guy. I get the sense that Henson wasn’t even a “director” at all, at least not in his DNA. He was a creator – a writer/art designer given the keys to the set. For example, when The Muppet Movie finally hit the big screen — the culmination of his life’s work — he handed the reigns to someone else, something I doubt a control-minded director (like James Cameron) would ever allow. Maybe it was his small town background and large family that tempered Henson somewhat, hardwiring him for sharing and cooperation.
I get the sense in looking over his career, though, that Henson always strived for something more than what he had, although I can’t guess what. Obviously, any man who created the Muppets, gave life to “Sesame Street”, and crafted so many meaningful hours of television had to be considered a success, but I have a feeling that Henson struggled with the direction of his career, and how he would eventually be remembered. It’s something I plan to explore with this project.
(Note: The Jim Henson Project is complete. Please enjoy the links below, which will take you through the entire Project, a film at a time.)