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Jim Henson

Jim Henson (September 24, 1936 – May 16, 1990), was one of the most important puppeteers in modern American television history. He was also a filmmaker, television producer, and the founder of The Jim Henson Company, the Jim Henson Foundation, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

Creator of The Muppets, and the leading force behind their long creative run, Henson brought an engaging cast of characters, innovative ideas, and a sense of timing and humor to millions of people. He is also widely acknowledged for the ongoing vision of faith, friendship, magic, and love which was infused in nearly all of his work.

Early work

Born in Greenville, Mississippi in 1936, Henson moved with his family to Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. in the late 1940s. In 1954, while still in high school, he began working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show. The next year he created Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV, while attending the University of Maryland, College Park. Sam and Friends were already recognizably Muppets, and the show included a primitive version of what would become Henson's signature character, Kermit the Frog. Already he was experimenting with the techniques that would change the way puppetry was used on television, notably using the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-camera.

1960s

The success of Sam and Friends led to a series of guest appearances on network talk and variety shows. To this day, Muppets appear as guests on shows such as The Tonight Show and Hollywood Squares, with particularly memorable appearances by Kermit and Miss Piggy on 60 Minutes and Cookie Monster on Martha Stewart Living. Henson himself appeared as a guest on many shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show. The greatly increased exposure led to hundreds of commercial appearances (mostly for Wilkins Coffee) by Henson characters through the 1960s.

Being puppets, they have been able to get away with a greater level of slapstick violence than might be acceptable with human actors. A good example is one of the early coffee ads. A Muppet is poised behind a cannon seen in profile. Another Muppet is in front of the barrel end of the cannon. The first Muppet says, How do you feel about Wilkins Coffee? The second Muppet responds gruffly, Never heard of it! The first Muppet fires the cannon and blows the second Muppet away... then turns the cannon directly toward the viewer, and ends the ad with, Now, how do you feel about Wilkins Coffee?

In 1963, Henson and his wife Jane, also a puppeteer, moved to New York City, where the newly formed Muppets, Inc. would reside for some time. Henson devised Rowlf, a piano-playing anthropomorphic dog, the first Muppet to make a regular appearance on a network show The Jimmy Dean Show. At that time Henson's long-time partner Frank Oz also came on board with the new company.

From 1964 to 1968, Henson began exploring film-making, and produced a series of experimental films. His nine-minute experimental film Time Piece was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film in 1966. The NBC TV movie The Cube from 1969 is another experimental film that Jim Henson had produced.

In 1968, Joan Ganz Cooney and the team at the Children's Television Workshop began work on Sesame Street, a visionary children's program for public television. Part of the show was set aside for a series of funny, colorful puppet characters living on the titular street. These included Oscar the Grouch, Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster, and Big Bird. Kermit was also included as a roving Television News Reporter. Around this time, a frill was added around Kermit's neck to make him more frog-like. The collar was also used to cover the joint where the neck met the body of the Muppet. At first the puppetry was separated from the realistic segments on the street, but after a poor test screening in Philadelphia, the show was revamped to integrate the two and place much greater emphasis on Henson's work.

1970s

Henson, Oz, and his team targeted an adult audience with a series of sketches on Saturday Night Live, set mostly in the Land of Gorch. Eleven sketches aired between October 1975 and January 1976, with four additional appearances in March, April, May, and September. The SNL writers never got comfortable writing for the characters.

The failure of the Muppets on SNL might have been a blessing in disguise. Starting in 1976, The Muppet Show was occupying Henson's attention in England. The show featured Kermit as host, and a variety of other memorable characters including Miss Piggy, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear. A vaudeville-style variety show aimed at a family audience, the show was a sensation in the United Kingdom and soon elsewhere in the world.

Contributions to film

The Muppet Show ended after a few seasons, but the characters have appeared in a long series of movies, beginning with 1979's The Muppet Movie. One song from that musical film, The Rainbow Connection, sung by Kermit, was nominated for an Oscar. The Muppet characters have also appeared in a large number of made-for-TV-movies and television specials.

Henson was also responsible for two non-Muppet Show-related movies, 1982's high fantasy The Dark Crystal and the 1986 Labyrinth, co-produced by George Lucas. To provide a visual style distinct from the Muppets, the puppets in these two movies were based on conceptual artwork by Brian Froud.

Henson also continued creating children's programs—Fraggle Rock and the animated Muppet Babies—and new prime-time ventures such as the mythology-oriented The Storyteller. The Jim Henson company continues to produce new series and specials.

In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States.

Henson also founded Jim Henson's Creature Shop to build creatures for a large number of other films and series (most recently the science fiction production Farscape), and is considered one of the most advanced and well respected creators of film creatures.

Death

Jim Henson died of bacterial pneumonia on May 16, 1990 at the age of 53. A memorial service for him aired on PBS, and drew millions of viewers and dozens of celebrities in reverence for his life and work.

The Jim Henson Company, Jim Henson Foundation, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop have continued on after his death. His son Brian and daughter Lisa are currently the co-chairs and co-CEOs of the Company; his daughter Cheryl is the president of the Foundation. Steve Whitmire, a veteran member of the Muppet puppeteering crew, has assumed the roles of the two most famous characters played by Jim Henson himself, Kermit the Frog and Ernie.

On February 17, 2004, it was announced that the Muppets (excluding the Sesame Street characters, which are separately owned by Sesame Workshop) and Bear in the Big Blue House properties had been sold by Henson to The Walt Disney Company. The Jim Henson Company retains Creature Shop, as well as the rest of its film and television library including Fraggle Rock, Farscape, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.


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Jim Henson Facts

Birth NameJames Maury Henson
OccupationCreator, Director
BirthdaySeptember 24, 1936
SignLibra
BirthplaceGreenville, Mississippi, USA
Date of deathMay 16, 1990 (age 53)

Selected Filmography

Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas
The Christmas Toy
The Dark Crystal
Henson's Place: The Man Behind The Muppets
What Lies Beneath
Beginnings
Jim Henson's the Storyteller
The Muppet Movie
Cheetah / Gazelle
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