Jim Henson - Muppeteer, Filmmaker, Television Producer

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The most sophisticated people I know - inside they are all children.
- Jim Henson

Jim Henson shaped and changed American Television history as a puppeteer, filmmaker and television producer. He was passionate about making a difference in life, bringing a smile to every face and loved and lived life to the full. He was a friend and in return people were friends back. He was a visionary who had a dream and made it happen.

The Young Jim Henson

When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there. It's a wonderful life and I love it.
- Jim Henson

James Maury Henson was born on 24 September, 1936 in King’s Daughters Hospital, Greenville, Mississippi. His parents, Paul and Betty Henson, doted on Jim's older brother and paid little attention to the young Jim, who was left to grow up influenced mainly by his grandmother. 'Dear' as he called his grandmother encouraged him to always be the best he could be and become a visionary with a desire to educate children about the world around them. As Henson’s father worked for the US Department of Agriculture, Henson lived in Leland, Mississippi, where he explored nearby Deer Creek alone and with friends and could not see his grandmother who lived at the family home in Maryland as much as he wanted to. Henson returned to Hyattsville, Maryland near Washington DC during fifth grade at Northwestern High School.

Henson was gripped by visual media from an early age. He enjoyed watching everything from The Wizard of Oz that appeared during the Golden Age of the Cinema, to televised puppet shows such as Kukla Fran and Ollie.

I loved the idea that what you saw was taking place somewhere else at the same time.
- Jim Henson

When Henson was just 16-years-old, he tried to break into television, but met with little success. Then in 1954, two years after his first attempt, WTOP/CBS were searching for puppeteers for their Junior Morning Show. Henson took a chance, auditioned alongside his friend Russell Wall and was hired. The first puppets Henson worked with were Pierre the French Rat and Longhorn and Shorthorn (a couple of cowboys). Three weeks after Henson was hired, the show was cancelled but NBC executives were so impressed by Henson's work that they offered him his own five-minute puppet show called Sam and Friends, which appeared nightly at 6:25pm and 11:25pm and won him an Emmy in 1958. He also made 160 adverts for Wilkins coffee while he was still studying at the University of Maryland where he met Jane Anne Nebel whom he married in 19591. Together they had five children Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather.

The Muppets

Some people claim Kermit is my alter-ego. I'm not sure I know what that means. I like to work Kermit because there's a lot of leeway for ad-libbing, which I don't have with most other characters but I'm not sure that I'm not Kermit.
- Jim Henson

Henson's characters were dubbed Muppets, being a mixture of marionette and hand-puppet. Unlike traditional wooden-headed puppets, most muppets were cloth and foam rubber-based, with the lower jaw operated like a sock puppet. This gave them a strangely believable appearance, despite their cartoon-sized eyes and furry-felt skin. By the time he graduated in 1960 the Muppets were appearing on radio shows such as Steve Allen and Jack Paar and television shows such as The Today Show (1961)and various advertisements.

In 1963, Henson moved to New York, City and set to work in a small office on 53rd Street believing that the Muppets he had been creating were going to make him a huge financial success. Henson was already working with Jerry Juhl (hired in 1961-left in 2000), a writer and puppeteer and now that they were in New York it was felt necessary to build up the team and Don Sahlin and Frank Oznowicz (aka Frank Oz) joined.

In New York, Henson made weekly appearances on The Today Show and was approached by singer and Western star Jimmy Dean who desired a Muppet to appear on his show. The Muppet that was created for The Jimmy Dean Show that appeared from 1963 to 1966 came in the form of a brown dog called Rowlf, which was primarily created to advertise the dog food Purina. The Muppets then regularly appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show until 1971 as well as The Mike Douglas Show and the Hollywood Palace. Due to the company's financial success Henson got to experiment with film and created 1964s Timepiece, The Cube and Youth '68. In undertaking these film pieces Henson learnt a great deal more about camera techniques.

Sesame Street

I love my work, I enjoy it. I have a terrific group of people who work with me.
- Jim Henson

Towards the end of the 1960s Henson created Hey Cinderella in 1968 and that same year appeared on the Perry Como Christmas Show. Public TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney also approached Henson enquiring whether he would mind the Muppets being used to create an educational children's program called Sesame Street for the Children's Television Workshop. Primarily, Henson's characters would appear during an allotted time during the program, but in the end it was felt that the program would be better if the Muppets were its main feature.

The program educated children in the basics of reading, mathematics and skills in looking after themselves. Sometimes this was done through the Muppets themselves, at other times animation, even songs and comedy sketches were used to get messages accross. Even celebrities were eager to interact with the Muppets on the program. The original Sesame Street entertained children in 120 countries, was translated into over 20 languages, won 109 Emmy Awards and overall 4,134 episodes of the show were created in 36 seasons.

The success of Sesame Street enabled Henson to create the first Sesame Street album, two feature-length, prime-time TV specials and several films such as The Frog Prince (1971), The Muppet Musicians of Bremen (1972), Muppet Valentine Special (1974) and The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence (1974). When the Muppets weren't busy being used for filming, they appeared on TV shows such as The Flip Wilson Show, Pure Goldie, (Goldie Hawn special), Tom Jones...at Fantasy Fair, Nancy Sinatra's Las Vegas nightclub act and TV special (1971), The Pat Collins Show, What's My Line? and The Herb Alpert Special where Miss Piggy was unleashed on the public for the very first time under Frank Oz guidance.

Despite the fact that the Muppets were hugely popular, Henson was unhappy for he felt that the success of Sesame Street, had pigeonholed him as a children's entertainer. Henson wanted to entertain everyone, old and young alike and therefore set about creating 11 sketches for adults to be shown on Saturday Night Live, this wasn't a success and before long Henson was offering up the Muppets to syndication.

The Muppet Show

In 1976 London producer Lord Lew Grade commissioned The Muppet Show. The show was an international success, reaching 235 million viewers in over 100 countries, winning its first Emmy award in 1978 and running until 1981. As well as the infamous Kermit the frog2, Gonzo the Great, and Fozzie Bear the show even included Miss Piggy (Kermit’s fiancée) and stars such as Steve Martin and Rudolf Nureyev appeared as guest hosts. The family orientated vaudeville-style variety show won three Emmys in its five-year run and led to the creation of feature films The Muppet Movie (1979)3, The Muppets take Manhattan (1984) and the animated television series, Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies. The Muppet Babies won four consecutive Emmys for 'Outstanding Animated Program'.

Film Director

In 1980, director George Lucas released the second of his hugely popular Star Wars films and began a working relationship with Jim Henson's talented monster-makers including Frank Oz who provided the voice for Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.

By the time Lucas was preparing his third trip to that 'galaxy far, far away', Jim Henson had invested in a new subsidiary for his growing empire: a menagerie of aliens appeared in Return of the Jedi thanks to a group that would later earn the name 'Jim Henson's Creature Shop'4. But providing monsters for someone else's vision was only the first step. Henson had directed his first feature film, The Great Muppet Caper in 1981, and during the following year (in which he was also interviewed by Judy Harris and created The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show), he founded the Jim Henson Foundation.

Dance your cares away, worries for another day, Let the music play, down at Fraggle Rock.
- Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock

In 1981 Henson directed for the first time a feature film, which was called The Great Muppet Caper and during the next year founded the Jim Henson Foundation. He was also interviewed by Judy Harris and went on to create The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show in 1982 and Fraggle Rock in 1983 for pay-cable channel HBO. The Muppets Take Manhattan was released in 1984 alongside the Muppet Babies made by Henson's company and Marvel.

Henson at this time still keen to learn about advancements in technology was planning to use what he had learnt in animatronics and new effects, to create dark, fantasy films; the results were The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). Both inspirations from British illustrator Brian Froud's artwork, the Dark Crystal was written in 1978 by Henson and Cheryl who were snowed in at Kennedy International Airport and the Labyrinth was produced by George Lucas and starred David Bowie. These films were very different from the Henson creations that people were used to and so the films flopped at the cinema, even though today they are considered to be cult-classics and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop™ where they were created still runs.

In 1987 Henson became part of the Television Academy Hall of Fame and later in the eighties produced The Ghost of Faffner Hall, Jim Henson's Greek Myths, Gorgs and Doozers, the animated version of Fraggle Rock and laid on various Muppet guest appearances and specials. There were 96 episodes of Fraggle Rock altogether and the program became the first American television series to appear in Russia.

Henson also produced The Storyteller using his London Creature Shop team and written by future Oscar-winning screenwriter Anthony Minghella, which was shown on Channel 4 in the UK. When the show was broadcast in the USA it was shown as part of a 'Jim Henson Hour'. The Heartless Giant, The Soldier and Death, The True Bride and Sapsorrow are episodes of The Storyteller, while Dog City, Song of the Cloud Forest, Monster Maker, Lighthouse Island and Miss Piggy's Hollywood were other productions from around the same time. The Creature Shop went on to provide various animatronic creations for productions as diverse as The Witches, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Farscape and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as well as Henson’s Muppet*Vision 3D, which continues to entertain thousands daily at the Disney theme parks in Florida and California.

Death of a Visionary

Life's like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.
- Jim Henson

Towards the end of his life Henson wanted to sell his company to the Walt Disney Corporation but the deal fell through the following year as Henson died aged 53 on 16 May, 1990 due to untreated streptococcus caused by bacterial pneumonia.

Henson's memorial service was aired on PBS and was watched by millions of people. During the service nobody wore black, 'When The Saints Go Marching In' was performed by a Dixieland jazz band and Caroll Spinney, who wore the Big Bird outfit, touched the hearts of those who watched by singing Kermit the Frog's signature song, 'Bein' Green'.

Richard Curtis describes a part of Henson's memorial service on the DVD commentary for the movie Love Actually.

At the end of (the funeral)...Frank Oz was talking and he suddenly lifted up Kermit's puppet and started to sing this song called 'One Voice'. And it turned out that all the guys in the memorial service had brought their puppets with them, and they lifted them up, and when you turned around and looked backwards there were fifty puppets all singing. And Big Bird walked down the aisle of Saint Paul's Cathedral, and they all came forward and just this massive chorus of puppets all singing...It was an extraordinary thing...

Apparently, it gave Curtis the idea for how to shoot Peter and Juliet's wedding, with Mark's sudden surprise of the band singing 'All You Need Is Love' before the others in the audience joined in and played their musical instruments.


In tribute to Jim Henson a TV special called The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson was shown featuring old footage of Henson at work and interviews with Steven Spielberg and others talking about Henson.

Henson has been tributed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as himself and Kermit the Frog and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was dedicated to him.

There is also a life size statue of Kermit the Frog talking to Jim Henson on a bench in University of Maryland, College Park campus. The statue was erected on September 24, 2003. More recently (2006) the University of Maryland, College Park introduced 50 statues of their school mascot, Testudo the Terrapin, one of which looked remarkably like Kermit the Frog.

The Show Must Go On

We’ve been taking what we’ve done in the past –which is puppet performance –and moving it into the digital age
– Pete Coogan Managing Director of The Jim Henson Company

Although the passing of Jim Henson affected all that worked with him, the thought of ending Jim Henson Co was incomprehensible. The team carried on under Brian Henson (Jim Henson's son) and saw in Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3D (16 May, 1991), the Dinosaurs, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Dog City and CityKids. Then in 1993 The Jim Henson Legacy was created by friends and family who wished to showcase Jim Henson's life and work and carry it into the future. Also that year Sesame Street Stays Up Late! appeared and was followed by a string of other puppet capers such as The World of Jim Henson, Sesame Street Jam: A Musical Celebration, Its Not Easy Being Green, Muppet Classic Theatre and Animal Show.

Then in 1996, the same year as Muppet Treasure Island was released, Jim Henson Co started creating Muppets Tonight, which ran from 1996 to 1998 on ABC and later on the Disney Channel. It was an updated take on The Muppet Show and was set in a television studio. Many new characters were brought into the mix of the cast such as Pepe the King Prawn, Johnny Fiama, Sal, Bobo the Bear, Seymour, Spamela Hamderson, and Bill the Bubble Guy as well as bringing in some of the old such as Kermit and Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat. Towards the end of the 1990s The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, Muppets from Space and Cinderelmo were all released.

2000 to present day

Jim truly cared about the world. His work for the environment came from deep within... -Bill Pardy (one of the Muppet writers)

During 2000 Jim Henson's family bought the Charlie Chaplin Studios with a ten year agreement. They then sold the Jim Henson Company for $680 million to EM.TV and Merchandising AG based in Germany, who wanted to create 26 new Muppet Shows and make the Muppets hugely popular and successful again. However, EM.TV struggled and soon find themselves selling Henson's stakes in Odyssey and The Kermit Channel for an 8.2% stake in Crown Media Holdings and selling off the rights to the Sesame Street characters for $180 million to the Sesame Workshop5 marking the first time a Muppet has been owned by a company outside of Jim Henson Company some of the Muppets. Finally in 2001, EM.TV hired investment bank Allen and Co. and tried to sell The Jim Henson Company to Charles Rivkin, Disney, Viacom, AOL Time Warner and HIT Entertainment. The little share in The Jim Henson Company EM.TV had left was offered to an investment group led by Dean Valentine in 2003, but the offer was declined and The Henson family (Cheryl, Brian6, Lisa, John and Heather) bought back The Jim Henson Company from EM.TV for $84 million. A year on and it was announced on 17 February, 2004 that the Muppet and Bear characters and programming library had been sold again this time to The Walt Disney Company. 2004 The Jim Henson Company and Europe's HIT Entertainment form a five-year distribution agreement under which HIT will own all TV distribution and merchandise rights for Fraggle Rock, Hoobs, Mopatop's Shop, Construction Site and Emmet Otter's Jug-band Christmas. Today, Sesame Street continues to be separately owned by Sesame Workshop and The Jim Henson Company has held on to the Creature Shop and film and television productions such as Fraggle Rock, Farscape, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

So what is next for the Muppets, who have already been met with
stamps of approval? Well it has been reported by
ABC that Walt Disney are thinking of creating sketches with the Muppets in line with today’s reality shows such as American Idol. So it may not be long till we hear Miss Piggy and Kermit singing in harmony with each other again. Sesame Street on the other hand is working as a not for profit organisation raising money, to educate children in 120 countries worldwide, through a whole host of media products. As for The Jim Henson Company well it can be found out in the news section of The Jim Henson Company website.


  • Timepiece (1965)
  • Youth '68 (1968)
  • The Cube (1969)
  • Hey Cinderella! (1970)
  • The Frog Prince (1972)
  • The Muppet Musicians of Bremen Actor: Kermit the Frog (1972)
  • A Muppet Valentine Special (1973)
  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
  • An American Werewolf in London (1981)
  • The Dark Crystal (1982)
  • Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)
  • Sesame Street Presents: Follow that Bird (1985)
  • Rock Music with the Muppets (1985)
  • Muppet Treasures (1985)
  • The Muppet Revue (1985)
  • Muppets Moments (1985)
  • Fozzie's Muppet Scrapbook (1985)
  • Kermit and Piggy Story (1985)
  • Into the Night (1985)
  • Gonzo Presents Muppet Weird Stuff (1985)
  • Country Music with the Muppets (1985)
  • Inside the Labyrinth (1986)
  • Labyrinth (1986)
  • Muppet Babies Video Storybook Series (1987)
  • A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)
  • The Christmas Toy (1990)
  • The Witches (1990)

Video/Television Specials

  • IBM coffee break films (1965...)
  • Sesame Street(TV Series-1969)
  • The Muppet Show (TV series-1976-1981)
  • Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (TV-1977)
  • Fraggle Rock (TV Series-1983)
  • Tale of the Bunny Picnic (TV-1986)
  • (Jim Henson's) The Storyteller (TV Series-1987)
  • (Jim Henson's) The Storyteller: The Greek Myths (TV Series-1990)
  • World of Puppetry (1990)
Sesame Workshophttp://www.time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/henson_related.htmlhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/guide/talent/h/henson_jim.shtml
1Henson and his wife, Jane, separated in 1986 but never divorced2The original Kermit was made from Henson’s mother’s coat and later a frill was added around Kermit's neck to make him more frog-like and conceal the joint where the neck met the body of the Muppet.3One song that featured in The Muppet Movie was 'The Rainbow Connection', which received Academy Award nominations for Best Score and Best Song as well as an Oscar nomination.4In 1979 Henson bought the home of the Creature Shop, an old post-sorting station on Downshire Hill in the Hampstead section of North London.5Sesame Workshop announced that they would create an HIV positive character to educate children in Africa in 2002.6Brian Henson stepped down as chairman of the Jim Henson Company in 2002.

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