Jim Henson was the master of all things puppetry. He was the famed creator of The Muppets. Without him, the world would have never been introduced to Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, The Swedish Chef or Sesame Street characters like the Cookie Monster or Oscar The Grouch.
James Maury Henson was born on September 24, 1936, in Greenville, Mississippi. He was far more than just a puppeteer – he was a visionary. Throughout his career, his many contributions included work as a filmmaker, screenwriter, inventor, cartoonist, and actor.
Jim never expected his puppetry to bring him a life of success. When he was a freshman in college he created Sam and Friends – a short-form television program that aired late at night after the 11 pm news on WRC-TV in Washington DC. Sam and Friends showed off several early incarnations of his Muppets characters. The show proved to be super popular, inspiring him to continue using his puppets in his work.
It was around that time that he started Muppets Incorporated which would later evolve into the Jim Henson Company. Henson helped create several franchises that still inspire fans to this day. He directed cult classic films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and he’s a two-time Emmy winner for his involvement in The Storyteller and The Jim Henson Hour. Sadly, he passed away at the age of 53 on May 28th of 1990 after a quick bout with bacterial pneumonia.
Henson redefined the way the world viewed puppeteers. He developed unique techniques that gave life to his creations in ways that previously had been thought to be impossible. By using the camera to frame the puppets with the puppeteers just out of view, he was able to incorporate dynamic movement and living soul into his characters that rivaled the complex CGI effects of today.
Today we’re going to look at Jim Henson’s life and prolific career. It really is a shame that he died so young and it’s even sadder what the letters he left behind had to say – we’ll get to that in a second, but make sure you watch this whole video to learn some truly fascinating facts about one of the worlds most cherished entertainers.
Jim Henson Wrote Letters To His Family Years Before He Died
Maybe he had some kind of premonition and knew that his life might be cut short in some kind of way or maybe he was just the kind of person that always likes to have their ducks in a row – but either way four years before he passed away, Jim Henson penned two letters to his family only to be opened in the event that he died.
He wrote one specifically for his children and the other was for his family and friends. In the letter that he directed towards his kids, he promised that he would watch over them if he could and left them with one final piece of advice that he had hoped would touch their hearts. He told them to watch out for one another and to love and forgive everybody. “It’s a good life”, Henson opined “enjoy it”.
Jim Henson Made Several Experimental Films
Throughout the course of his career, Henson made quite a few experimental films. In 1965, he produced Time Piece which wound up receiving an Academy Award nod for Best Short. Henson wrote, directed, and starred in the film. In the short, he played the lead role of “Man”,
Interestingly, Frank Oz, the puppeteer behind Yoda in the Star Wars films, and Miss Piggy in the Muppets cameoed in the film as the ‘messenger boy’.
While reflecting on his career in the 60s, Henson was quoted as saying that his work at the time could be divided into two distinct categories. The first category was his commercially successful works like The Muppets. Audiences could connect with that kind of stuff. It was socially acceptable.
The other category was his experimental films. They were pieces of art that he created mainly for his own enjoyment but had little to no commercial appeal. The fact that Henson was able to create both accessible and avant-garde content showed that he was a tremendously versatile artist, even at a young age.
Henson Always Wanted To Open A Nightclub
In the late 60s, Henson conjured up an idea for an immersive nightclub that he called Cyclia. According to Brian Jay Jones, writer of Jim Henson: The Biography, the club was meant to be totally unique experience where film, dance, and music would come together synergistically to form a fully encapsulating experience.
He wanted to project his experimental films on the walls and ceilings and have all of the visuals timed with the music. He was ahead of his time. Today you can find such clubs all over the place – but we’re quite sure that Henson’s take on the concept would have been completely unique and out of this world.
Unfortunately, the club concept never really took off, but The Jim Henson Company has published some of the visualizations intended for use in the club on YouTube.
Hey, by the way, if you’re enjoying this video so far show us a little support by giving it a like and subscribing to our channel – And keep watching to see how Jim Henson developed characters like the Cookie Monster, Rowlf the Dog, and Kermit the Frog.
The Original Kermit The Frog Was Made From Tattered Old Coats And Ping Pong Balls
Kermitmade his debut in 1955 on the Sam and Friends show. Henson won his first Emmy thanks to that show.
The characters and puppets were created by Henson and his buddies over at the University of Maryland. Some of the characters featured on that short late-night show ended up evolving into Muppets.
Kermit was actually constructed out of old coats that were given to Henson by his mother combined with hand-painted ping pong balls. Jim Henson referred to Kermit as his alter-ego, although he explained that Kermit was a tad bit snarkier than he was.
Later on, Kermit would also make an appearance on Sesame Street when the program debuted in 1969.
Jim Met His Wife At Puppetry Class
Henson met his wife-to-be in 1954 while he was still a freshman studying at the University of Maryland. He and Jane Nebel were both enrolled in a puppetry course and she helped him develop some of his ideas for Sam and Friends. They were both still very young when they met – still teenagers at the time. Their relationship started off platonic as they worked on numerous school related projects together, but eventually, they would fall deeply in love.
They married five years later in May of 1959 and even built a puppetry workshop in their home. The duo had five kids together – many of whom would follow in their dad’s footsteps by continuing his work. For example, Lisa Henson, Jim’s daughter, is currently the CEO and president of The Jim Henson Company.
Eventually, Jim and Jane’s relationship would become estranged. They separated in his later years but they remained technically married until his death in 1990. Despite their problems, when he fell ill, she came to his side and she was beside him when he took his last breath.
Jim Henson Tricked His Son Into Providing The Voice For Hoggle In Labyrinth
Brian Henson also went on to become a puppeteer and entertainer. He preferred to work on his own projects but he would help his dad out from time to time on his productions. In 1986 he would link up with his father full-time to work as a puppet coordinator on set of Labyrinth.
During filming, Brian would read Hoggle’s lines as he controlled the puppet. He was under the impression that his dad would re-record all of the lines with another voice actor later on in post-production. He seriously didn’t expect to actually wind up in the finished film.
At the last second, Jim Henson decided to keep his son’s voice. Brian initially protested saying that the voice was hardly a believable English accent. That didn’t matter to Jim, however. He liked how weird his son’s voice was – it was too good to pitch.
Some Of His Characters Were Initially 2-Dimensional
While Jim was in high school he joined the yearbook committee. It was there that he started experimenting with drawing and illustrating. He wrote a short comic strip for the yearbook that incorporated several characters that would eventually become puppets on Sam and Friends. That’s precisely how Pierre the French Rat was born.
Pierre was one of the first puppets that Henson would ever design. The original puppet is actually on display at the Jim Henson Company Archives and is sometimes presented in traveling exhibits. The yearbook comic strip “Pierre the French Rat Visits NHS” was later republished in the book Jim Henson’s Designs and Doodles in 2001.
Some Of Henson’s Work In Advertising Gave Birth To Classic Characters
After producing the Oscar-Nominated short Time Piece, Henson became somewhat of a hot item to advertisers and producers of other TV programs. After Time Piece and Sam And Friends, Henson worked on quite a few commercials and developed several puppets to help sell the products..
Jim came up with a character named the Wheel Stealer for a snack food advertisement that eventually morphed into the Cookie Monster. For a dog food ad, Henson came up with Rowlf the Dog.
Jim Henson might have died some 30 years ago, but his legacy lives on. The Jim Henson Company continues to produce films and TV shows. You can stream Fraggle Rock: Rock On! On Apple TV, the Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is on Netflix and Guillernmo del Toro is working with the production company on a stop-motion dark musical fantasy adaptation of Pinocchio that is planned for 2021.
And of course, The Muppets are going to be around for years to come. Muppets Now, an improvisational sketch comedy show, premiered on Disney+ on July 21, 2020
Jim would probably be thrilled to see that his creations still have a life of their own so many years later.
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