Jim Henson - Writer

Animator, Puppeteer, Director, and Producer. Nationality: American. Born: James Maury Henson in Greenville, Mississippi, 24 September 1936. Education: Studied theater arts, University of Maryland. Family: Married partner in puppetry Jane Nebel, 1959, children: Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather. Career: 1954—while still attending high school in Washington, D.C. worked as puppeteer on local TV show; while in college, produced regular five-minute TV puppet show, Sam and Friends , whose characters evolved into the Muppets; 1960s—Muppets featured on Steve Allen Show, Ed Sullivan Show and other prime-time programs, becoming a cult; 1965—short film Timepiece nominated for Academy Award; 1969— Sesame Street launched on PBS network, subsequently shown in 80 countries, winning numerous Emmys and a Peabody Award; 1976— The Muppet Show launched with backing from UK TV mogul Lord Grade, winning three Emmys and seen in 100 countries by an estimated 235 million viewers; 1979—set up Jim Henson's Creature Shop in London; made first feature film, The Muppet Movie ; 1981—film-directing debut with The Great Muppet Caper ; 1982—first all-animatronic feature, The Dark Crystal . Awards: Local Emmy, 1958. Died: Of streptococcal pneumonia, in New York City, 16 May 1990.

Films as Animator/Puppeteer:


Timepiece (short) (+ d)


Hey Cinderella (+ d)


Number Twelve Rocks (short) (+ d)


Frog Prince (+ d)


The Muppet Movie (Frawley) (+ pr, ro)


The Great Muppet Caper (+ d, pr, ro)


The Dark Crystal (+ co-d with Oz, co-pr, co-sc)


The Muppets Take Manhattan (Oz) (+ pr, ro)


Labyrinth (+ d, co-sc)

Jim Henson
Jim Henson

Other Films:


Into the Night (Landis) (ro as man on phone); Dreamchild (Millar) (creature des)


The Bear (Annaud) (creature des)


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Barron) (creature des); The Witches (Roeg) (creature des, co-pr)


By HENSON: article—

Interview in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1989.

On HENSON: books—

Finch, Christopher, Of Muppets and Men , New York, 1981.

Froud, Brian, The World of the Dark Crystal , New York, 1982.

Finch, Christopher, The Making of the Dark Crystal , New York, 1983.

Finch, Christopher, Jim Henson the Works: The Art, the Magic, the Imagination , New York, 1993.

St. Pierre, Stephanie, The Story of Jim Henson: Creator of "The Muppets," Milwaukee, 1997.

Bacon, Matt, No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson's Creature Factory , New York, 1997.

Canizares, Susan, Meet Jim Henson , New York, 1999.

Minghella, Anthony, Jim Henson's Storyteller , New York, 1999.

On HENSON: articles—

Skow, John, "Those Marvellous Muppets," in Time (New York), 25 December 1978.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1979.

Magid, Ron, "Goblin World Created for Labyrinth ," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1986.

Wells, Theresa, "Henson: From Muppets to 'Storyteller,"' in Hollywood Reporter , 30 January 1987.

Prady, Bill, "Jim Henson," in Rolling Stone (New York), 28 June 1990.

Owen, David, "Looking out for Kermit," in New Yorker , 16 August 1993.

Johnson, Richard, "Muppet Master," in Radio Times (London), 8 July 1995.

"Jim Henson 40th Anniversary," special issue of Variety (New York), 11 December 1995.

Ecran Fantastique (Paris), June 1996.

Collins, James, "Jim Henson," in Time , 8 June 1998.

"Jim Henson: A Gentle Genius Changed Forever the Way America Looks at Talking Frogs—and Children's Television," in People Weekly , 15 March 1999.

* * *

As a child, Jim Henson devised his first puppets by cutting bits of cloth from a discarded coat of his mother's. When he made his television debut, on a local station in Washington, D.C., his puppet was an old green sock with his hand inside it. Though he was to pioneer a revolution in puppeteering through such intricate and subtle techniques as animatronics and computer-generated imaging (CGI), something of the same basic simplicity always remained at the heart of Henson's creations. Kermit the frog, his most famous character, was visibly close kin to that old green sock. Henson could stick two eyes on a lump of wood and the thing would take on a life and personality of its own.

It was this mix of simplicity and sophistication that fueled the success of the Muppets, Henson's best-known creations. Both the educationally oriented Sesame Street and its successor, The Muppet Show appealed to children and adults alike because, although the shows' outlook on the world (which was also Henson's outlook) was essentially benevolent, it was never sugary or sentimental. As well as the engagingly laid-back humor, there was an underlying anarchy to the Muppets; characters could be spiky, grotesque, malicious, even tragic. Fozzie Bear was an unstable depressive; Miss Piggy was a monster of vanity, all the funnier for recalling so many human showbiz counterparts; Rowlf the jazz-pianist dog was clearly high on something more potent than lemonade; and melancholy lurked behind Kermit's perky resilience. When he sang, "It's Not Easy Being Green" (voiced, as Kermit always was, by Henson himself), it was with a heartbreaking and universal sadness.

Like most acts originally conceived for television, the Muppets never worked quite so well on the big screen. Henson himself masterminded the first three Muppet films (there have been two more since his death), but despite his direct input the need to sustain a feature-length plot and the loss of the enclosed, backstage music-hall world of the television show left the characters feeling overextended and adrift, and the films rarely attained the same level of exuberant irreverence. Their chief value lay in the opportunities they afforded Henson to exercise his creative ingenuity and stretch his technique—such as the famous scene in The Great Muppet Caper where Kermit and Miss Piggy ride (real) bicycles around each other in Hyde Park.

Even more ambitious in terms of sheer technique were Henson's two excursions into the realm of semi-adult fantasy, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth . In these films he seized every chance to extend the boundaries of animatronics, his technique of remote-controlling puppet figures via multiple electronic impulses—thus allowing a far wider range of emotions to be expressed than could ever be achieved through traditional puppeteering. But in both films the technique, dazzling as it was, and Henson's evident delight in the minutiae of his blinking, twitching creatures, tended to swamp the already fairly thin story lines.

Had Henson not died suddenly at age 53, he would almost certainly have found ways of reconciling sophistication with simplicity, of rendering his increasingly complex techniques unobtrusive and placing them at the service of a strong, clear story line. Five years after his death the company he founded, Jim Henson Productions, succeeded in producing just such a film, Babe —and reaped the reward both critically and at the box office. As Babe shows, Henson's legacy is twofold: through Henson Productions, now headed by his son Brian and resurgent from the trauma of its founder's death; and in wider terms through his achievement in advancing puppet-animation technique into areas of complexity undreamt of when he started out armed only with humor, ingenuity, and a green sock.

—Philip Kemp

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