In 1955, WRC-TV, a Washington DC television station, began airing a short five minute puppet show named Sam and Friends. In addition to the manic title character and a skull-like omnivorous creature named Yorrick, it featured a lizard like creature made from an old green sweater and a pair of ping pong balls named Kermit. This was the humble beginning for both Kermit, who would eventually be refined in his design into a frog with a collar, and his creator and performer, Jim Henson.
Kermit, Sam and the other primitive creations of this show were the first Muppets, and Sam and Friends, as well as the concurrently produced commercials for Wilkins coffee, set a new standard for puppetry. Henson's techniques of setting the camera's point of view right at puppet level rather than using a traditional puppet show stage, and using a TV monitor so a puppeteer could see his own performance, were the first in a series of innovations he and the team of talented men and women who came to work for him made in the field. The Muppets would become popular features on variety shows, once even taking over The Ed Sullivan Show for a christmas special, as well as Jim's character Rowlf the Dog being a regular on the Jimmy Dean Show. Henson even experimented with non-puppet films such as the surreal short, Time Piece which was nominated for a Live Action Short Oscar. However, it wasn't until Joan Ganz Cooney, and a show brought to you by the letters "P", "B" and "S" came into the picture that the Muppets would become an institution.
Sesame Street launched dozens of characters who are now a part of the worldwide consciousness, including Jim's own characters Ernie and Guy Smiley. The program would also solidify the core performers he'd work with for years to come. Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Caroll Spinney, Fran Brill, and later David Goelz, Steve Whitmire and Kevin Clash all performed characters too numerous to mention here that are just as memorable as Henson's own. In fact, Henson and Oz, whether performing Bert and Ernie, or Kermit and Fozzie Bear, or Kermit and Miss Piggy, or the Swedish Chef (Henson did the voice and Oz did the hands) rank as one of the most prolific comedy duos in television history, and barely ever appeared on screen as themselves. Unfortunately, the success of Sesame Street caused a lot of people to see the Muppets as strictly "kid's stuff," a notion that Henson worked to dispel (with varying degrees of success) for the rest of his life.
In the mid-70s, after both a season performing new characters on Saturday Night Live and a couple specials that would serve as pilots, The Muppet Show launched on first run syndication. Like the early variety show appearances, the Muppets used Slapstick so over the top it's a wonder Moral Guardians of the time didn't have a heart attack from all the explosions, Muppets eating smaller Muppets, and general mayhem surrounding the Muppet Theatre. Henson, in addition to Kermit and Rowlf, performed characters ranging from trippy keyboardist Dr. Teeth to the masculine and very dense Link Hogthrob. He also performed Waldorf to Richard Hunt's Statler, giving the theatre its heckling, cackling and long suffering Greek Chorus.
A couple years later, Henson took a major gamble, bringing his characters to the movie theatres with the aptly named The Muppet Movie. Much like Walt Disney with Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, Jim knew he had to top anything his team had put out to that date. Complex sequences ranging from Kermit riding a bicycle to the Electric Mayhem rocking an old church to its rafters, made the Muppets believable in a more or less undiluted real world setting. The movie was a critical and commercial success, paving the way for The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan.
Later Henson-helmed projects were met with more sporadic success. Fraggle Rock was one of the earlier successes in its initial run on HBO. While the show was produced by him, neither Henson nor Frank Oz took on regular recurring roles in it, instead opting for Jerry Nelson, Steve Whitmire and others to take the lead. Two big-screen efforts into non-Muppet fantasy arrived in The Eighties — The Dark Crystal was a minor success, but its spiritual successor Labyrinth was mostly considered a disappointment in terms of its financial record. (Both films went on to be Vindicated by Cable.) The Jim Henson Hour, which would feature segments from another series, The Storyteller, only lasted for about half a season. Then there was Muppets Tonight, which set to update the concept of The Muppet Show for the 90's by introducing new characters, a new host, a new setting, and new skits, but it only lasted a few seasons before slowly dying into obscurity.
In the meantime, Henson's Creature Shop had become a major font for further advancing puppetry. Building on full body characters like the Gorgs from Fraggle Rock, the Creature Shop was responsible for the title characters of the 1990 movie version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and its sequels. As well, the Shop also did forays into CG animation, namely Waldo, a gusty experimentation of a manually-controlled virtual 3D character who appeared in both The Jim Henson Hour and Muppet*Vision 3D which runs at Disney theme parks to this day.
Jim Henson died of a severe and sudden strep throat infection on May 16th, 1990. At the time, he was negotiating with Disney to turn over the rights to his characters so that he could focus on production and performing, and did not wish to visit the hospital (his wife would later state that the refusal was likely due to his desire not to be a bother to people). The Muppets carried on in his absence with mixed success. While Sesame Street still runs strongly, the Muppet Show cast has had a more spotty record as of late trying to get their prominence back. Other productions by the Jim Henson Company and its performers, ranging from Dinosaurs and Farscape to Bear in the Big Blue House and Dog City, continued Henson's legacy with new characters for new generations of fans. Today, Disney, who now owns the Muppet Show and its characters, has been slowly releasing the program on DVD in season box sets, after sporadic single disc releases from Time Life. The Muppets have been making fewer and shorter appearances in any area of entertainment, even surfacing with their own recent YouTube channel of original skits. The Henson Company in New York City produces mainly CG series, internet material, and Sesame Street.
The Muppet Show characters were finally bought by Disney in 2004. The 2011 Muppet film set out to keep the original cast of The Muppet Show fresh without changing them as characters, and so far, it appears to be succeeding. A few photos of Jim Henson are visible in the film, including a large one of him and Kermit in Kermit's office.
His funeral was pretty awesome. The downside was that it was never televised. Not once. And most of the videos of it have been taken down off YouTube. Keep Circulating the Tapes, they're absolutely worth tracking down.
Tropes Related to Jim Henson Include:
- Author Avatar: Those who knew him say that Jim was a lot like Rowlf the Dog — except he wasn't as good a pianist.
- Of course, there was also Kermit - the sanest member and leader of a group of crazy performers. Though unlike Kermit, Henson was far less likely to complain or criticize - apparently only saying "Hmm" if he disliked something.
"He can say things I hold back."
- Author Existence Failure: One of the most heartbreaking examples.
- Badass Beard: Here's the reason he originally grew it.
- Berserk Button: Thinking that puppets were only for children was a good way to set him off.
- Beyond the Impossible: Henson pioneered several incredible techniques that sounded downright preposterous for the time, such as CGI Puppetry(1989) and fully animatronic characters that could walk on their own.(The Doozers from Fraggle Rock)
- Cash Cow Franchise: The Muppets.
- Cloudcuckoolander: A more subdued, clearer-headed example than most, but still qualifies.
- Creator Breakdown: He had one in the mid 1980s, involving the disastrous reception to Labyrinth and a separation from his wife. He became morbid and reclusive and was just starting to come out of that stage when he died.
- Darker and Edgier: While the The Muppet Christmas Carol did have some dark moments, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal is by far the darkest films involving puppets he's done, the latter for Surreal Horror and the latter for a rather alien and cruel world.
- Friend to All Children: Despite disliking being typecast as a children's entertainer, he was the man who made the single best and most successful children's show what it is. Check out those letters the Muppets read at the end of The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. That says it all. He had five children of his own, as well.
- The Fun in Funeral: He personally requested that his funeral not be a dour occasion and demanded a dixieland jazz band play. Everyone had to wear colorful outfits, and everyone was assigned a basic puppet on a string to play with as they watched. It's true there were sad moments but the whole thing crested when Kevin Clash, using his Elmo voice broke out into the bawdy "Lydia the Tattooed Lady".
- Gray Eyes: Types 1 and 3.
- He Also Did: Henson did a surrealistic teleplay called The Cube in the 1960s about a man trapped in a small cube who's visited by various strange people as he tries to find his way out.
- Heterosexual Life Partners: With Frank Oz.
- Hey, It's That Voice!: Most of Jim's characters spoke with variations of the same two or three voices.
- He had a rather idiosyncratic voice to begin with, so he really didn't need to do much to it.
- It Will Never Catch On: He and the rest of the crew got a lot of this when The Muppet Show was being shopped around and when it first premiered. Happened again before The Muppet Movie was released.
- Looks Like Jesus
- Magnum Opus Dissonance: Jim poured his heart, soul and years of his life into The Dark Crystal. And it released to become an Acclaimed Flop that only ever managed a Cult Classic status, parents and critics scoffing that his latest children's movie was too dark.
- Nice Guy
- Retirony: Inverted. Henson died just when he was ready to go back to being a full-time performer instead of running a production company.
- And yet he was not going back to performing his signature character, he had already tapped fellow Muppeteer Steve Whitemire for that.
- Something Completely Different: The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and Mirror Mask were Darker and Edgier than the Jim Henson Company's other productions.
- Southern-Fried Genius: Hailed from Leland, Mississippi.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Considering that he died suddenly and at a relatively young age (53), this also got bandied about after his death. One anonymous child was quoted as saying "God must have needed Muppets in heaven."
- Trope Makers: Henson was responsible for several leaps in the art of puppetry which changed the art forever, such as the obvious combination of the hand puppet and the rod puppet, the use of raised platform sets (which gave much more freedom for the puppeteers to go wild), to the use of radio-controlled animatronics. All of these and more paved the way for new puppeteers.
- What Could Have Been: It's impossible to look at anything made by the Henson company post-1990 without asking this question.
- On a related note, Jim was the first person George Lucas approached to play Yoda. Jim deferred the character to Frank Oz due to his busy schedule, but who knows how Yoda would have turned out under a different performer?
- Henson died while he was negotiating selling the Muppets to Disney. That ultimately did happen, but not for over a decade. One wonders if/how things would've been different for Kermit and the gang.
- One immediate difference would have been a Muppet theme park, or at least an entire Muppet "land" at Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM Studios). Only the Muppets 4D show building remains of this plan.
- He spent years developing The Dark Crystal. Unsurprisingly its initial draft, The Mithra Treatment is very different from the finished product.
- Worldbuilding: Both of his theatrical releases that stepped away from the Muppets had their own, in depth settings. These unique worlds were a combination of the genius of Henson and artist Brian Froud.