Monday, July 24, 2006

Great Film Icons #2: Jim Henson

"The words say, 'It's not easy being green,' but the song is about knowing who you are. And in it you hear Jim's message most clearly. He believed that people are good and that they want to do their best and that no matter how or why we might be different from anybody else, we should learn to love who we are and be proud of it." ~Ray Charles

James Maury Henson was born on September 14th, 1936 in Greenville Mississipi his family later moving to Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s. In 1954 while still in highschool Jim had his first brush with puppetry working for WTOP-TV creating puppets for a Saturday morning children's show and the year after that, his first in college he created Sam and Friends, a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. Sam and Friends were already recognizable 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.

His success with Sam and Dave led to a number of TV appearences as well as a series of hundreds of commercials for Wilkins Coffee. These commercials where ahead of their time featuring two puppets, Wilkins and Wontkins who violently convince you why you should drink Wilikins coffee. Being puppets, they have been able to get away with a greater level of slapstick violence than might be acceptable with human actors.

Click here to view just a few of them:

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.

In the mid sixties Henson explored the field of experimental film creating a series of short films including Timepiece (1966) & The Cube (1969). His films recieved a lot of critical interest and Timepiece was even nominated for an academy award.

Click here to watch Timepiece:

In 1968, Joan Ganz Cooney and the team at the Children's Television Workshop began work on Sesame Street, a visionary educational children's program for public television, and Henson was asked to create Muppets to use on the show. Henson agreed creating some of the best known children's characters of all time including, 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.

Click here to watch a classic scene from Sesame Street: Born to Add

In the 70's 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 the UK. 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.

The Muppet Show ended after five 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) 1981's The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984.

Fozzie and Rowlf on The Muppet Show:

The Muppet characters have also appeared in a large number of made-for-TV-movies and television specials. TV movie specials called Tales From Muppetland which were hosted by Kermit the Frog. The series included Hey, Cinderella!, The Frog Prince and The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. These specials were comedic tellings of classic fairy-tale stories.
Created out of his mother's old coat and a ping-pong ball, Kermit the Frog, in the beginning was not a frog, but a lizard-like character. He gradually evolved, and first appeared as Kermit The Frog in "Hey Cinderella!" and has remained so ever since.

A scene from The Muppet Movie, I'm Going to go Back There Someday:

The Rat Skat from The Muppets Take Manhattan:

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 folk tale and mythology-oriented The Storyteller.

Jim Henson died of sepsis caused by severe bacterial pneumonia at the age of 53 on May 16, 1990. He had been ill with walking pneumonia for several days before his death but never told anybody, not even his family, because, true to his character, he didn't want to be a burden to anybody. By the time he finally sought medical help, it was too late to do anything.

A memorial service for him aired on PBS and drew millions of viewers and dozens of celebrities in reverence for his life and work. As per Henson's wishes, no one in attendance wore black, and a Dixieland jazz band finished the service by performing "When The Saints Go Marching In."

On the DVD commentary for the movie Love Actually, director/writer Richard Curtis describes an episode at Henson's funeral:

"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..."

It's Not Easy being Green:


Anomie-Atlanta said...

I seriously teared up a little at the end of the piece. What a beautiful piece of history about a talented artist and puppeteer.

Becca said...

I've never seen anything like it and I'm not sure I ever will.

Wordy and wandering said...

Thank you. You gave me a lift today with Gonzo song. A bittersweet ditty, that always gives me chills.

Your essay was quite touching and I only wish that we could also see when Harry Belafonte sang Turn the World Around as well.

Thank you.

Becca said...

Glad you enjoyed the post. Jim Henson has been and will continue to be missed.

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Anonymous said...


Nice site - you have some great information about Jim Henson. I thought you'd be interested to know "The Cube," one of his early directorial forays into scifi, is now available for download on iTunes.

This experimental film depicts a man who finds himself in a white cubical room and has no idea how he got there. Although anyone can enter the cube, the man cannot leave. Panels in the cube open temporarily to admit various visitors, some of whom seem to know the man or want to offer advice.

Add the link to “The Cube” to your site to let others know:

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Thank you!
Rebecca C.

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