(September 24, 1936 – May 16, 1990) was an American puppeteer
best known as the creator of The Muppets
. As a puppeteer, Henson performed in various television programs, such as Sesame Street
and The Muppet Show
, films such as The Muppet Movie
and The Great Muppet Caper
, and created advanced puppets for projects like Fraggle Rock
, The Dark Crystal
, and Labyrinth
. He was also an Oscar
-nominated film director, Emmy Award
-winning television producer, and the founder of The Jim Henson Company
, the Jim Henson Foundation
, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop
. He died of Streptococcus pyogenes
on May 16, 1990.
Henson, who was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and educated at University of Maryland, College Park, is one of the most widely known puppeteers ever. He created Sam and Friends as a freshman in College Park. After suffering struggles with programs that he created, he eventually was selected to participate in Sesame Street. During this time, he also contributed to Saturday Night Live. The success of Sesame Street spawned The Muppet Show, which featured Muppets created by Henson. He also co-created with Michael Jacobs the television show Dinosaurs during his final years. In 1992, he posthumously received the Courage of Conscience Award from The Peace Abbey, and on June 16, 2011, he posthumously received the Disney Legends Award.
Projects in the 1960s
Despite the success of Sam and Friends, which ran for six years, Henson spent much of the next two decades working in commercials, talk shows, and children's projects before being able to realize his dream of the Muppets as "entertainment for everybody". The popularity of his work on Sam and Friends in the late fifties led to a series of guest appearances on network talk and variety shows. Henson himself appeared as a guest on many shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show. This greatly increased exposure led to hundreds of commercial appearances by Henson characters throughout the sixties.
Among the most popular of Henson's commercials was a series for the local Wilkins Coffee company in Washington, D.C., in which his Muppets were able to get away with a greater level of slapstick violence than might have been acceptable with human actors and would later find its way into many acts on The Muppet Show. In the first Wilkins ad, a Muppet named Wilkins (with Kermit's voice) is poised behind a cannon seen in profile. Another Muppet named Wontkins (with Rowlf's voice) is in front of its barrel. Wilkins asks, "What do you think of Wilkins Coffee?" and Wontkins responds gruffly, "Never tasted it!" Wilkins fires the cannon and blows Wontkins away, then turns the cannon directly toward the viewer and ends the ad with, "Now, what do you think of Wilkins?" Henson later explained, "Till then, [advertising] agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a very different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh." The first seven-second commercial for Wilkins was an immediate hit and was syndicated and reshot by Henson for local coffee companies across the United States; he ultimately produced more than 300 coffee ads. The same setup was used to pitch Kraml Milk in the Chicago, Il., area and Red Diamond coffee.
In 1963, Henson and his wife moved to New York City, where the newly formed Muppets, Inc. would reside for some time. Jane quit muppeteering to raise their children. Henson hired writer Jerry Juhl in 1961 and puppeteer Frank Oz in 1963 to replace her. Henson later credited both writers with developing much of the humor and character of his Muppets. Henson and Oz developed a close friendship and a performing partnership that lasted 27 years; their teamwork is particularly evident in their portrayals of the characters of Bert and Ernie and Kermit and Fozzie Bear.
Henson's sixties talk show appearances culminated when he devised Rowlf, a piano-playing anthropomorphic dog. Rowlf became the first Muppet to make regular appearances on a network show, The Jimmy Dean Show. Henson was so grateful for this break that he offered Jimmy Dean a 40% interest in his production company, but Dean declined stating that Henson deserved all the rewards for his own work, a decision of conscience Dean never regretted. From 1963 to 1966, Henson began exploring film-making and produced a series of experimental films. His nine-minute Time Piece was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an Oscar for Short Film in 1966. The year 1969 saw the production of the NBC-TV movie The Cube – another Henson-produced experimental film.
Also around this time, the first drafts of a live-action experimental film script were written with Jerry Juhl, which would eventually become his last unproduced full-length screenplay, Tale of Sand. The script remained in the Henson Company archives until the screenplay was adapted in the 2012 graphic novel, Jim Henson's Tale of Sand.