Jim Henson

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Jim Henson at the 1989 Emmy Awards

James Maury "Jim" Henson (born September 24, 1936 in Greenville , Mississippi , † May 16, 1990 in New York ) was an American puppeteer, director and television producer . He gained worldwide fame mainly through Sesame Street and the Muppet Show .

Henson began experimenting with dolls specifically for television early in life. His first successes began in 1956 with the short film series Sam and Friends . Numerous television appearances followed before he significantly shaped the newly emerging Sesame Street . Henson's first completely own series was the Muppet Show, which was broadcast in over 100 countries. This was followed by the also internationally distributed series The Fraggles . Henson was instrumental in the films The Dark Crystal , The Journey into the Labyrinth and The Little Horror Shop before he suddenly died at the age of 53. After his death, the Dinos and The Bear in the Big Blue House were two more series based on his ideas.


Childhood and youth

In the late 1940s, the Henson family moved to Maryland , near Washington, DC. There he lived near his grandmother, who was a painter and seamstress . His grandmother in particular supported Henson's artistic ambitions in his childhood and introduced him to working with textiles and needles. During his high school days, Jim Henson began creating dolls for a children's program for the local television station WTOP-TV in 1954. Henson tried less to adapt existing puppet formats for television, his ambition from the beginning was rather to develop formats that were intended exclusively for television and could only work in this.

While studying arts and set design at the University of Maryland , Henson appeared on various local television programs in 1955. After his first year at university, WRC , a local subsidiary of NBC , offered him a five-minute show in the late evening program. For this spot, Henson invented the program Sam and Friends together with his fellow student Jane Nebel .

First successes

Henson called the figures here for the first time "Muppets". The puppets in the show already had a resemblance to the later muppets . The show featured a character that was somewhat similar to the character Kermit the Frog . At that time, Henson was experimenting with techniques that made the most of the combination of television and puppetry, but were still new at the time. He used the section used by the camera to hide the puppeteers from the audience. From the beginning, Henson used numerous close-ups , which clearly differentiated his puppetry from the puppet theater customary at the time. For example, he had to put much more emphasis on ensuring that mouth movements and sound were synchronized. At an early age he also worked with soft, synthetic materials in order to enable his dolls more facial expressions than is possible with wooden dolls. Overall, playing in a narrow image section allows significantly more subtle movements and emotions than playing in a puppet theater.

Sam and Friends ran for a total of eight years. In 1958 it earned Henson a local Emmy. In 1959 he married his co-producer and co-inventor of the show Jane Nebel. The success of his first show resulted in a series of guest appearances on talk shows and entertainment programs such as the Ed Sullivan Show , the Steve Allen Show , the Red Skelton Show , Tonight Starring Jack Paar and the Texaco Star Theater .

Since 1957, Henson also shot advertisements with his characters, whose humor already came close to the later Muppet Show. For example, he shot a spot for Wilkins Coffee in which a cocky muppet asks a grouchy muppet what he thinks of Wilkins Coffee. When the grouchy muppet replies that he has never had the coffee before, the other muppet shoots him in the air with a cannon. The coffee spot was a great success and led to other commercials, for example for the companies Wilson meat products and La Chay Chinese food. For the latter, Henson created a kite.

After graduating, a trip to Europe and the acquaintance of the puppeteers there convinced Henson to stay true to puppetry and not go to television in another role or do something completely different.

In 1961, Henson founded Muppets Inc. with his wife and began employing the puppet maker Don Sahlin and the puppeteer Frank Oz . He remained connected to both of them until the end of his life, with Oz he created couples like Ernie and Bert, Miss Piggy and Kermit or Fozzie Bär and Kermit.

In 1963, Henson went to New York with his wife Jane . His dolls were already performing weekly on the Today Show and the Jimmy Dean Show at the time. In the 1960s, the muppets were again used hundreds of times for commercials, 160 times for Wilkins coffee alone . At that time, Henson designed the Rolf doll (in the American original Rowlf ). The humanized, piano-playing dog was Henson's first known doll, the design of which was based on a recognizable animal and was not just an abstract doll. Henson developed Rolf for the Jimmy Dean Show , but he gained great fame primarily through his appearances in spots for dog food, which became very popular with Rolf.

From 1964 to 1968, Henson began to grapple with filmmaking and produced a number of experimental films such as The Cube , Youth 68 and Time Piece . He also shot several special programs with fairy tale motifs for television, such as the Frog King, Cinderella or the Bremen Town Musicians.

Sesame Street and Muppet Show

Chart positions
Explanation of the data
Rubber Duckie (as Ernie)
  US 16 08/15/1970 (9 weeks)
Rainbow Connection (as Kermit)
  US 25th 09/15/1979 (17 weeks)

In 1968, Joan Ganz Cooney and a team from the Children's Television Workshop began work on Sesame Street , a visionary television show for children at the time. Part of this show were some funny, colorful dolls that live in the street in question. These included Oscar , Ernie and Bert , the Cookie Monster and Kermit the Frog. Initially, the puppet show was separated from the realistic parts of the street, but after unsatisfactory test demonstrations in Philadelphia , it was decided to redesign it in favor of Henson's work. In 1974, Henson was awarded an Emmy for Sesame Street . The Sesame Street style , slow, cautious and characterized by numerous repetitions, caused numerous parodies, but has now established itself in numerous educational programs on television for very young children.

From 1966 to 1971, Jim Henson made 25 appearances with his Muppets on the Ed Sullivan Show .

The Sesame Street was made a commercial success, the Henson especially in the television industry known enough to work with the Muppets to realize a puppet series for adults. The US broadcasters showed no interest because they did not believe in the success of such a series. Because producer Lew Grade believed in the concept and wanted to produce the series, the Muppet Show was shot in the UK. Kermit the Frog, Jim Henson's alter ego, hosted her through a colorful variety program. The dolls Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Fozzie Bär or Statler and Waldorf quickly became known . The primary target group for the program was adults. In Germany, the dubbed version was broadcast by ZDF between 1978 and 1981 .

The Muppets were an international success. The series was broadcast in over 100 countries. The success of the Muppets drew wider circles. Several television films and spin-off products followed. The book Miss Piggy's Guide to Life was 29 weeks on the bestseller list of the New York Times . After five seasons, Henson discontinued the series in 1981 because he thought it had been told. But even after that, the characters still appeared in various films.

Among other things, the Muppets were used as guests at the Tonight Show and Hollywood Squares and further promoted the popularity of the characters. Kermit also made important appearances with Miss Piggy at 60 Minutes and the Cookie Monster at Martha Stewart Living . Jim Henson himself also appeared as a guest on many shows.

Henson's work after the Muppet Show ceased production

Jim Henson (left) with George Lucas , 1986

Henson was also responsible for two films that had nothing to do with his Muppets. On the one hand, the film The Dark Crystal, filmed in 1982, and on the other hand, the film Die Reise ins Labyrinth, co-produced by George Lucas in 1986 . In order to consciously stand out from the muppet design, all of the dolls in both films were not developed by Henson, but by Brian Froud . The characters Yoda , Jabba the Hutt , the Ewoks and many other characters and dolls from the Star Wars saga were created in collaboration between Henson's company and George Lucas .

The Jim Henson's Creature Shop was launched in 1979 for the creation of these figures, which were used in third-party productions . Other works in the Creature Shop, in which Henson was personally involved, were the costumes and effects for the British drama Dreamchild from 1985 and Witches witches from 1990.

Henson continued to work on children's programs, especially The Fraggles (from 1983) became well known in Germany. The Fraggles were deliberately set up internationally for the first time. In addition to the scenes with the puppets, Henson produced parts of the show from the start that worked with real actors and could be filmed for different countries with local characteristics. German television also produced its own game scenes, while the entire English-speaking area used the Henson framework. In addition, the animated Muppet Babies and the successor to the Muppet Show became Muppets Tonight! developed.

In the television series Jim Henson's The Storyteller , first broadcast in 1987 by NBC , he presented international fairy tales in nine episodes in a mixture of animation and real film. The series was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike and honored with many awards. This series goes back to an idea by Henson's daughter Lisa, who attended a folklore course at Harvard University. Jim and Lisa Henson worked together to develop the concept and the consequences of authentic folk tales. From this, Henson developed the follow-up series The Storyteller: Greek Myths as a second season with four episodes, which thematized Greek mythology .

Around 1989/1990, Henson was in negotiations with Walt Disney , who wanted to buy his company and rights for $ 150 million. Before these negotiations came to a conclusion, however, Henson died unexpectedly. Henson's successors then sold the company and the rights to characters and programs to Walt Disney.

Death and legacy

Jim Henson died on May 16, 1990, at the age of 53, of delayed pneumonia that had led to sepsis and subsequent organ failure. On May 21, 1990, a memorial service was held in New York City with hundreds of guests; At Henson's request, many were colorfully dressed and all the guests waved colorful butterflies made of foam that were attached to puppeteers' sticks. A Dixieland Jazz Band played When The Saints Go Marching In and Harry Belafonte sang Turn the World Around , which he first sang on the Muppet Show. Bibo (played by Caroll Spinney) also performed and sang the title Bein 'Green, once sung by Kermit (Jim Henson) . At the end, six of the muppet puppeteers came on stage and sang a medley of Jim Henson's favorite songs with the voices of their characters, before all puppeteers came in and stood singing with their muppets on the stage.

The Jim Henson Company was initially continued by Henson's son Brian Henson , who, among other things, directed the film The Muppets Christmas Story in 1992 . Steve Whitmire , a longtime member of the Muppet Crew, took on Henson's roles, including Kermit the Frog and Ernie. After Henson's death, two more projects were realized with the series The Dinos and The Bear in the Big Blue House , the ideas of which came from him.

On February 17, 2004 it was announced that all rights to the Muppets (including the bear in the big blue house ) had been sold to the Walt Disney Company .

In 2011 Jim Henson was posthumously honored as a Disney Legend by the Disney Company .

While Kermit the Frog has long been on display at the National Museum of American History , 20 more of Henson's dolls came to the museum in 2013. While most of them should be on display in a new showcase for puppet shows in the USA, Miss Piggy should be on display with Kermit in the permanent exhibition in the popular American Stories section from March 2014 .

Since July 2017 the American Museum of the Moving Image has a new permanent exhibition about the life's work of the "compulsive creative" Jim Henson.


  • 1974: Emmy for Sesame Street
  • 1979: Grammy for Best Shot for Children (for The Muppet Show )
  • 1987: Emmy , Gabriel Award, Golden Hugo Award and Parents Choise Award for Hans mein Igel from the Storyteller
  • 1987: The Ohio State Award, Institute of Education for The Storyteller
  • 1987: XII Resena Mundial de Acapulco; Award for the best children's program for Hans mein Igel from the storyteller
  • 1988: Gold Medal Award for The Soldier and Death from Storyteller
  • 1989: BAFTA Award , British Academy of Film and Televisions Art for The Storyteller for best children's program
  • 2011: posthumously Disney Legends Award
  • 2017: Posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame


  • Christopher Finch , Charles S. Finch, Jim Henson: Jim Henson. The Works. The art, the magic, the imagination. Random House, New York NY 1993, ISBN 0-679-41203-4 .
  • Victoria Grace Weisel, Leslee Asch and others: Muppets, Monsters & Magic. The world of Jim Henson . Deutsches Filmmuseum, Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1987, ISBN 3-88799-021-8 . OT: The Art of the Muppets


  • A block edition of postage stamps from the USA, which appeared on September 27, 2005, pays tribute to him and his characters. The eleven self-adhesive stamps have a face value of 37 cents each.

Web links

Commons : Jim Henson  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b James W. Roman: From Daytime to Primetime: The History of American Television Programs . Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005 ISBN 0313319723 p. 215
  2. a b Weisel / Asch: Muppets, Monsters & Magic ; P. 2
  3. a b c d e James W. Roman: From Daytime to Primetime: The History of American Television Programs . Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005 ISBN 0313319723 p. 216
  4. Terry Gross: The Man Behind Miss Piggy , National Public Radio, broadcast manuscript, November 6, 2009
  5. a b Weisel / Asch: Muppets, Monsters & Magic ; P. 3
  6. a b c Weisel / Asch: Muppets, Monsters & Magic ; P. 22
  7. Chart sources: US 1 US 2
  8. a b c d David Thomson: "Jim Henson". In: David Thomson: The New Biographical Dictionary of Film . Hachette UK, 2010 ISBN 0748108505
  9. ^ The Ed Sullivan Show. Muppet Wiki, accessed September 24, 2011 .
  10. Weisel / Asch: Muppets, Monsters & Magic ; P. 32
  11. Jim Henson Honored at the Disney Legends Ceremony. (No longer available online.) The Jim Henson Company, archived from the original on March 4, 2016 ; Retrieved September 24, 2011 . Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.henson.com
  12. Alice: 20 Jim Henson Puppets Make Their Big Museum Debut , My Modern Metropolis, September 27, 2013
  13. ^ "Obsessively creative": New New York permanent exhibition on the Muppets master Henson , Deutschlandfunk, July 31, 2017
  14. science fiction awards database - Jim Henson . Retrieved November 24, 2017.