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Jim Henson Biography

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Birth Name: Jim Henson
Born: 09/24/1936
Birth Place: Leland, Mississippi, USA
Death Place: New York City, New York, USA
Died: 05/16/1990

The man who would grow up to become the most successful American puppeteer in modern American television history was born James Maury Henson on Sept. 24, 1936 in Leland, MS. His family moved to Hyattsville, MD, near Washington, DC in the late 1940s. In 1954, while attending Northwestern High School, he began creating puppets for WTOP-TV's Saturday morning children's show. The following year, while a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park, he created "Sam and Friends," a five-minute puppet show for WRC-TV. The "Sam and Friends" creatures were already recognizable early incarnations of Muppets and the show featured a prototype version of Kermit the Frog, soon to become Henson's signature character. It was around this time that the inquisitive young man began experimenting with the technology and technique that would alter forever the way puppets were used on TV, most notably the frame defined by the camera shot to allow the puppeteer to work from off-camera.

The success of "Sam and Friends" led to a series of guest appearances on national talk and variety shows. Henson appeared as a guest himself on shows like "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971), with both kinds of exposure leading to hundreds of commercial appearances throughout the 1960s. Being puppets, Henson's creations were able to get away with a greater level of slapstick violence than might be acceptable with human actors, much like "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1990- ) would do decades later. 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. It was here that Henson devised Rowlf, a piano-playing anthropomorphic dog, the first Muppet to make a regular appearance on a network show, "The Jimmy Dean Show" (ABC, 1963-66). Around that time, Henson met future long-time puppeteer-in-crime, Frank Oz, who came on board with the new company.

From 1964 to 1968, Henson began exploring filmmaking, producing a series of experimental films. His nine-minute experimental film, "Time Piece" was even nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an Academy Award for Live Action Short Film in 1966. The NBC TV movie "The Cube" (1969) was another experimental film that Jim Henson found time to produce. However, all success attained thus far paled by 1968 - the year Joan Ganz Cooney and the Children's Television Workshop put a new visionary children's show, "Sesame Street" (1969- ) on PBS and invited Henson and his ever growing Muppet brigade to be integral creators from the start. Part of the show was set aside for a series of funny, colorful puppet characters living on the facsimile of a NYC street. 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. Characters such as Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster and Big Bird all began popping up around the titular street, also populated with a group of regular actors and children who delighted the children almost as much as the Muppets themselves.

In 1975, Henson, Oz, and his team targeted an adult audience with a series of sketches on the new comedy sketch show "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) that aired between October 1975 and September 1976. However, the "SNL" writers never got a full handle on Henson's creations - and with cast member John Belushi protesting the loudest that the rest of his Not-Ready-for-Primetime-Players join him in "killing the f*cking Muppets!" - Henson and Co. left the show. The move was seen by more than just Belushi as a blessing; now Henson could focus on his new program, "The Muppet Show" (1976-1981) which was beginning its long run in the United Kingdom. The show was a faux-variety show that introduced other memorable characters - the creatures most people would readily identify as actual "Muppets" - including the trumpet-blowing/chicken-loving Gonzo the Great and the ever-aspiring comic Fozzie Bear. A huge success in England, "The Muppet Show" translated across the pond in an equally big way. In fact, most children of the 1970s would, even years later, be able to remember specific sketches (The cast of "Star Wars" (1977) invading the "Pigs in Space" sketch) or musical acts (Elton John singing "Crocodile Rock" to Muppet crocs) fondly.

In addition to his own works of puppetry, Henson also aided others in their work. A great example occurred in 1979 when he was called to the set of "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980), coming to the assistance of his friend and co-puppeteer Frank Oz, as well as Stuart Freeborn, the film's makeup supervisor for the film. With Henson's help, these three were able to fully bring the critical character of Yoda, the Jedi Master to life. The pioneering work done by Oz and Henson in this film produced many significant advances in modern puppetry, to say nothing of giving birth to one of the most memorable pop cultural touchstones in the rich "Star Wars" universe.

After five seasons, "The Muppet Show" ended, but the characters went on to appear in a long series of successful movies, beginning with 1979's "The Muppet Movie," co-starring a series of big-name stars anxious to act opposite a Muppet, including Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Orson Welles, Bob Hope and Madeline Kahn. Besides delighting people of all ages, the film also contributed a timeless song to the musical landscape. "The Rainbow Connection," sung by Kermit the Frog during the show's amazing opening scene in the swamp, was even nominated for an Oscar. The first film was such a success that a new Muppet film popped up in theaters every few years, including "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981), "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984) and "Muppet Treasure Island" (1996). The Muppets also appeared in a large number of made-for-TV movies and television specials including "A Muppet Family Christmas" (1987), "The Muppets at Walt Disney World" (1990), "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" (2002) and "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz" (2005).

In 1982, Henson founded the Jim Henson Foundation to promote and develop the art of puppetry in the United States. He also founded Jim Henson's Creature Shop - one of the most advanced and well-respected creators of film creatures - to build creatures for a large number of other films and series such as "Farscape" (Sci-Fi Channel, 1999-2003) and the film adaptation of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (2004). Henson was also responsible for two non-"Muppet Show"-related movies, 1982's high-concept fantasy "The Dark Crystal" and the 1986 film "Labyrinth," co-produced by George Lucas. To give 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 like "Fraggle Rock" (HBO, 1983-87) and the animated "Muppet Babies" (CBS, 1984-1992), as well as new primetime ventures such as the folk tale and mythology-oriented "The Storyteller" (1988).

Sadly, Henson was at the pinnacle of his career when he died, somewhat mysteriously, on May 16, 1990, of a severe strep infection that destroyed his lungs within days. The public was left in utter shock; that such a young man who had contributed such light to the world could suddenly die of something as common as the flu - which was what was originally reported - was hard to digest. Because the world lost more than just Henson himself when he died, parents were forced to explain to their kids why Kermit the Frog, Ernie and various other characters were lost along with him. At the funeral, many people were moved to see Kermit sitting on the coffin with a sign saying "I lost my voice." 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." In what was probably one of the most touching moments of the service, the Muppet character Big Bird, performed by Caroll Spinney, walked out onto the stage and sang a quavering rendition of Kermit the Frog's signature song, "Bein' Green."

At the time of his death, PBS' award-winning "Sesame Street" was still popular and seen in 80 countries. It was decided by the family that the Jim Henson Company, Jim Henson Foundation, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop would continue on after his death, keeping his dream and vision alive. Henson's son Brian and daughter Lisa were appointed co-chairs and co-CEOs of the company, which continued to produce new series and specials; his daughter Cheryl was named president of the Foundation. Steve Whitmire, a veteran member of the Muppet puppeteering crew, assumed the roles of the two most famous characters played by Jim Henson himself, Kermit the Frog and Ernie. On Feb. 17, 2004, it was announced that the Muppets (excluding the Sesame Street characters, which were separately owned by the Children's Television Workshop) and "Bear in the Big Blue House" properties had been sold by Henson's heirs to The Walt Disney Company. The Jim Henson Company retained Creature Shop, as well as the rest of its film and television library. In the end after a too-brief life, Henson was credited with many accomplishments. Of any entertainer of his time, he had the most profound influence on children; he adapted the ancient art of puppetry to the most modern of mediums, thereby transforming both; he created a TV show that was one of the most popular around the world. But Henson's greatest achievement was broader than any of these. Through his work, he helped sustain the qualities of fancifulness, warmth and magic epitomized in childhood and helped carry them over for generation after generation of enjoyment.