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September 24, 1936 saw the birth of Jim Henson, a man who’d grow up to shape the childhoods of multiple generations. During his career he went from part-time puppeteer to much-loved writer, director and television personality — even if he remained better known as the man behind a mild-mannered frog who wasn’t easy being green.
To celebrate his birthday, here are ten ways in which Henson made so many lives better, be they lovers, dreamers, or me. (What? I’m not quoting “Rainbow Connection.” You’re quoting “Rainbow Connection!” )
Sam and Friends
No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you — that really is a young Kermit making his debut on this Washington, DC show from WRC-TV that aired from 1955 through 1961. The series was Henson’s big break, launching his career in television while he was still a student at the University of Maryland, College Park (He graduated in 1960, with a degree in home economics). Of course, when he first appeared on this show, he wasn’t a frog — he was a lizard. Consider it a particularly unusual form of evolution that only works on puppets.
Launched in 1969 by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, Sesame Street’s fast-paced format and good humor was a perfect fit for Henson’s sensibilities, and introduced countless children to characters like Ernie and Bert, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird. Aloysius Snuffleupagus, as we all know, only existed in Big Bird’s imagination, so he doesn’t count.
The Muppet Show (and Everything Muppets That Followed)
Given the chance to expand his characters’ appearances on the initial season of Saturday Night Live into his own show by British producer Lew Grade, the result was Henson’s masterpiece — a variety show that worked for all ages, and lived on long after the cancellation of the original series in 1981 in projects including The Muppet Movie, Muppet Babies, and shows like Muppets Tonight.
The Dark Crystal
Co-written and co-directed with Frank Oz, The Dark Crystal was described by Henson as an attempt to bring a sense of realism — albeit one based in the fantasy genre — to his work. With puppets based on the artwork of illustrator Brian Froud, the result was something unlike earlier projects, but just as magical and believable for its audience.
Depending on where you grew up, this was an entirely different show, with international editions featuring different humans living outside the world of the Fraggles, Doozers and Gorgs. For U.S. audiences, that was Doc, an inventor, but in the U.K., the Captain staffed a lighthouse, while French audiences had a baker whose dog was called “Croquette” instead of Sprocket. No matter which version you saw, it’s likely the Doozers still stole the show. (These days, they have their own series available on Hulu.)
Henson’s solo directorial experience was considered at time of release as a flop — in part because of the cost to mount it — but all those who’ve seen it have to admit that convincing David Bowie to wear that ridiculous a wig and call himself “The Goblin King” can only be called a rousing success on all important fronts. Sadly, Henson never made another film following Labyrinth.
Returning to television, Henson took European folktales as his starting point for this short-lived series that mixed puppetry and human actors with John Hurt as the eponymous narrator. Actors who made appearances in the stories included Sean Bean, Miranda Richardson and, in the later Storyteller: Greek Myths spin-off, Derek Jacobi.
The Jim Henson Hour
Often forgotten, the inspiration for this NBC show came from Henson’s love of the old Walt Disney Presents television specials, with the format of the latter show echoing Disney’s showcase. Henson acted as on-screen host for the series, with each episode mixing sketches featuring the Muppets as well as other segments including behind-the-scenes looks from the Muppet workshop, Storyteller re-runs and one-off stories featuring original characters. Sadly, the series only lasted 13 episodes before cancellation.
Despite debuting a year after Henson’s death, the show’s producers went out of their way to credit him with the initial idea for the updated Flintstones-esque sitcom that starred a family of blue-collar dinosaurs. “He wanted it to be a sitcom with a pretty standard structure, with the biggest differences being that it’s a family of dinosaurs and their society has this strange toxic life style,” son Brian Henson told the New York Times in 1991. If nothing else, it should be applauded for being the only sitcom that ends with the extinction of its entire cast.
Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand
Henson’s creative legacy continues long after his death, with this graphic novel — an adaptation of an unproduced 1967 screenplay written by Henson and partner Jerry Juhl, illustrated by Ramon Perez — being published just two years ago. Critically acclaimed upon publication, it went on to win three Eisner Awards at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con, as well as being nominated for multiple Harvey Awards the same year.
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