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Jim Henson: The Biography is the story of the innovative puppeteer’s life that Muppets completists have been waiting for.
Totaling 490 pages of text, it offers an endless wealth of detail, some new and some trivial, on his life from his birth in 1936 to his untimely 1990 death from a sepsis infection.
Both ardent Muppet lovers and casual fans like me, who assumed that the story of the Muppets basically begins with the the birth of Sesame Street in 1969, will enjoy the first third of the book, which is full of new details about Jim Henson‘s youth, his avant-garde artistic tastes, his lucrative commercial work and his one-time experiment with LSD.
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The Mississippi-born Henson landed his first show — The Junior Morning Show — in June 1954, just weeks after his high school graduation, and never stopped working after that, taking six years to graduate from the University of Maryland (his family moved to the Washington suburbs when he was in elementary school) as he fit classes in around his rather hectic schedule. The Muppets (the name was there from the beginning) were a hit right away. Soon he was doing short shows in the prime spot between the end of a newscast and the start of primetime programming, and then again between the late news and the Tonight Show on Washington’s NBC affiliate.
By 1963, Henson and his new wife/collaborator, Jane, had relocated to Manhattan for a regular gig on the Today show, plus lucrative side work making commercials. The 27-year-old, somewhat of a car nut, was successful enough to afford a used Rolls and a new Porsche whose windshield cracked on the move to New York City, making for a freezing winter drive up I-95). But he had higher artistic aspirations, creating an avant-garde movie that was a hit in Europe and unsuccessfully pitching the networks on a primetime Muppet show. Along the way, Henson, so respected in the puppeteering community that he was elected the president of the Puppeteers of America at 28, recruited an amazing array of talent to work with( him, most notably convincing a 19-year-old Frank Oz to move from California to New York in 1963 to work with him.
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The most important moment of Henson’s career came when he joined Joan Ganz Cooney to create an an educational television show for the new public television network. Though Henson had long chafed at the idea that puppets were merely for kids, he intuitively understood children and his rapid-fire witty humor made Sesame Street an instant hit. It was also a lucrative income stream for Henson, who cannily held on to the rights to the Muppets and made a fortune in merchandising (about $10 million by the mid-1970s). He branched out, making a number of well-received primetime specials re-imagining classic fairy tales.
By 1976, he finally got the primetime show he dreamed of, but it was a syndicated show — one of the first to take advantage of new FCC rules to encourage primetime syndication. In addition, he had to make it in London since ITV financed the project and it would air in Europe. The Muppet Show was an instant hit, one of the first truly global shows. By its second season, it had attracted 125 million viewers in 103 countries, including several behind the Iron Curtain. The series spawned a hit movie franchise and the backing to pursue Henson’s passion project: The Dark Crystal, an ambitious puppet fantasy, which grossed more than $60 million after its release in 1982.
The late ’70s and early ’80s were an incredibly hectic time in Henson’s life that saw him moving nonstop between London to make the TV show, New York to work on Sesame Street and California to work on the movies. After he brought the TV show to a close in 1981 after five seasons, Henson stumbled, first with the live-action-and-puppets yarn Labyrinth and then with NBC’s Jim Henson Hour.
By 1989, he had a handshake agreement to sell the company to Disney for $150 million, believing that freeing himself from executive responsibilities would allow him to flourish creatively. But Henson’s unexpected death unraveled the deal before it could be completed and the company stumbled until Disney finally bought it in 2003. (The section on Henson’s death and funeral is one of the best parts of the book — moving and elegiac. I dare you not to cry.)
Jim Henson is an authorized biography, and everyone from Oz to his estranged wife to his children participated. If it isn’t quite a warts-and-all look at the man, its certainly a scabs-and-all peek that balances a flattering look at him as an artist and boss with a sometimes unlikable picture of his relationship with Jane. His proposal to her sounds more like a business deal than an offer of marriage, and his handling of his divorce is clumsy at best, callous at worst — though to be fair, he seems to have been a good father, despite his workaholic hours.
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The book falters in two major ways. It lacks a keen analysis of Henson’s creativity. Author Brain Jay Jones, whose only previous book was a well-respected bio of Washington Irving, gets bogged down in the nitty gritty of making the shows. Henson and his Muppets are important contributors to the sophisticated subversive children’s comedy of the ’50s and ’60s (think Peanuts, Rocky and Bullwinkle and Mad). But exactly where and how they fit in remains unexplored, beyond an aside about Henson’s love of Pogo.
Also, the business of the Muppets is frustratingly opaque. After getting a good sense of how lucrative his early success was, the numbers disappear. Even the $150 million that Disney was prepared to pay for the company is mentioned more in passing than as an analytical point. Henson was a canny businessman who was an early pioneer in owning his characters and who reaped a fortune in merchandising. Yet that Henson remains a peripheral figure in the story.
Still, even if the book stumbles some, on balance, Jim Henson works. As he wrote to his five children in a posthumous letter read at his funeral, “It’s a good life, enjoy it.”
Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones (Ballantine, 608 pages, $35, Sept. 24)
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