The Muppets and Jim Henson are synonymous with one another, but they were always meant to be a jumping off point for more.
Jim Henson began his career with a local 15 minute television show for WRC-TV in Washington, DC called Sam and Friends. That show brought attention to Henson’s abilities as a creator and performer and saw Henson coin the term Muppet. The show helped revitalize the way puppets were seen on screen with the performance being tailored not to a stage, which was then recorded, but directly to the television screen. Henson’s work on the show gained nationwide attention and led to appearances on numerous talk shows and late night shows, including the Ed Sullivan Show.
Eventually Henson would work with Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett to create Sesame Street. The show would feature segments from Henson and his team, including Muppets and animation that helped children learn basic subjects. Henson always viewed puppetry as an art form that could be enjoyed by all ages, but his work with Sesame Street hindered his ability to branch out. Henson caught a break with SNL when Lorne Michaels agreed to have an adult themed Muppet segment called The Land of Gorch on the show during its first season. But the partnership would be short lived as the writing and creative team behind SNL clashed with Henson’s team.
After the SNL deal fell apart, Henson looked for other outlets to bring Muppets to a wider audience. Michael Eisner, an exec at ABC, greenlit a Valentine’s Day special featuring the Muppets in 1974 and a pilot for a variety show in 1975. But while the special was a success, Henson’s attempt at a more adult show with The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence wouldn’t exactly pan out. Henson went back to the drawing board and tried to develop a new Muppet show, which British producer Lew Grade agreed to co-produce.
The Muppet Show became an international success and ended up spawning multiple films, beginning with 1979’s The Muppet Movie. The film saw Kermit uniting the Muppets for the first time as they worked to head to Hollywood, inspired by the idea of making people happy. The film was a massive success and helped boost the Muppets’ fame to even greater heights. The next few years would see Jim’s dreams coming true in ways that wouldn’t always mean financial success.
Jim and frequent partner Frank Oz would work with George Lucas on creating the character of Yoda for 1980’s Empire Strikes Back. 1981 saw the release of the second Muppet film, The Great Muppet Caper. In 1982 Henson would see his desire to truly expand past the Muppets fully realized with the release of The Dark Crystal. The film wouldn’t feature a single regularly known Muppet and would be an original fantasy epic produced by Henson and Gary Kurtz who worked with Lucas on American Graffitti and the first two Star Wars films. The script would be written by Muppet Show writer David Odell and directed by Henson and Oz.
Dark Crystal had been in development for 7 years before its release, with Jim working to create a vast and expansive world for the film. The ideas stemmed from his work on the The Land of Gorch and a desire to create darker tales similar to the Grimm fairy tales. The producers behind the film originally wanted to cut major elements that Jim thought were important towards the story he was trying to tell. Jim would end up buying the film back from the producers for fourteen million dollars and sign a distribution deal with Universal. In the end, the film was a marginal success, and helped Jim continue to move forward.
After The Dark Crystal, Jim would continue work on Muppet projects including a third film The Muppets Take Manhattan, this time directed by Frank Oz, as he began work on a TV show for children called Fraggle Rock. The show would be picked up by HBO as their first original series. The show was created in a way where international markets could change the bookend sequences featuring the human character “Doc” so that the show would appeal more to local markets. Jim’s hope for the show was that it would help younger audiences understand deeper subjects than what had been seen on Sesame Street, that it could help teach children to be good people, and maybe help bring peace to the world.
As Jim continued work on Muppet projects and Fraggle Rock, he created his second feature film that wouldn’t include any well known Muppets., Labyrinth. Jim tried to expand on what he created with The Dark Crystal by creating another darker fairy tale, this time including a human protagonist. Jennifer Connelly won Jim over with her ability to seem right between childhood and womanhood. For the antagonist of the film, Jim wanted a larger charismatic character, also portrayed by a human. He began searching for musicians who could act and originally tried to woo Sting into the role of the Goblin King. When Sting turned down the role, he looked for other musicians until finally settling on David Bowie.
Labyrinth was in no way a commercial success at first and opened to mild reviews from critics. While this brought Jim down he continued to work even harder on creating new works. In the years that followed, he would continue work on the animated Muppet Babies TV series, the more adult leaning The Storyteller, and eventually would work with Disney to bring the Muppets to their Disney MGM Studios theme park in Florida. Jim hoped that Disney could help keep the Muppet legacy alive long after his death and knew the theme parks were key to making that happen. That deal would see Jim developing multiple attractions for Disney, only to see one of them finalized, Muppet Vision 3D. But Jim wouldn’t get to see the final product.
Jim Henson passed on May 16th 1990 after organ dysfunction from streptococcal toxic shock syndrome caused by Streptococcus pyogenes. Henson’s death would eventually lead to his company splitting slightly. In 2000 Sesame Workshop would acquire the rights to the Sesame Street Characters while in 2004 Disney would purchase the Muppets from The Jim Henson Company. Meanwhile, the Jim Henson Creature Shop would go on to build creatures for numerous TV shows and films including Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Batman Begins, The Hangover, and The Happytime Murders. Happytime Murders would be directed by Jim’s son Brian Henson, the current Chairman of The Jim Henson Company.
Overall, Jim worked his entire life to make material that would not only appeal to children but could show the full potential of the art form of puppetry. He hoped that the Muppets and his work would live on longer than himself, and that he could open new doors to the world through his work and bring joy and happiness to people in the process. Jim was a kind man who believed in doing good work. His legacy is exactly what he always hoped for, as the Muppets continue to be included in TV, web, and film projects by Disney and his son leads his company in creating creatures for films as wide ranging as the family friendly live action Jungle Book to the hard R Happytime Murders. Jim changed the industry forever, and his work will be remembered by all ages and multiples generations for years to come.
Keep following Poor Man’s Spoiler as we look into the works of Jim Henson outside the world of the Muppets in honor of the release of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance which is currently streaming on Netflix.