Jim Henson

Jim Henson
Tony Barnard / Los Angeles Times


Jim Henson
TV: North side of the 6600 block of Hollywood Boulevard
Born James Maury Henson on Sept. 24, 1936 in Greenville, MS
Died May 16, 1990 of pneumonia in New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, NY

Catapulted to fame by "Sesame Street," Muppet creator Jim Henson left behind a dynasty of remarkable foam-and-wire creations — Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Big Bird among them — that live on with a beguiling independent reality of their own.

The flamboyant vanity of Miss Piggy ("Moi?"), the endearing greed of Cookie Monster, the shy sweetness of Big Bird and Kermit's bemused voice of reason are familiar to audiences worldwide through television, films, records, books, toys, computer software, clothing and other Muppet merchandise.

More significant than the marketing bonanza it became was the fact that the special world of the Muppets offered a haven to children growing up in an increasingly troubled era, a haven where reading and numbers were fun, a haven without peer pressure or violence or drug dealers. Parents encouraged their children to walk down "Sesame Street" or soar with "Pigs in Space," secure in the knowledge that no harm would befall them.

Henson's genius flowered in his original exploitation of television as a visual medium. Earlier television shows with human and puppet characters, such as "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," were set up like little theater performances, with a human host and puppeteers behind a curtain.

Henson created interaction between humans and Muppets — his term for a cross between puppets and marionettes — with complex, three-dimensional settings and crew members concealed in trenches or behind walls.

Instead of seeing a human simply talking to a puppet, viewers were offered a new dimension, one where Muppets were firmly in control and human visitors had to cope with the eccentric surroundings as best they could.

Muppets could appear above, below, behind or in front of their human guests. The effects wouldn't have worked for a live audience—the scaffolding would have been visible and the cameras would have gotten in the way—but the results were spectacular to home viewers.

Henson's stunning artistic and commercial success were light years away from his high school puppet club days and a career that began in the '50s with "Sam and Friends," a local puppet show on a television station in Washington.

That show, the first major outing for Kermit the Frog, won an Emmy in 1958. Quirky guest appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Tonight Show" and "The Jimmy Dean Show" followed.

Then, in 1969, came "Sesame Street," and Henson's Muppet dynasty proliferated with instantly appealing blue and green monsters, shaggy dogs and round-headed, goggly-eyed creations, helping millions of children learn letters, numbers and social skills.

The year before his unexpected death at age 53, Henson sold many of his more than 200 Muppet characters and his New York-based Henson Associates Inc. to Walt Disney Co. for an estimated $150 million to $200 million. The sale included a 15-year contract for the creative services of Henson, who said he had once wanted to be a Disney animator.

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    Academy Awards

    Year Category Work
    1965 Best Short Film - Live Action Time Piece Nomination

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