A menagerie of sentient animals, adorable monsters and inexplicable out-of-this-world beings who have found a home in nearly every avenue of popular culture, the Muppets stand as the late Jim Henson’s signature creative contribution. The lovable creatures who changed the face of family entertainment through "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" won fans over with their sweetness and humor and messages of understanding and tolerance.
Henson debuted the troupe’s de facto leader, Kermit the Frog, in 1955 on "Sam and Friends," a local puppet show on a Washington television station. Guest spots on "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Tonight Show" and "The Jimmy Dean Show" followed, but in 1969, with the premiere of "Sesame Street" on PBS, Henson’s creatures took on a new kind of vivid life.
Kermit the Frog, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Grover, Count Von Count and Oscar the Grouch – not to mention Ernie and Bert – became fixtures in the imaginations of children across the country, as the colorful characters taught important lessons about reading, math and social skills.
In 1976, Kermit became the emcee of "The Muppet Show," the syndicated weekly variety show that featured a human guest every episode — performers included Alice Cooper, Debbie Harry and Vincent Price. The series introduced new characters to Henson’s troupe; among the new additions were the flamboyant Miss Piggy, comedian Fozzie Bear, piano player Rowlf the Dog, old-man hecklers Statler and Waldorf, the incomprehensible Swedish Chef and the show’s gopher Scooter.
"The Muppet Show" was nominated for 21 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning four, including the 1978 award for comedy-variety or music series. The program was also nominated for 11 BAFTA Awards, winning two, and it was presented with a Peabody Award in 1978.
In 1979, the group made the leap to the big screen with "The Muppet Movie," which purports to tell the origins of the troupe: talented banjo-player Kermit the Frog decides to leave his swamp home for Hollywood and collects a band of multitalented players to accompany him on his journey to fame and fortune.
The film included a raft of cameos from big-name actors including Bob Hope, Mel Brooks and Charles Durning, the latter of whom played the villainous restaurateur Doc Hopper, a man perversely determined to make Kermit the spokesman for his chain of eateries specializing in frogs legs. The movie featured the Oscar-nominated song "The Rainbow Connection," which was written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.
Additional features followed, including "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981) and "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984). The characters also appeared in various television projects, including "Muppet Babies" and "A Muppet Family Christmas."
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 company continued to develop movie projects for them, including "The Muppet Christmas Carol" (1992); "Muppet Treasure Island" (1996); and "Muppets From Space" (1999). (Steve Whitmire took over as the puppeteer for Kermit after Henson’s death.)
With an eye toward re-introducing Kermit and company to a new generation of young fans, the 2011 film "The Muppets" returned the characters to theaters in a full-blown musical starring and co-written by actor Jason Segel. The film posits that the longtime friends have gone their separate ways, and the old theater where they famously put on their variety show has fallen into disuse and extreme disrepair. While touring the building on a vacation visit to Los Angeles, brothers Gary (Segel) and Walter (a new Muppet) learn of a nefarious plan by the greedy Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to demolish the property and drill for oil.
Determined to thwart his scheme, the duo — along with Gary's girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) — seeks out Kermit and the gang and helps them plan a fundraising telethon to raise the $10 million required to buy back the historic site.
Segel and his screenwriting partner Nicholas Stoller and the film’s director James Bobin agreed that they wanted the tone of the movie to recall Henson's patented blend of sweet-natured joviality and sophisticated silliness, eschewing the winking pop culture allusions and self-referential cynicism so common to movies and TV shows made for children these days.
"Maybe it's a generational thing," Bobin, 39, said in an interview with The Times in 2011. "We're all kind of roughly the same age and have the same feeling about the Mupppets.... We're trying to be very true to the original idea of what Muppets are, their innocence and exuberance, their love of puns and fourth-wall-breaking jokes. It's like anarchic stupidity."
Introducing the new Muppet Walter was a daunting prospect, and one that Segel and Stoller say they didn't take lightly. The story of the film is, in many ways, the story of Walter finding his place in the world — growing up with Gary in the picturesque burg of Smalltown, USA, Walter has always realized that he's not quite like everyone else, a point underscored in a visual gag early on in which he struggles to stand as tall as his towering sibling.
Walter comes to love the Muppets because he senses that, deep down, he recognizes himself in them.
"Walter is a super fan," Segel said. "Walter's like me when I was a kid — his dream has been to meet the Muppets because they're the only people in the world he's ever seen that are like him ... and the Muppets, they include everybody."