Practical Dreamer: "Jim Henson: A Biography"
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Jim Henson: A Biography
author: Brian Jay Jones
publisher: Ballantine Books
pub date: 09.24.2013
pp: 608
tags: Nonfiction , Biography & Autobiography

Stephen Tyler on Jim Henson: A Biography

Practical Dreamer: "Jim Henson: A Biography"

October 14th, 2013 reset - +

THE MUPPET SHOW premiered on CBS on September 20, 1976, four days before Jim Henson’s 40th birthday. It was a strange thing to find in prime time, and not simply because it featured Henson’s silly, strange Muppet creations. Five years earlier, CBS initiated its “rural purge,” cancelling popular and long-running programs like Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee Haw, in favor of urban-skewed, socially relevant shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family; the other networks quickly followed suit. Whether or not these executives were dismissive of rural audiences and the older demographic, the success of these new shows points to an understanding of emerging trends; “purge” makes them sound spiteful, when in reality they were responding to changing tastes.

It wasn’t just explicitly rural shows that found themselves without a home, though. Variety shows, a mainstay of television programming from its inception, were losing their audience. The years between 1970 and 1975 saw the cancellation of The Ed Sullivan Show, The Lawrence Welk Show, The Andy Williams Show, and The Dean Martin Show.  Young Jim Henson cut his teeth with appearances on Ed Sullivan and The Mike Douglas Show, among others; and he had his big break in the mid-’60s, in the guise of Rowlf the Dog, on The Jimmy Dean Show — precisely the sort of program that would find itself out of favor a decade later.

So, while it’s no surprise that Henson would embrace the format, the show’s mere existence, to say nothing of its success, is a testament to Henson’s knack for employing pragmatism and business acumen in the service of imagination and creativity. The man on display in Jim Henson: A Biography is certainly brilliant, ambitious, and possessed of a boundless creativity, but if we’re to employ the word “genius,” as a number of his colleagues do, we must acknowledge that he was more than a visionary or fantasist. It’s no coincidence that Kermit the Frog, Henson’s most famous creation, sings of “the lovers, the dreamers, and me”; for Henson, like his Muppet avatar, existed in his own category. He was a lover, yes, and a dreamer too, but a manifestly practical one.

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So how did he do it? He went where the enthusiasm — and the money — was: England. But that was later. It began with a desire for success and a deep confidence bordering on egotism. At the height of his career, Henson wrote in his journal:

I’ve always known I would be very successful in anything that I decided to do — and it turned out to be puppetry. And not only am I not surprised, but I’m disappointed that it’s taken this long, and I haven’t begun to be as successful as I will be.

The truth of Henson’s statement is borne out by the full arc of his career, a career that really did just “turn out” to be centered on puppetry. What became his legacy started as a means to an end: at 17, Henson was looking for a way to break into television. He found it in a notice seeking “youngsters […] who can manipulate marionettes” for a new morning show on the local NBC affiliate WTOP in Washington, DC. By 1957, Henson was reaching national audiences with coffee commercials featuring the Muppet duo Wilkins and Wontkins. This advertising work made Henson rich — he drove a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, purchased used for $5,000, to his college graduation in 1963 — and his dealings with advertisers showed natural business savvy. When Purina offered $100,000 for exclusive rights to Rowlf, who began life shilling dog food, Henson told Bernie Brillstein, his agent and lifelong friend: “[N]ever sell anything I own.”

Henson was, in most ways, a quiet man. Brillstein relates that “he never spoke above a whisper” and punctuated his conversation with a gentle hmmm. He was nonconfrontational to a fault; indeed, the slow decay of his marriage to Jane Henson can be traced to his inability to argue, to say or hear a word spoken in anger or spite. And yet he maintained an iron resistance to what might be called selling out, a resistance that paid dividends again and again: that Purina pitch-puppet became Rowlf, a star in his own right; a mock-German spouting cook, created for a USDA exhibition in Germany, became the Swedish Chef; the technology behind the huge, bumbling La Choy Dragon, made to sell canned chow mein, became the prototype for “walkaround” characters like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; and a Munchos-stealing Muppet was reimagined as Sesame Street’s beloved Cookie Monster.

Henson never discarded a good Muppet — though a few ended up in his children’s toy chest — and he never forgot a good connection. Looking for someone to handle business affairs at Henson Associates, he tapped IBM executive David Lazer, with whom he had worked on various in-house Muppet projects. More important, though, was another connection, one that began with a short-lived collaboration with Julie Andrews. Throughout the 1970s, Henson tried and failed to find a network home for his Muppet variety show. When US TV executives proved resistant, Henson turned to the man who produced The Julie Andrews Hour, British media mogul Lord Lew Grade. It was Grade that gave The Muppet Show a chance; the rest is history. At its height, The Muppet Show was both a critical success and a ratings smash, with a worldwide audience in the hundreds of millions and an appeal that cut across all demographic and cultural lines. (Rumor has it that diplomats working in the USSR’s London embassy would furtively watch the program.)

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Jim Henson: A Biography is rich with such details. Brian Jay Jones draws upon new interviews with family and friends, reams of archival material, and Henson’s own journals to provide a nuanced study of a preternaturally gifted, relentlessly driven artist. Henson’s charmed, scandal-free life, and family-friendly image may not seem the stuff of blockbuster biography. And yet, amid the tales of commercial success and artistic triumph, all the signifiers of the fast life are there: Henson loved fast cars, fine art, and rich foods; his lifelong relationship with wife Jane Henson was marked by growing estrangement and, eventually, separation; he had his fair share of office affairs and professional dustups. He was a bit of a playboy, a man who, in the words of his daughter Cheryl, “loved all of that 007 stuff” and relished the idea of putting on a tuxedo and spending the night gambling at one of London’s exclusive clubs.

So, too, a perpetual dissatisfaction accompanied Henson’s confidence and ambition. No matter how successful Henson was, whether in advertising, children’s television or, later, more broadly, as “the Muppet guy,” he chafed at the idea of being known for any one of those things. Henson’s restless, shark-like momentum drives the narrative forward; and throughout, Jones shows an admirable willingness to get out of the way and let Henson’s actions speak for themselves — which isn’t hard, really, given how much Jim Henson accomplished despite his untimely end — and it’s in this stretch, from career beginnings to the height of his fame, that really shines. Jones does a superlative job organizing a massive amount of information, covering the assembly of Henson’s team — his wife and first business partner, Jane Nebel Henson, lawyer Bernie Brillstein, puppeteers Frank Oz and Richard Hunt, the writer Jerry Juhl, and master Muppet craftsman Don Sahlin — while highlighting Henson’s myriad technical achievements.

Though Jones generally avoids any kind of psychoanalysis, his narrative is underpinned by a crucial bit of biographical speculation. He traces the source of Henson’s boundless ambition to April 15, 1956, the day his older brother Paul, a Navy pilot in training, died in a car accident. It seems almost cheap to place the motivator of Henson’s ambitions outside himself — Henson never went on the record about his brother’s death — and Jones’s tendency, early on, to claim insight into Henson’s inner thoughts is similarly irksome. (An example, regarding Henson’s early appreciation of television: “Jim would never forget the power of the glowing image on the small screen as an agent of change.”) Luckily, this sort of pronouncement disappears once Henson stops merely learning and starts doing, and luckily, he started early.

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At times, given the sheer amount and range of work Henson accomplished, it’s tempting to put the book down and spend a few hours on YouTube, where you can find everything from the dozens of Wilkins and Wontkins ads, appearances on Jimmy Dean and The Ed Sullivan Show, an early Muppet Show pilot (entitled Sex and Violence, a name Henson insisted upon despite the objections of television executives) and later, more serious work like The Storyteller. Watching these clips, it’s tempting to think what the compulsively innovative Henson might have done with the new medium, but that, sadly, is mere conjecture.

Perhaps the most fascinating and enlightening portion of Henson’s career, though, is the least known and, these days, the hardest to track down. In the mid-1960s Henson came to think of himself as an “experimental filmmaker” and began to conceive of more mature projects, including the nightclub/entertainment experience Cyclia, and the films Time Piece and The Cube. Jones puts great emphasis on Time Piece, a nine-minute film that finds Henson running through the streets of New York in a loincloth, escaping from jail, and bounding through fields dressed as Abraham Lincoln. Set to an insistent drumbeat and the ticking of clocks, it’s a literal race against time and the most literal evocation of Henson’s desire to “beat the clock.” It’s also the closest he came to making an adult entertainment, featuring, as it does, the only filmed appearance of “First Lady of Burlesque” April March. Time Piece would spend a year running in front of Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman at New York’s Paris Theatre and garner Henson his first Oscar nomination, for Best Live Action Short Film. Still, despite the thematic importance of Time Piece, the most delightful byproduct of his experimental phase may be a short exchange between Henson and a viewer regarding The Cube. The man, a Mr. Dionne, found that “the most disciplined attention I could give [The Cube] was a belch from the grave of Marcus Aurelius, occasioned, I might add, by the dead weight of its own dust caving in on itself.” Henson, flummoxed by the response, fired off a quick letter:

Dear Mr. Dionne:

What the fuck are you talking about?

Yours truly,
Jim Henson

Here we see another facet of Henson’s personality: playful, yes, but prickly too, frustrated by his audience’s inability to understand his work.

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In less able hands, Henson could have become an exercise in hagiography; Richard Hunt, a longtime Muppet performer went so far as to call Henson “as close to a saint as human beings get.” But though words like genius and visionary do turn up, they’re rarely imposed by the author. Rather, they come easily to the friends and associates Jones quotes throughout the book. Considering, too, that Henson was terminally adverse to conflict — Jones makes the case that Henson’s reluctance to trouble friends and family, rather than his Christian Science upbringing, led him to avoid medical care in the days leading up to his death. His decline was swift — he succumbed to illness less than two weeks after showing symptoms — and his last moments were unfortunately grisly. Drawing on medical records and eyewitness accounts, Jones relates that Henson suffered multiple heart attacks and, that, when doctors inserted a chest tube during a last ditch effort to save his life, out “gushed enormous amounts of blood and fluid, indicating massive hemorrhaging in his chest and lungs.” What began as a sore throat culminated in catastrophic organ failure; by most accounts, little more than an early course of antibiotics could have averted disaster.

That Henson died suddenly, gruesomely, unexpectedly, is sad, but the timing of his death is tragic. In the last years of his life, he had lost his way. His film, Labyrinth, was a box office failure, the critically lauded Storyteller struggled to find an audience, and the technologically ambitious Jim Henson Hour was an outright failure — he called the Hour’s cancellation “a major aggravation,” an atypically intense response from a man known for his cheerful equanimity. But he was ready to put that all behind him: in 1989, he entered into negotiations with the Walt Disney Company to sell Henson Associates in its entirety. He was not looking to merely cash in chips and retire, however. Rather, he hoped to relieve himself of executive and administrative responsibilities, and, ultimately, become the creative force behind Disney, taking on the role that John Lasseter and the Pixar brain trust occupy now. He saw the deal too, as an opportunity to thank those who had helped him along the way. Once the deal with Disney began to take shape, Henson took to writing what was referred to as “The List,” a series of names with corresponding cash bonuses. Bernie Brillstein was surprised to find himself at the very top, even if he had worked as Jim’s agent for three decades; he stood to gain over $10 million once the deal went through. Confident that he would reach an agreement with Disney, Henson couldn’t help but share the good news. “I wanted to tell you myself,” Henson said, “because I love you and you deserve it.”  

But it was not to be. The Disney deal — and the bonuses — were contingent on the acquisition of not just Henson’s company, but of Henson himself. The man who had told Brillstein to “never sell anything I own,” was now selling nearly everything — even himself; according to the terms of the deal, he would be under contract to Disney for 15 years. It’s sad to think that, in the absence of Henson, his life’s work, the fruit of 30 years on television and film, was simply not worth enough to justify Disney’s purchase. It would take 40 years for Disney to acknowledge its worth, and in 2004 The Jim Henson Company was officially acquired. Though Henson could not see the day, it’s a testament to his vision, creative and commercial, that his work has endured and his company has prospered after his death.

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Stephen Tyler is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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