Jim Henson: The Biography
- Brian Jay Jones
- Ballantine Books
- 561 pp.
- Reviewed by James A. Percoco
- September 24, 2013
A heartwarming, endearing, and joyful study of one of the great entertainment and media giants of the second half of the 20th century.
Brian Jay Jones has given us an intensely warm and engaging biography of a man who pushed all kinds of boundaries in the entertainment industry and had a ball doing so. Some may find that Jim Henson: The Biography smacks of hagiography of the man behind the Muppets – a fair argument given the generous tone of the work. Jones, though, gives us a real Jim Henson, not a saint to be sure, but a man who devoted his creative genius to making the world a better place.
That should be a singular draw for this book, particularly in a world beset by cynicism, polarization of politics and culture wars. This is no “tell all” tale but an authorized biography of the Henson family; it is balanced, and tasteful with regard to Henson’s wandering eye for younger women and his sexual and romantic liaisons as his fame and influence grew.
With prodigious research based on unlimited access to Henson’s personal and professional papers, lengthy interviews with his wife Jane (the two separated but never divorced), his five children, colleagues and fellow Muppet Performers (never called puppeteers in Henson’s lexicon) including Carol Spinney, Jerry Nelson, and Frank Oz, business associates, and former girlfriends, Jones’ biography at times feels akin to a giddy and extensive “60 Minutes” interview in which Henson’s life is resurrected. In many places it seems that Henson is doing the talking right off the pages. This book is fast-paced like his life, zany like his characters, full of fun and laughter.
Jones traces Henson’s early childhood in Mississippi, to which he attributes his subject’s genteel charm. The author explores Henson’s upbringing as a Christian Scientist, his education and marriage and his first use of Muppets. “Sesame Street” premiered in 1969, and the heavily featured Muppets soon became famous. Within a decade Henson had an empire in both television and film.
The success of the Muppets resulted from the distinct personality of each character crafted through trial and error by the different performers. Henson gave leeway to each performer to experiment with developing the different characters. Henson believed his creations came to life through the nuances that performers brought to the Muppets. With “Sesame Street” Henson took full advantage of a child’s imagination so that conversations between Kermit, Oscar the Grouch, roommates Bert and Ernie, and Big Bird were rooted in a unique reality. For millions of viewers around the world, Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and numerous “Sesame Street” characters, among countless others, became real.Numerous mega-stars including Elton John, Julie Andrews and Harry Belafonte also clamored for that interaction, lobbying hard to play foil to Henson’s Muppets for five seasons, as special guest stars on more than 100 episodes of “The Muppet Show” between 1977 and 1982.
As someone who always pushed the limits of available technology and always looked for something new to create, Henson worked hard to be more than just “the Muppet Guy.” He made his bread and butter from Muppets television, film and merchandising, but a desire to break out of that cocoon led Henson to expand beyond that world. He became involved in a variety of film ventures featuring other kinds of creatures; “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” were flops when first released, but later came to be viewed as simply being a bit ahead of their time.
In spite of his enormous success there seemed to be very little ego on his part. He showered his employees with Christmas parties, bonuses when it was appropriate, and kindness. He doted on his children, and avoided professional conflicts, letting his staff work out difficulties.
Because of his magnetic and gentle persona people naturally gravitated toward Henson and at times he could not always meet their expectations. His aura could attract women as well, and the affairs that Henson had with younger women led to his separation from his wife. To Jane’s credit she remained a counselor and confidant throughout his career and on his last day of life Henson called Jane to his Manhattan apartment. She drove him to the hospital and was at his bedside when he died on May 16, 1990, at age 53.
It is all here in this sweeping portrait that is a mix of humor, mirth and poignancy, most notably in the concluding chapter where Jones inserts a loving yet whimsical letter Henson wrote his children in 1986 to be read upon his death. There, the entertainment giant expressed his bottomless belief in what his long-term collaborator and partner, Frank Oz, called “ridiculous optimism.”
The Muppet mastermind wrote, in part: “I feel life has been a joy for me – I certainly hope it is for you … Life is meant to be fun and joyous and fulfilling. May each of yours be that … This may all sound silly and over the top to you guys, but what the hell, I’m gone and who can argue with me?”
James A. Percoco is the Director of Education for the Friends of the National World War II Memorial and enjoyed a thirty-two year career as a high school history teacher. He is a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.