Today, Jim Henson would have been 74 years old. Here are 20 things you might not know about the puppet master who created the Muppets.
1. He cited ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and puppeteer Burr Tillstrom (of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame) among his early influences.
2. While still in high school, he began working for a local TV station in Maryland, creating puppets for a Saturday morning children’s show. During college, he created a 5-minute puppet show called “Sam and Friends” for the local NBC affiliate in Washington D.C. It was on this show Kermit the Frog made his debut in 1955.
3. The earliest version of Kermit was created using a turquoise ladies’ coat Henson’s mother had discarded. Two ping pong balls were used for the eyes.
4. Kermit goes by several different names around the world. In Portugal, he’s Cocas. In Latin America, René. In Spain, he goes by the name Gustavo.
5. Kermit – and by extension Henson – made the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1979, with “The Rainbow Connection” reaching #25.
6. Kermit the Frog has his own star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also received an honorary doctorate of Amphibious Letters at Southampton College. The University of Maryland campus has a statue of Kermit and his creator.
7. After college, Henson travelled in Europe, and was inspired by the artistry of European puppeteers. Throughout the 1960s, Henson primarily worked in commercials, his most famous being a puppet based campaign for Wilkins Coffee.
8. In 1963, Henson formed Muppets Inc. with his wife. When she resigned to raise their children, Henson hired writer Jerry Juhl and puppeteer Frank Oz to replace her. Henson would work with Oz for the next 27 years.
9. In 1966, Jim Henson was nominated for an Academy Award for his short experimental film Time Piece.
10. In 1969, the Children’s Television Workshop approached Henson about working on a new show they were developing. They’d been awarded funds totaling $8 million from Carnegie, the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Federal Government to produce a show called “Sesame Street.”
11. “Sesame Street” has since aired in 120 countries, with locally produced versions being shown in 20 of them.
12. Initially, the puppets and human characters of the show did not interact, but appeared in separate segments.
13. Muppets Inc. also produced several segments for Saturday Night Live in the mid-70s, but none of their sketches really caught on.
14. “The Muppet Show” was initially rejected by American networks, who feared it would not attract an adult audience. Eventually, it would be produced and syndicated, airing 120 episodes over a 5-year period.
15. Notable guests on “The Muppet Show” include Rudolf Nureyev, Linda Ronstadt, Harry Belafonte, Rita Moreno, Mia Farrow, Florence Henderson, Harvey Korman, Lena Horne, Peter Ustinov, Candace Bergen, Vincent Price, Don Knotts, Ethel Merman, Steve Martin, Dom DeLuise, Lou Rawls, Peter Sellers, Alice Cooper, Loretta Lynn, Danny Kaye, Racquel Welch, John Denver, Dudley Moore, Christopher Reeve, Johnny Cash and lots and lots of others.
16. Jim Henson was approached by George Lucas to create puppets for the Star Wars franchise. He recommended Frank Oz play the part of Yoda.
17. Henson ended “The Muppet Show” to concentrate on films. The Muppet Movie debuted in 1979 and became one of top 100 grossing movies in history. The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) were also successful. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) were directed by Jim’s son, Brian Henson.
18. The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) were also feature films written and directed by Henson.
19. Jim Henson died unexpectedly on May 16th, 1990, at the age of 53.
20. Mourners were requested not to wear black at his funeral service, which featured a Dixieland jazz band, a performance by Harry Belafonte, and an appearance by Big Bird.