A green frog with Ping-Pong eyes, a blond piglet in a too tight tutu, a bulb-nose bear sporting a porkpie hat. To their legions of fans, Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear are as beloved, perhaps more beloved than any flesh and blood celebrities. Which made it all the more wrenching when Jim Henson, 53, the visionary puppeteer who created the Muppets, died last week in New York City following a sudden, severe attack of pneumonia. With Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, the soft-spoken, Mississippi-born Henson became the Pied Piper of children’s television. “Jim was an authentic American genius,” said Joan Ganz Cooney, whose Children’s Television Workshop provided the stage for some of his most memorable characters. “He was our era’s Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers.” Amid the broadcast dreck, Henson’s comforting creatures made safe haven for children, a place parents could drop the kids for a couple of hours a day, guilt free.
From the start, Henson was clearly onto something. As a University of Maryland student in the 1950s, his puppet creations for a Washington, D.C., television show proved successful enough to allow him to pick up his diploma in a Rolls-Royce. By the mid-’60s his Rowlf the Dog was a network regular on The Jimmy Dean Show. “Henson was sweet, shy and rarely spoke except through the Muppets,” remembers Barbara Walters, who shared mornings on Today with a fledgling Henson puppet family. “We loved Kermit and that meant we loved Jim.”
In 1969 the menagerie expanded to include an outsized yellow creature of vaguely ostrichy persuasion. On Sesame Street, Big Bird and his buddies soon became a sensation. At its peak the show was broadcast in 100 countries and in 14 languages. Seven years later British impresario Sir Lew Grade put up the financing for an even more ambitious Henson project, and The Muppet Show became, with an audience of 235 million, the most popular syndicated series in TV history. Its temperamental star, Miss Piggy, danced Swine Lake with Rudolf Nureyev and, with Beverly Sills, trilled Pigaletto. In 1981, Henson shelved the show. “I wanted to quit while I was ahead,” he later said. “I didn’t want to get stale.”
Small chance. His Muppet-related movies multiplied, with guest stars including Art Carney, Liza Minnelli, Richard Pryor and Bob Hope. Last year Henson began negotiations to turn over all but his Sesame Street characters (Big Bird, Cookie Monster et al.) to The Walt Disney Company for an estimated $150 million, making him not only the richest but perhaps the most farsighted puppeteer of all time. It meant that his endearing creatures would have, in his own words, “greater longevity.” In the hands of Disney they seem destined to join Mickey, Donald and Bambi in the lineup of childhood’s most memorable characters.
In recent months, the peripatetic, hard-working Henson divided his time between Los Angeles, New York, Orlando and London. He had designed the computerized masks of the top-grossing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and was preparing a new TV series (starring Ponce D. Lion) for its debut next year. In the days before he died, he was also putting final touches on plans for next month’s official premiere of the Muppets at Disney World.
According to spokeswoman Susan Berry, Henson recently had a cold and looked tired but “certainly appeared to be in generally good health.” But by the time he arrived at the New York Hospital emergency room on May 15, Henson was in what doctors later called “acute respiratory distress,” suffering from a virulent bacterial infection, heart and kidney failure and shock. “Possibly, had he been admitted earlier, something could have been done,” says a hospital spokesman.
“What you try to do when you raise kids is surround them with the right kind of thinking so they can function in the world,” Henson once said. That was an expansive remark for a man who seemed most comfortable letting a felt frog speak for him. “Kermit was his alter ego,” says a friend. “He allowed Jim to say more than he would have otherwise.” Indeed, Henson and Kermit were so closely linked that during his frequent walks in Manhattan’s Central Park, Henson was sometimes spotted by small children who, as children will, paid little mind to the gulf between real life and fantasy. “Oh, look!” they would laugh, “there’s Kermit!” Nothing, it seemed, pleased Henson more.
—Susan Schindehette, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles, Alan Carter and J.D. Podolsky in New York