October 2013

Portrait of a Muppet-master

By Brian Jay Jones
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It’s hard to see Jim Henson’s name in print without immediately thinking of the Muppets, those deceptively simple-looking puppets who seemed to bring forth a full range of human emotions. Two things we learn quickly in Jim Henson: The ­Biography are that the effort involved in bringing the Muppets to life was astronomical, and that Henson chafed at being forever associated with them. Who knew?

Author Brian Jay Jones spoke to Henson’s surviving family, along with most of his coworkers and business partners, and the result is a book that offers a multifaceted view of Henson’s home and work lives. His childhood in rural Mississippi revolved around trips to the local movie theater and driving any car he could get his hands on, both interests he would indulge for life. The soft-spoken youth made himself heard when television was invented, insisting the family buy one and realizing immediately it was what he wanted to do with his life. From his very first job at a TV station all the way through fame, fortune and an untimely death at 53, he never stopped studying the medium and expanding its possibilities.

There are so many enjoyable aspects to this book that it’s hard to know where to start. Henson himself is a study in contrasts: a devoted family man who was serially unfaithful to his wife; so soft-spoken he often went unheard, but steadfast in pursuit of his vision (he was described as having a “whim of steel”); unfocused on money when it came to work, yet an extravagant shopper with top-dollar taste. Then there are the Muppets themselves. Henson’s creations were innovative due to their soft, flexible design, which allowed subtle hand movements to offer emotive facial expressions. But finding the character inside the puppet was a challenge for the performers. Miss Piggy started off as essentially a chorus girl, used in background scenes and bit parts, until one day puppeteer Frank Oz deviated from the script: Instead of slapping Kermit the Frog, he had her karate-chop him with an emphatic “Haii-YA!” . . . and a star was born.

Henson’s career was about to take off in new directions via a planned sale of his company to Disney when he died of an aggressive staph infection. After reading about his life and creative passion, we can only imagine what that collaboration might have led to, and hope that some readers are inspired to dream just as big. Jim Henson: The Biography is a fantastic story of a brilliant life cut short, but it can also be read as a blueprint for following your bliss.

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Jim Henson

Jim Henson

By Brian Jay Jones
ISBN 9780345526113

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