Book Review: Jim Henson -The Biography (by Brian Jay Jones)
“Watch out for each other. Love everyone and forgive everyone, including yourself. Forgive your anger. Forgive your guilt. Your shame. Your sadness. Embrace and open up your love, your joy, your truth, and most especially your heart” – Jim Henson
As I’ve mentioned in previous book reviews, biographies regarding creative people, have been hit-or-miss for me on quite a few occasions.
The last decade has brought forth biographies that seemed to delve incredibly deep into several lives moreso than those that I had read when growing up. In the last 9 years, I have managed to read Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.
Of the three, Isaacson’s book was the one I couldn’t stop turning the pages on. His writing method allowed the reader to draw their own conclusions on just who Steve Jobs was.
Gabler and Michaelis’ books on the other hand, had decided to create an archetype around their historical figures. In their hands, Disney and Schulz were made out to be withdrawn geniuses, who seemed to shun the contact of family, and rarely seemed to care for anyone’s opinion beyond their own (these biographies would later be criticized by each family in how these men were portrayed).
These three books were on my mind when I finally picked up Brian Jay Jones’ biography on Jim Henson, a book I had heard about for a few years.
Probably not as high on my inspirational totem pole, Jim Henson is still a name that I could not forget from my youth. My early days were punctuated with viewings of Sesame Street, not to mention a rather tatty-looking Kermit puppet my parents had (see left).
Reruns of The Muppet Show I remember seeing on Nickelodeon, and when our family stayed at The Disneyland Hotel in the Summer of 1990, a complimentary copy of the Disney News magazine was on our bed, featuring both Jim and Kermit on the cover (though Jim had passed away that Spring).
I had always heard little bits and pieces of Jim’s career growing up. In the last 5 years, I was able to view some of his earlier works (courtesy of Youtube uploads), visit a traveling exhibit that brought a number of items of his to town, and even got to meet his son Brian Henson, at a New York performance of Henson Alternative’s over-21 puppet improv show: Stuffed and Unstrung.
Coming from a down-home background in which camaraderie and family were a key ingredient, Jim originally was entranced when television gained popularity in the 50’s (so much so that he bugged his parents to get one of the pricey sets!).
His original intent was to work in the television medium designing sets, but because he had no experience, noone would hire him. It was during a call for puppeteers, that he would get his foot in the door to television (though he had no prior experience at that time regarding puppets, either!).
Jim kept trying to go beyond puppetry, but he always ended up coming back to it. Upon further research, what he thought of more as a side-project, ended up soon entrancing him (along with the potential he saw with it, when he traveled over to Europe!).
He gained notoriety for a number of never-before-used techniques using television and his puppets, and he sought to find a way to extend the art form beyond the American thought that puppets (like animation and comic strips) were “just kids stuff.”
Jones’ book comprises over 495 pages about Jim’s life, and much like Neal Gabler’s book on Walt Disney, its early pages exploring Jim’s family tree had me a little wary that it would drag. However, Jones only goes back a few generations, formulating just where Jim got his artistic and curious traits from.
Jones also draws from previous interviews of Jim Henson, while also conducting new interviews with Jane Henson (Jim’s wife), his children (Lisa, Cheryl, Brian, John, and Heather), along with former Muppeteers like Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and many more.
Also of note, are a number of people in higher places, who would be just as important, given that they believed in (and at times protected) Jim’s vision. They include Bernie Brillstein (Henson’s manager for 30 years), David Lazer (a former IBM executive hired by Henson to be the studio’s main producer), and Lord Lew Grade (a British impresario who took a chance and made The Muppet Show TV series a reality, when all major networks balked at it).
Jones and his interviewees spotlight Jim in a very positive light…so positive, that one might think you’d soon go blind from all the positivity. But from all accounts, it seemed that was Jim’s modus operandi in life.
Many recount him seeming never to tire of work, and some would find him constantly writing, drawing, or plussing various puppetry works.
Jones almost makes this an underlying theme of the book, in that Jim may have been trying to “beat the clock,” in trying to do everything, but never finding enough time to do it all.
Even who Jim was based on his identity, could be tricky to decipher. Though tall in stature, he was often quiet in voice (and it would take some years before he’d even use his voice for some of his characters), and seemed unwilling to dive into conflict (usually preferring to walk away from it).
Though many would claim that Jim seemed to have plenty of wealth (he would refurbish new homes/apartments he purchased, and could often be seen in a fancy car or two), he never liked talking about having a lot of money, and often shirked away when interviews would broach the subject.
Several times, he mentioned that the money he made was usually then put into making other projects…which was a similar philosophy to how Walt Disney made films back in his day (usually the profits from one of Disney’s films, would then be rolled over into production on the next one).
Almost like The Muppets on TV, Henson often thought of the people working for him, as being part of a family, one that soon numbered around 150 employees. In those respects, Jim would often throw elaborate costume parties for his associates, or arrange for special retreats…sometimes, even going above-and-beyond in other ways.
One notable time mentioned in the book, involved Muppet performer Jerry Nelson, and his daughter Christine (who had been diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at an early age). Jerry was not given as much work as the other performers (his main role was as The Count on Sesame Street), so he could also be given time to care for his daughter. However, in the late 1970’s, the company’s insurance provider claimed they would no longer be covering Christine’s medical expenses.
Jim’s solution? Instead of telling Jerry his family was out-of-luck, he had his company change insurance providers, to one who would cover the expenses! (sadly, Christine passed away in 1982, but during her final year, Jim gave her and her Dad Jerry a small cameo in The Great Muppet Caper, as seen on the right).
If there may be one thing that may make some readers a little disappointed in reading this biography, it’s how Jones doesn’t really give anything super-juicy, like perusing through the skeletons in Henson’s closet.
Jones also has a habit of bringing his inner-fanboy out a bit too often. In the early chapters, as he describes new concepts and ideas that Jim concocts, we find him adding a few words on the end of some sentences, eagerly assisting the reader to know that it would eventually evolve into finished form some years later.
Notable is the grey area the book covers regarding Jane and Jim’s relationship. Though they were married, it never really seemed that it was anything beyond a ‘business relationship’ (she was there with him at the beginning, as well as at the end). They eventually separated (though never divorced), and it was during this time that some noted how Jim tended to try and woo a few women. Jones never gets too far into this area, except in regards to one woman named Mary Ann Cleary, who shares a few remembrances.
Much like how Jim seemed to believe that optimism could be a very powerful thing, Jones seems to adopt that same feeling here.
I have often felt I teeter right at the apex of optimism and pessimism in life, but in this case, much like how the Muppets would largely look through a prism of positivity in dour times, the book seemed to do the same for me. In fact, it was so intriguing, I ended up finishing it in a week’s time!
The book mentions that Jim was incredibly giving towards his children, and throughout its pages, all five of them share stories about their time with their Dad. A few would go on to work in show business (as well as manage the company after Jim’s passing), but during their years growing up, Jim would guide and learn from them.
A few examples include Jim’s daughter Cheryl, who helped inspire several stories the studio put into production. When Jim was looking for who to play Jareth (the Goblin King) in Labyrinth, his sons Brian and John recommended he cast David Bowie, instead of Sting (who was Jim’s first choice).
Jim Henson – The Biography is definitely a wonderful composition of a man who has inspired and entertained millions in the short time he was with us, but also believed in trying to unite the world through humor, and love. Though he didn’t like to be called “the next Walt Disney,” there are certainly traits of forward-thinking in what he did, let alone his drive to keep pushing technology forward, and find new ways that puppeteering could grow and thrive.